Sixty-four years after it was established, Israel is a place of stark contradictions.
For most Jews, Israel is a dream fulfilled: a national home and a place of their own. It is also a homeland for Palestinians who also seek a state of their own. Israel is a boisterous democracy, with courts committed to humane, liberal values and a contentious watchdog press. It is also a country where discrimination, especially against Arabs, is commonplace.
Israel's economic success has been extravagant, from the agricultural miracles wrought by the collectivism of its early days to the "Start-Up Nation" it has become. But economic growth has left many behind, producing gaps between the powerful haves and the vulnerable and often alienated have-nots.
Israel is a splendid quilt-work of cultures that together produce literature, music, arts, sciences and scholarship of world renown. Yet many see it as a culture in decline, newly reluctant to fund universities, libraries, theaters and museums.
Israel is a land of great natural beauty. But its landscape is blighted by strip malls and polluted water and air, as open spaces yield to the asphalt and concrete of thoughtless development.
These contradictions can fund either hope or despair. For some time, despair has won the day. We tend to assume that today’s problems will only worsen tomorrow. This pessimism prevents us from seeing Israel's extraordinary achievements, and discourages us from giving voice to a vision for a better future. Despair breeds inaction which in turn breeds despair.
To break this cycle, we took to the road in an effort to see the country afresh. Beginning two years ago, together with our colleagues, we spent days and nights with ultra-Orthodox Jews in Beit Shemesh, Russian immigrants in Ashdod, Palestinian Israelis in Nazareth, Mizrahim in Yerucham, Bedouin in the neighboring unrecognized village of Rachma, settlers in Kfar Etzion and Palestinians in Beit Jallah. We travelled to Efrat, Uhm el-Fahm, Tirat Carmel, Ein Hud, Haifa and Jerusalem. When the summer protests produced tent camps across the country, we visited them from Kiryat Shemona in the north to Dimona in the south.
Through these travels, we observed a great and growing discrepancy between the way Israeli politics and society are discussed, at home and abroad, and the way they operate for real. The dichotomies that so many of us have for so long believed define the country – Ashkenazi vs. Mizrahi, Jew vs. Arab, secular vs. religious, center vs. periphery, native vs. immigrant, left vs. right – no longer reflect the complexity of Israeli society. There are commonalities in values and in visions that have gone largely unnoticed, and in these things that we share one find seeds of a common future characterized not by conflict, but by community.
One commonality, often overlooked, is a shared wish to be part of the world in which we live, and take responsibility for it. It is commonly assumed that ultra-Orthodox want to be funded and left to do as they will. We met many Haredim who seek ways to take part in the society that surrounds them, working in hi-tech, taking part in NGOs, taking part in local politics. We met in Yerucham people concerned about the poverty of Rachmah, the neighboring Bedouin village.
Everywhere we found Israelis who believe that the ability of each of us to live a good life depends upon the ability of our neighbors to live a decent life. To many, this means developing new attitudes towards how our economy is run. After decades of privatizing, a great many Israelis wish now to breathe new life into the public square. Also, we want to supplement the economy of global start-ups with local economies that work; alongside highly-capitalized "exits," we seek businesses that set down roots. We are unwilling to accept that to get ahead, others much be left behind. To most of us, social solidarity matters, just like salary.
We found that, alongside disgust for the politics of today, there is great thirst for a new sort of politics of tomorrow.
After two years of seeing these same things in very different places across the country, when the social protests were greeted last summer with almost universal support, it was – for all its energy and bonhomie – not altogether new. The protests delighted us, but they did not surprise us.
In 1906, Theodor Herzl ended Altneuland, his novel anticipating a Jewish State, with an aphorism: “If you will it, it is no dream.” This implausibility was dismissed by Herzl’s contemporaries, but only forty-two years passed before Israel was established. Herzl himself insisted that the seeds of the future he envisioned had already been planted when he wrote, and that his was less an act of prophesy than it was of sensitive observation of a future already unfolding.
For those able to look with a careful eye, a future is unfolding that is more decent than we usually allow ourselves to see. The truth is, it takes no great act of imagination to envision an Israel at 100 that is decent and sustaining for all Israelis, at peace with its neighbors and at home in the world. In fact, it takes little more than a bus pass and an open heart.
Noah Efron is a Senior Fellow of Shaharit: The Think Tank for New Israeli Politics, and Senior Lecturer at Bar Ilan University. He is the author of Real Jews: Secular, Religious and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel.
Nazier Magally is a Senior Fellow of Shaharit and a writer and journalist who lives and works in Nazareth. He is a member of the editorial staff of Eretz-Aheret, the London-based newspaper Asharq Alawsat, and host of several Israeli TV news magazine programs.
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