A Mirage of Normalcy

With the consolidation of the hudna, a great wave of normalcy is sweeping the country. The people long for normalcy. They lap it up thirstily. They can't get enough of it. And so, with her protest march and the dip in the terror curve perfectly timed, Vicki Knafo has been able to grab the headlines and transform herself overnight from a lone protester to the leader of a popular movement.

As part of that tide of normalcy, which has pushed the cry of the poor to the top of the national agenda and buried foreign and defense affairs deep in the back pages (Sharon visited Blair this week. Did anyone around here notice?), the dovish-religious movement, Meimad, has organized a "social emergency conference," scheduled to meet in Jerusalem this coming Sunday. Spurred on by the biblical verse "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor," a group of 500 "secular and religious scholars" will convene to "stop the fabric of Israeli society from being torn to shreds before our very eyes."

According to the host, Rabbi Michael Melchior, MK and head of Meimad, this conference is an answer to the 500 rabbis who assembled recently, to declare government orders to dismantle outposts invalid according to Jewish law. At that gathering they also proclaimed, "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." But there, says Melchior, they forgot the lessons of history. The Second Temple was destroyed because of "senseless hate," because different sectors of society stopped feeling responsible for each other's fate and welfare. The divisions increased and intensified to the point where society lost the inner cohesion that held it together.

"What is a Jewish state?" asks Melchior, a native of Denmark who was chief rabbi of Norway for many years. "Can a country with the widest social rifts in the Western world be considered a Jewish state? Can a country where the level of education is on a par with Thailand fulfill its Jewish mission? The extreme inequality and social injustice one finds here have become a genuine threat to the survival of the state because many of the best people will head for the door."

Certainly, there is much truth in this. And Meimad, basking in the newfound popularity of social activism, has managed to sign up a dozen volunteer organizations, including Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh's People's Voice, to take part in the emergency conference on Sunday.

But with all the importance of pursuing justice and equality, with all the passion that social issues generate, there is an element of escapism here: Meimad, and many other Israelis, have embarked on a kind of flight from a harsh and abnormal reality to an imaginary and illusory normalcy.

For Meimad, it is relatively simple to recruit 500 "secular and religious scholars" to rally around the flag of social reform. It helps to conceal how difficult it is to mobilize classic Torah scholars prepared to stand up to the right-wing extremist rabbis who now reign supreme in the rabbinical world. It is easy, and so convenient, to take up the fight for righting social wrongs - thereby deflecting attention from the impotence of Meimad and its political allies in righting the greatest wrong of them all: the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians and its odious by-product - occupation.

It is easy, perhaps, but absurdly misguided, to accuse Netanyahu of being a cruel and heartless Thatcherite, yet say nothing of the fact that he is, above all, a sworn political hawk, a hardliner who is now preaching political radicalism of the kind that brought about the destruction of Jewish independence at the time of the Second Temple.

Melchior claims that his is an apolitical wake-up call, based purely on social concerns. Sitting beside him on the podium will be Lior Katsav, a Likud mayor, and Adina Bar-Shalom, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's daughter. He does not want to scare them off with talk about concessions and withdrawal from the territories.

At the protest tent across from the Finance Ministry, people are also careful to stick to poverty and suffering. Like in a normal country. As if it were possible to establish an enlightened system of social justice on the benighted foundations of occupation. As if it were possible to find a normal solution to Israeli poverty and suffering while the roots of abnormality remain.