Friday, June 22, 2007

A question remembered from 1967

Another analysis of the Six Day War? Not at all. Now that the flood of 40th-anniversary analyses by just about everyone else has abated, here is something entirely different --- a little recollection of a comment which someone uttered one night in Washington, D.C., not long before the fighting started. Although this post starts with a 1967 event, it is mainly about attitudes that endure today.

The 1967 event: With tension growing from day to day, hundreds of local Jews gathered in one of Washington's largest synagogues to hear a briefing on the situation in the Middle East. Egypt had expelled United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai and closed the Tiran Straits. An analyst just back from Israel brought a chilling report to the assembled crowd: War seemed inevitable, and this meant that Israelis would soon be dying in a struggle for national survival.

A member of the audience stood up and asked a question that probably was on others' minds.

Why, she wanted to know, can't we solve everything by bringing "them" (the Jews of Israel) to live in the United States? Then they would be safe.

Attitudes: The notion that Jews would be better off somewhere other than here is as old as the Bible. See the majority report of the 12 spies in Numbers 13-14.

Nonetheless, despite all claims that Israel was a mistake or isn't necessary, more than five million Jews are making our lives here in this land that is said to devour its inhabitants.

M.J. Rosenberg, who directs the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum, reminisced in his June 8 column about a great-aunt, a Holocaust survivor. Many years ago, she surprised her only living relatives by refusing to give up life in Israel to join them in the United States. Tel Aviv was her home.

Rosenberg contends that a Diaspora view of Israel as "always on the brink of destruction, all pain and tears, is a myth calculated for direct mail organizational fund-raising and to rally 'support' from the masses and from Congress."

"Don't cry for Israel," he advises. "Celebrate it."

Amen, but here are two Israel-centered comments.

1) Life in Israel impels us to do both. Crying and celebrating are both essential. Problems abound here, and complaining is a national pastime. A survey released this week by the Israel Democracy Institute, titled "Cohesiveness in a Divided Society," found that 79 percent of us are troubled by the country's current situation and almost the same number are proud to be Israeli citizens. A survey last week from the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that more than four in five of us are satisfied with our lives.

Currently, some Israelis are gnashing their teeth over comments by Avraham Burg, a former chairman of the Jewish Agency. Burg is promoting a book he wrote and has caused a small sensation by stating that Israelis should get foreign passports if they can. The other night at a ceremony at the Kibbutz Seminar College, a speaker denounced this advice while making a point of refusing to mention Burg's name. The speaker could be pretty sure the audience knew whom he had in mind.

Over the years, while we have been busy alternating between shedding tears and celebrating the miracle that is Israel, hundreds of thousands of our friends and families have left the country. Israelis leave for many reasons. Generally, they seek economic or social opportunity, or both. No one knows the exact count. It has been estimated at 10 to 15 percent of the country's population. For all we know, this Jewish emigration comes close to the United Nations' estimate of 711,000 Palestinian Arabs who fled or were expelled in 1947-49.

Last week some neighbors moved out. The family comprises a six-year-old boy, his mother, and her mother. For the past seven years, they rented an apartment in the Tel Aviv building where I live. The mother and son are off to a new life in Eilat, Israel's Red Sea resort city. The grandmother is returning to Russia. She never learned Hebrew, and she sees no future here.

2) The other comment is that we in Israel cannot ignore the question of our vulnerability. The columnist Richard Reeves put the question bluntly last year: "Speaking the Unspeakable: Can Israel Survive?" Reeves quoted another distinguished U.S. journalist, Peter Osnos, on the Israel-Palestinian conflict: "Aside from more catastrophic violence, no one can any longer say what the outcome of the struggle will be or which side will prevail."

Is it really that bad? If so, this does not necessarily mean that the danger of living here as a Jew is greater today than it was in 1967 or 1948 or 1929 or 1921. It does mean that security remains essential.

Daily life in Israel cannot be led according to apocalyptic analyses. You have to cope with the here-and-now. This creates a bias in favor of taking small steps, improvising, and living with interim solutions. A lot of the time this seems to work, and we are still here.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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