By Gilbert N. Kahn
The British historian Robert Graves together with Alan Hodges in 1940 described the period from 1919-1939 as the “long weekend.” In the book of the same name, they reviewed the roaring Twenties, the “Crash”, the depression, and the flurry of rearmament versus appeasement debate throughout the Thirties. They discuss how Britain behaved as if it was on “holiday”. Then on September 1, 1939, a new reality hit the English.
One has a sense that while Israel today is not militarily weak or unprepared or cocky, as it was in 1973 before the Yom Kippur War, the country is living in a state of avoidance on a multitude of levels. The people behave as if they are passing through their own “long weekend”.
The economic boom continues in Israel unabated. Construction and housing and especially home expansion grows while private sector development is thriving. High-tech, bio-medical technology, and finance is flourishing . Housing prices and food rises while Government subsidies and support is down and the lower class are seriously in need.
Educational funding is being cut. Class size increases as teachers’ needs are ignored. The quality and content of study in many sectors of the system is being challenged. There are serious questions about the quality of the education specifically concerning Jewish history and culture. This is true among all sectors of the community; the secular, the religious, and the haredi.
The religious conflicts are compounded today more so than ever before, There are conflicts between religious groups and among them as well. Ashkenazi and Sephardic leaders and their followers have no compunctions trashing each other and the split between the haredi world and the national religious followers is intense, to say nothing of the continuing intolerant attitudes of secular and religious leaders towards each other as well as their publics.
It once again has reached another intense moment in a renewal of the debate among some of the more extreme national religious rabbinical leaders concerning the publication of a book by Rabbi Yitzchak Shapira which justifies the killing of non-Jewish civilians during wartime. The conflict has now also involved arrest and/or questioning of some of the rabbis for endorsing views expressed in the book which challenge the role of the State (not the Torah) in determining law and order within the State.
The entire political and electoral system cries out for change and reform. Small minority parties have even more power today than ever, their small tails wagging the body of the national political leadership. Party elections loom already and no one discuss the inherent problems within the system itself. There is nary a constructive voice for change being heard from any of the think tanks or universities so nothing of the bureaucrats and politicians. All of this is occurring with a Government in power which is virtually unchallengeableexcept perhaps from within were elections held today.
Most Israelis recognize the looming threats from a nuclear Iran, a rocket rain from Hezbollah in Lebanon, a revitalized and rearmed Hamas, or even a potential threat posed by a Muslim Brotherhood victory in the September elections in Egypt. Israelis just live in a realm of avoidance.
The concern is for now, dealing with the stress but not wanting to address the political and diplomatic reality. This attitude is something that even the Prime Minister’s long time friend and public supporter, the head of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, has now told Netanyahu, he is disregarding at his nation’s peril. Speaking in a private session before Jewish Parliamentarians in Jerusalem, Lauder argued that the there was a desperate need for Netanyahu to take dramatic action on the peace front before the September meeting of the U.N. General Assembly; even if such action were to result in Bibi triggering an internal, political upheaval to his own political leadership.
Unlike the late 1930’s most Israelis recognize the potential threats being posed by radical forces surrounding them. They just opt to cope with these issues by not trying to solve them, by blithely dismissing any efforts to change the status quo, and by asserting that there is no one with whom to speak. Polls may indicate that 60-65% percent of Israelis are ready to back territorial compromises, but there is hardly a single voice in the Government reflecting this significant majority view.
In this environment Israelis therefore pull back and focus on their own interests and needs and ignore the existential questions. Many merely seem to postulate that if no one else wants to focus on these issues why should they. If they do not think about these issues, perhaps they will all disappear. The fears are there, but they do not discuss them and or express genuine anxiety about the lack of political initiatives to find solutions to reduce the threats.
The concluding irony to this picture is that Prime Minister Netanyahu is seriously considering making Sunday a “day-off” in Israel, thus giving Israelis off beginning at noon on Friday,
* Dr. Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of political science at Kean University in Union (e-mail [email protected]).