Strenger Than Fiction / Just Holding On

It seems that the ideal of a liberal society in the Mideast is gradually slipping away; that the forces of nationalism, religious fundamentalism and sheer rage and fear are engulfing us.

Yesterday afternoon I gave the final class of a course on the psychological background of liberal democracy. I felt gloomy and despondent. Before that I had tried to write a blog post that would end with some kind of positive policy suggestion for Israel. But when my wife read the piece she looked at me and I could see the verdict in her eyes. The piece was devoid of energy; the optimism was fake.

Israeli flag burning Paris

In preparation for writing, I had read a few excellent analyses of Israel’s current situation. Walter Russell Mead in a recent blog points out how many regimes that have very little respect for human rights are having a field day pouring scorn and hatred on Israel. His conclusion: Israel needs to pay a steep price for peace, without gaining what it wants: stability and acceptance in the Middle East. He doesn’t see any alternative, but doubts that Israel will muster the political will to take risks for partial peace.

Aaron David Miller wrote an even more depressing piece on "The False Religion of Mideast Peace." Miller has been deeply involved in U.S. efforts to broker peace here for almost two decades. His conclusion is that the belief that the U.S. can achieve the goal of resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict is simply an unfounded dogma – a terrifying conclusion for a man who has tried so hard to contribute to this elusive goal.

I topped these pessimistic assessments with Aluf Benn’s meditation on Israel’s missed opportunity with Turkey. Benn’s style of writing is generally cool and analytic. But this time a melancholy sadness permeated his elegy on the hope of the 1990s that secular humanism would win out in the Middle East. His conclusion: the forces of religious fundamentalism are on the rise both in Turkey and in Israel, and the dream of harmony is fading into the distance.

I stumbled on an analysis in The Economist that was by and large sympathetic to Israel’s plight. Far from joining the chorus of self-righteous indignation that is filling the world’s media, it argues that Israel is being pushed into situations with bad choices only, and that its macho political culture mostly leads to picking the worst of them. Its conclusion was heartwarming against the background of spite and rage heaped on Israel lately:

"Israel is a regional hub of science, business and culture. Despite its harsh treatment of Palestinians in the land it occupies, it remains a vibrant democracy. But its loneliness, partly self-inflicted, is making it a worse place, not just for the Palestinians but also for its own people. If only it can replenish its stock of idealism and common sense before it is too late."

Of course I subscribe to every word in The Economist’s call to Israel’s creative energies. But I simply couldn’t see where this "idealism and common sense" should be coming from. Mostly I can mobilize a combination of anger at Israel’s faulty politics and a belief in Israel’s creativity when I sit down to write. I have been arguing for the resurgence of a liberal, humanistic Zionism that will turn things around. But today I simply couldn’t find any optimism in my soul.

So I asked my students to forgive my despondency: it seemed somewhat incongruous to work on beautiful text by the late philosopher Richard Rorty about the nature of liberal community they had read in preparation. It seemed to me that the ideal of a liberal society in the Middle East is gradually slipping away; that the forces of nationalism, religious fundamentalism and sheer rage and fear are engulfing us.

Nevertheless class discussion was animated. The students brought to bear the theories and materials that we had worked on for a semester in discussing the tools Liberalism has to defend itself. They saw the complexity of the problem; they didn’t simplify. They saw the disparity between the beauty of the text they had read for class and the brutality of the reality that we live in. Somehow my despondency didn’t drag them down; instead their youthful enthusiasm for learning and thinking reminded me that there are still things that can be done, even if on a small scale, to preserve the values of civilization.

After taking my leave of them, I walked through the warm evening air; the campus lawn was being prepared for a ceremony: the students of the faculty of arts were to be awarded their degrees. In a tent set up nearby, Arab women from the Galilee were selling homemade food. I thought of all the young people that had studied and developed their minds and personalities for years; of their hopes, their love of life. I marveled once again, how the class I had maintained clarity of thought and emotional aliveness despite the bleakness of Israel’s situation, and I felt grateful for the opportunity to teach them. And I thought: "We just need to hold on; somehow."