Israel at 63: What Part of Shut Up Do You Not Understand?

When, I wonder this Independence Day, did Israelis lose their nerve? These people, who used to be all nerve. When did they opt to be led by sheep?

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

I love this place. Take it on faith. I do. I cannot explain it even to my own satisfaction. I am not blind to the faults of this place. I have never been anywhere more infuriating, more smugly reckless in action and inaction, more cannibalistic in its official attacks on its own core values, more headstrong in error. Who'd have imagined it, though: love - committed, true, enduring love – turns out to be the opposite of blind. True love, it turns out, winds up seeing it all.

This is what I see this week, this Independence Day:

1. The peoples of Israel and Palestine have rafts more good will, vision, common sense and honest concern for their children and their children's children, than do their leaders.

2. The peoples of Israel and Palestine are led by sheep. Sheep whose primary concern is for their own welfare. Sheep who are being blackmailed by single-minded predators. Predators who trade in fear, intimidation, incitement and radical religious fiat.

3. After 63 years, the peoples of Israel and Palestine believe that they understand one another. They do not. Polls show that the great majority on both sides would like to see two states. Still, traumatized by history, bloodshed, and personal grief, a large segment of each side believes that the other does not. Meanwhile, should there be any progress toward two states, the predators will be right there to slash and burn - if need be, literally.

It is Independence Day, which Israelis will celebrate despite their government, and certainly not because of it. What can you say about a government which since its inception has had but one message for Palestinian and Jew alike, one message for its American allies, for the North American Jewish Community, for the United Nations, for Richard Goldstone and Rick Jacobs, for Tony Kushner and Barack Obama, for Naomi Hazan and Jeremy Ben-Ami:

"What part of Shut Up do you not understand?"

An Israeli flag flutters as people hold a one-minute silence on Israel's Memorial Day on May 8, 2011.Credit: AFP

Palestinians are used to the message. They've been getting it for decades. For many Israelis, and Jews as a whole, the message is less familiar. But with every passing week, it is becoming second nature.

The Start Up Nation has somehow acquired the Put Up and Shut Up mode of government, a regime of 19th Century cures for 20th Century afflictions. A regime of obsolete explanations and obdurate, unwarranted self-love, of hijacking democratic tools to serve anti-democratic ends. A regime whose very life is warning Israeli Arabs to shut up about their own history and tragedies, of warning leftist Israeli Jews to shut up about injustice, of warning human rights groups to shut up about morality, of warning asylum seekers to shut up about wanting to be productive citizens, of warning minorities to shut up about living with Jews, of sending the message of shut up and/or leave to non-Orthodox converts to Judaism. A regime, in the end, reduced to granting podiums, salaries and prizes to rabbi-bureaucrats who, in the guise of fearing God, preach segregation, race-hatred, blue-white supremacy, and, above all, fear of peace.

Now, as Independence Day dawns, the government is going after its own. Officials have announced that commemorations for the nation's fallen will not formal honor three firemen who sacrificed their lives trying to save others in the inferno of the Carmel Forest. Turning a deaf ear to public outcry, the officials said they were bound by laws and regulations (which, as any Israeli can tell you, everyone ignores, as officials did when they bent and reversed their decision, then reversed it back, then announced they were forming a committee).

At the same time, the Interior Ministry announced that its controversial new biometric national identity cards would begin with the serial number 6,000,000, to honor the victims of the Holocaust – this as tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors living in Israel have been neglected, forced to subsist on meager food and insufficient nursing care, as officials bickered over and sat on the compensation payments which could have made their lives much more comfortable.

When, I wonder this Independence Day, did Israelis lose their nerve? These people, who used to be all nerve. When did they opt to be led by sheep? Israelis, whose leaders talk about Te'uzah, daring, until their listeners are gray in the face – when did they stop taking risks? These people, my friends, the Israelis, who, when they live abroad or work on start-ups, astound with their flexibility and willingness to improvise, their powers of innovation, their courage of imagination, when did they begin to give up on their own future?

Part of it, of course, is that the same Occupation which ruins the lives of our neighbors, our cousins, the Palestinians, has also rendered Israel bloated and fearful and tainted and dumbed down and callous – and thus fundamentally unable to do anything about the most enduring threat to its own future, the Occupation.

But we know that, whether we do anything about it or not, we are a country in transition. The thought scares us dry. The thought has affected our government like headlights on deer. We know that after September, after a UN roll call over the question of Palestine, we may never be the same country again. And, in the back of our minds lurks the nagging thought that when that happens, we may yet be better off.

There was a time when I wished I had been able to live at the time of hamedina-sh'b'derech, the nation in the making: pre-state Eretz Israel. Little did I know that I would live long enough to experience just that - pre-state Israel.

This, this ungodly mess of ours, this is pre-state Israel. We have no independence. The occupation has reduced us to a suburb of the settlements, a province of Palestine. As it stands, the barriers to our independence, our sovereignty as a democratic state of the Jews are steep: the blackmail of the settlement movement, the enmity of our enemies; the zadon, the ill-will, the low expectations, the unapologetic failure of our government.

Oddly, the most desperate of us, the most frightened, are the leaders of the right. They know that they are one pragmatic Israeli leader away from losing the West Bank. One leader who can face down predators for the common good. One leader less timid than Netanyahu, the sheep, who, when it comes to making peace, can face down neither his wife nor his centenarian father. A senior settler leader said recently that failed in their goal of attracting 650,000 settlers and rendering a Palestinian state impossible. They know that they have altogether failed to sway the Israeli and world Jewish public to their cause. All they've got going for them, at this point, is sheep.

People who know me, know that I have nothing against sheep. In fact, I know them to be intelligent and remarkable, when given a chance, when treated with fairness. They will rise to the occasion. They will act in concert. They will act in cleverness. Left to their own devices, they will do what's best for them. They will even face down predators.

Our neighbors, our cousins the Palestinians, are taking halting but significant steps toward independence. Our neighbors in the Arab world and Iran have shocked and inspired us in the risks they have taken to see societies become what the majority would like to see, not a coterie of strongmen and/or clerics. They scare us because we suddenly realize we know nothing of where all of this is headed. As if we ever did.

I wish the Palestinians well in their quest for a state. And I wish us well in our quest for one of our own. May we learn the difference between blind, rude, arrogant nationalism and true love of country, the desire for a place of safety and freedom for those we love, and peace with neighbors we respect.

Love, as the song says, hurts. It confounds. But it also heals. Take it on faith. In this unknowable pre-state era, both peoples could yet confound us all. On their own. They could at long last do what's best for them. They could take the lead, over these leaders with the wool of politics and position pulled down over their eyes. At long last, these peoples could bend and reverse, and start to heal, and actually become what they so yearn to be. Independent. No longer hostage to predators. Free.



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