2014: The Year Israel’s Illusions of Normalcy Died

But then resurfaced. For now.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Smoke, dust and debris rise over Gaza City after an Israeli strike on August 8, 2014, during the 51-day Operation Protective Edge.
Smoke, dust and debris rise over Gaza City after an Israeli strike on August 8, 2014, during the 51-day Operation Protective Edge. Credit: AP
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

This was a rough year. To be fair, no year in Israel can ever be described as “easy,” but it’s been a long time since a single 12-month period managed to shatter the illusions, misconceptions and comforts of Israelis as swiftly, forcefully and ruthlessly as 2014 did.

For Israelis, 2014 was a year of plummeting security. Of war. Of rockets. Of terror attacks, above and below ground. Of senseless deaths. But then every year is another year of senseless deaths in these parts. It was a year of dead children. In Gaza. In Jerusalem. Hundreds of them. Children who died in the name of defense, or religion, or just plain revenge.

It was a year of political violence. Of rising extremism, in the streets and in the Knesset. A year that began with the firing of a schoolteacher who criticized the army's actions, escalated with the persecution of Arabs and left-wing activists who were attacked by extreme right-wing thugs and concluded with a "nation-state bill" that took the “democratic” out of “Jewish democratic state.” Until recently, most Israelis were confident they lived in a democracy. What they were reminded of this year is that you have to constantly fight for democracy, or else it can be taken away. Not that there is much fighting going on.

It was a rough year economically. Israelis are starting the new year poorer and more in debt than ever, with housing prices that continue to skyrocket and the cost of living reaching new highs. Three and a half years after the social justice protests of 2011 and 18 months after they handed Yair Lapid 19 Knesset seats and the Finance Ministry, many Israelis were surprised to discover that little has changed.

It was a year when the idea of emigrating from Israel, once considered taboo, became a sort of political movement. A year that began with a prefabricated coalition crisis and ended with the scheduling of an election the reason for which no one knows for sure. A year that began with a controversial electoral reform that was meant to promote “stability” — a governance bill that raised the electoral threshold and was said to hurt smaller parties — only to end with the calling of a new election that will take place less than two years after the previous one.

No one would dare say it was the best of times. Or even slightly good.

This is not to say good things didn’t happen. Israel’s presidential race was shameful, but the election of Reuven Rivlin provided a glimmer of hope. 2014 led to the end of one of Israel’s most disastrous governments. It may have also heralded the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.

It’s just that there was more dark than light.

In retrospect, what probably made 2014 stand out, most of all, was that it was the year in which Israel’s illusion of normalcy, carefully cultivated over a decade of minimal security problems, was shattered. In which Israelis had to confront their solipsism, their ongoing denial of where they live and what their living there comfortably entails. In which they couldn’t, presumably, just ignore the mountain of problems on their doorstep.

Because 2014 was the year in which so many of the things about ourselves we had tried to ignore came back to bite us. Our deepest delusions, our highest aspirations about our country, hit the brick wall of reality — and died.

The new normal

Anyone who knows anything about Israelis knows that above all, they want to live in a normal country. A country where civic issues are front and center, not playing second fiddle to security concerns. Where people can be happy without being ignorant. Where education and welfare are not competing with tanks.

For much of its existence, this kind of normalcy was out of reach for Israelis. But as the Palestinian conflict receded into the strained-but-stable status quo of recent years, Israel has developed an illusion of itself as a normal, developed country, especially since being allowed into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. We called ourselves Startup Nation and mythologized our technological triumphs. We advertised ourselves as a mecca of innovation and free love. We prided ourselves on the number of foreign celebrities we drew.

It’s not that those things weren’t true. But they contributed to a dangerous sense of complacency, a feeling that this perceived normalcy can go on and on.

Sure, every now and then Israelis were reminded that they did not live in a postcard: a terror attack, a Gaza flotilla, a threat of international boycott, an international performing artist eager to make a statement, a short-term conflict in Gaza, but those had no meaningful economic effect. “If you subtract the Arabs and the Haredim, we are doing great,” Netanyahu said in 2012, a claim that has since become a near-mantra for local politicians and, indeed, many Israelis.

Three years ago, many Israelis stopped focusing on the conflict altogether, and the political discourse moved strictly to economic issues, such the soaring cost of living, crony capitalism and political corruption. Israelis took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands and demanded social justice. The fate of millions of Palestinians, or of the Israeli settlements for that matter, were the furthest thing from their mind.

With everything somewhat quite on the Gazan front, Israelis took the time to focus on themselves. They voted for politicians such as Yair Lapid, who focused solely on economic issues and didn’t have a foreign policy agenda, and Naftali Bennett, who told them the Palestinian conflict is unsolvable and it’s best to accept that and move on. They began to feel so comfortable, in fact, that politicians on the left and the right, like Bennett and Lapid, demanded cuts to that most sacred of Israeli cows, the enormous defense budget.

Then came 2014 and shattered our pretend normal Israel. The news began to fill up again with rocket attacks, terror tunnels and riots, children kidnapped, children bombed, children burned alive. Our ugly margins, not really the margins anymore, were too big for denial.

Suddenly, it seemed we had time-traveled. Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister, crop tops were fashionable and Jerusalem was burning due to tensions on Temple Mount. If it weren’t for Facebook, one could believe the late 1990s had returned.

Holding on to our denial

After all that came the nation-state bill, an extreme piece of legislation approved by the cabinet that, without containing anything that was inherently new, forced us to come to terms with what we had become. Instead of being cut, the defense budget increased by 13 billion shekels ($3.31 billion). Israelis wanted health, education and welfare. Instead, they got a bloated army state and a parliament controlled by the religious extreme right.

This all could have been a good thing. The shattering of illusions is a painful but sobering experience, one that could have served to rouse those in Israel who are dissatisfied with the way things are going to fight for the country they want.

Did it happen? No. Not yet, anyway. A poll conducted by the Walla! news site found that in the 2015 election, as in the 2013 election, the most important issue for Israeli voters is the cost of living. Not their endangered democracy, nor the ever-growing security state. While foreign observers might think all hell broke loose this year, Israelis, it seems, think differently.

That is because the denial mechanism that enabled Israel to ignore many of its problems, often to the point of divorcing itself from reality, is intact. Israelis’ illusions of normalcy may have unceremoniously perished this year, but the mental block that led them to ignore uncomfortable realities and develop this false sense of normalcy lives on.

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