In the Year of the Siege
As we near celebrations for another twelve months of Jewish statehood, one has to admit that our 64th year of independence was one of deepening isolation.
The tens of thousands of Israelis who flocked each Pesach to the hypnotically peaceful beaches of Sinai stayed away again for the second year following the Egyptian revolution. A constant stream of reports on the security chaos in the peninsula, coupled with the electoral success of Islamists throughout Egypt and the ever-sterner travel warnings of the Counter Terrorism Bureau, which currently has Sinai at the "very-high concrete threat level," have done for the peninsula's tourism industry.
I was surprised therefore by the two-hour queue at the Taba Crossing last Wednesday when trying to cross over to Eilat. In front of me were two busloads of travelers, overwhelming the meager border control staff on both the Egyptian and Israeli sides.
One group was immediately recognizable as a contingent of Nigerian Christian pilgrims, taking the long but cheap route to the Holy Land. The second group evaded instant identification. At first they seemed like typical middle-class Egyptians, speaking quietly among themselves in Arabic; most of the women wrapped up in some form of head and body-covering, some of the men in robes, shuffling up to the control point and meekly presenting their passports. But that didn't make any sense. Visiting Israel is virtually taboo for all Egyptians besides those acting in an official diplomatic capacity and even they visit on the quiet.
Then on the short walk between the Egyptian and Israeli border posts, they underwent transformation. Most of the men and all the women shed at least one item of clothing or headgear, some of the women four or five items. Their gait became more confident, even boisterous. They began conversing volubly in Hebrew and blue passports with the emblem of the Menorah came out of black holders. Upon reaching the customs hut and discovering the long line of Nigerians waiting silently, a couple of them drew their Civil Service employee IDs in an attempt to jump the queue.
In the space of a minute, this group of teachers, engineers, bureaucrats and their families, returning from their Pesach vacation in Sharm al Sheikh, had gone from being sons and daughters of the Arab nation to pushy Israelis. "I so envy the Israeli Arabs," sighed a colleague who used to holiday in Sinai twice a year religiously. "They're the only ones who are still free to enjoy paradise. For the rest of us it's over."
He had a point. While at Ben-Gurion Airport they are subject to humiliating delays and strip-searches, our non-Jewish citizens are the only ones comfortable taking advantage of the land-crossings to Egypt and Jordan. I haven't been able to find comparable statistics but I doubt there are many other countries, if any, where nine out of ten citizens leave by only one port of exit.
In the first quarter of 2012, 91 percent of Israelis travelling from Israel flew from Ben-Gurion Airport (in 2011 it was 88 percent). The remaining nine percent crossed over to Jordan and Egypt or left by sea. Ben-Gurion for most Israelis is no longer the first prime minister and founding father of the state, it is our national safety valve, our means of escape from the siege. No wonder airport workers' strikes never last for more than a couple of hours before the government capitulates. Ben-Gurion is a vital oxygen tube, and when the pro-Palestinian flytilla threatened over the weekend to swamp our beloved NATBAG (the Hebrew acronym for Ben-Gurion Airport), the airlines were bludgeoned into cancelling tickets in advance for anyone even remotely suspected of creating a bit of ruckus in the terminal.
As we celebrate next Thursday another twelve months of Jewish statehood, one has to admit that our 64th year of independence was one of deepening isolation. With the rising tide of Islamist strife in the countries surrounding us, the peace treaty with Egypt rapidly eroding, increasing uncertainty in the Hashemite kingdom and the growing levels of hysteria over the Iranian threat, Ehud Barak's famous analogy of a villa in the jungle has never seemed more accurate.
In recent weeks, two intriguing surveys have been published. The United Nations has put out its first World Happiness Report in which we were all astonished to discover that Israelis are the fourteenth happiest nation in the world. I spent half a night puzzling over the 158-page report, but it would take a PhD in statistics to explain the methodology whereby the happiness of nations was compared and Israel came in front of islands of tranquility such as Luxembourg.
The other survey was carried out by the Tel Hai Academic College in Upper Galilee and according to it, 40 percent of Israelis feel a high or moderate risk of another Holocaust occurring while 43 percent are concerned that Israel could be destroyed. Statistics, as we know, can prove anything but there is a certain warped logic to almost half the population in one of the happiest countries on earth believing they face Armageddon.
What is it? Is Israel indeed facing such perils that the only way to continue tilling the fields on the mountainsides of a volcano is to manically convince ourselves that we could not be happier? Or are we indeed so fortunate that our Jewish survival instincts kick in, telling us this can't last.
Benjamin Netanyahu certainly knows how to play up to both poles of national schizophrenia. He holds a press conference on how Israelis have never had it so good and the local economy is bucking all the global trends and the next day he doom-mongers yet another second Holocaust threatening us from Iran.
But neither of these visions is truthful. The economic miracle of the Start-Up Nation has kept Israel's finances stable but left glaring social gaps in its wake and growing dissatisfaction of a struggling middle-class which feels it has reaped little of the bounty. The Iranian nuclear program and the Islamic spring are grave strategic issues which may force Israel into another war, but addressing them as life-or-death existential issues is misleading and makes such a war almost inevitable. Last summer's social protests were childishly populist and sorely lacking in focus, but they were also the first significant attempt to break the schizophrenic dichotomy. The hundreds of thousands who flocked to the streets were saying to Netanyahu that our social situation is not that great and is a bigger threat to the nation's welfare than anything Iran is working on.
For a few heady weeks it seemed as if Israelis were emancipating themselves from the siege's mental slavery. Then came the August 18 terror attack on the Egyptian border, another round of missiles from Gaza and before the protest movement could regroup, Netanyahu had signed off on the Gilad Shalit deal and we were all swept up by the euphoria of one young man's freedom.
Spring is here again and another wave of protests is just around the corner. Netanyahu is already trying to stem the tide, trying to convince us that we already enjoy incredible prosperity and all we have to fear is the double reincarnation of Haman and Hitler. A more experienced and politically motivated protest movement will be waiting for him out on the streets. This summer, only war can prevent the struggle for Israel's soul. The first battle will be fought over ensuring the government orders a strike on Iran only to eliminate a real and immediate danger. We can't afford to go to war against anything less. Our independence depends on that.
Hag Atzma'ut sameach, happy holiday of independence. Let's try this year to break the siege.