By: Aryeh Schonbrun  | 

Don’t Let Them Fool You: How Israel Lost Her Soul or False Promises of the Promised Land

A little over six months ago, I boarded an El Al flight to Israel and began the ugly process of immigration. Immigration does not generally confer feelings of homecoming and acceptance. Immigrants worldwide and from time immemorial have needed to undertake the difficult task of re-acculturation, absorption and assimilation. My case, while still in its relative infancy, has not differed from the myriads of similarly afflicted men who have set out for a new land. I have suffered over the past few months, straining to adjust to a strange new place, and while I persevere, I uneasily await what the future may bring.

Before I continue, I wish to begin with a disclaimer. I do not harbor ill will towards the subjects of this essay. I do not feel as if I have been conned or forced into making a decision that has jeopardized my current state of mind and future prospects. I undertook this mission with nearly full consciousness of the ensuing consequences, and I have only myself to blame for it. However, I would be amiss, if not myself an accessory, if I were to sit silently and suffer. I feel that, as well as writing this might bring me closure, it may help others understand the situation. To that end, I invite you to hear what I have learned of Israeli society in my encounters with it and attempt to understand what I now deal with daily. I do not ask for your sympathy, just for your discerning ear.

Since its inception, Israel has defined itself primarily as a Jewish-centric country. There does not exist any constitutional basis for considering Israel as chiefly a Jewish state, though some of its laws do prove conducive to yiddishkeit. The Law of Return, for instance, guarantees the right of any Jewish individual (including myself), anywhere in the world, to immigrate freely and gain automatic citizenship in Israel. The Central Rabbinate, a governmental authority, still retains [largely] ceremonial control over the marriage registry, controls the kashruth and rabbinic certification in Israel and still forbids most Israelis from travelling on public transit on the Sabbath. Most Israelis continue to feel a connection to traditional Judaism, to the ritual, religious and spiritual aspects, and the general public does seem to endearingly cling to some of our traditional practices and beliefs. Circumcision remains widespread, resisting the onslaught of the neo-Hellenism that now sweeps through the West, and people tend to be down to Earth and value-driven. Compared to the West, many indicators still signal that Israel has remained vital and healthy (low mental illness and high fertility rates continue to surprise experienced anthropologists), a functioning society, that considering the challenges it must face, appears to succeed against the odds. Israel’s economy grows slowly but steadily, having recovered from the shocks of conflict, and the Israeli population has known no quieter times. Terror still retains a presence in the Israeli psyche, but the numbers of either armed or civilian casualties dwarfs the earlier wars in Israel’s history. We do not expect the loss of thousands of young men as we had experienced in the wars past, nor do we fear to travel freely in our cities and on [most of] our roads.

The world and Trump have given up for now on the Palestinians, dismayed by years of conflict and disorder that have followed any serious negotiations, and distracted by their own severe domestic issues. The settlements continue to grow, albeit impeded by soft domestic policy and strong opposition from abroad, but, even so, new housing tenders continue to issue from the government and the settlements have more than doubled in size since the signing of the Oslo Accords. Even the Left has realized that the Palestinians cannot offer a realistic peace. Avi Gabai, the head of historically dovish Labour announced recently that he will not agree to evict settlers from their homes. It appears that all the forces in the world have converged to validate Israel’s existence, allow its continued growth and have even let Israel off the hook from what some claim constitute human rights violations. Israeli society appears as strong and permanent as ever--all appears swell.

Don’t let that fool you, though. Israel does not experience these feelings of acceptance and power in a vacuum. Israelis have begun to feel the effects of increasingly hostile political forces threatening Jews abroad and in Israel. The IDF has not forgotten the stockpiles of rockets lying in wait in the North (Hezbollah) and the South (Hamas), nor have they found closure from the scars of Arab terror. A month into my residence here, I attended the funeral of a young soldier, Elchai Taharlev, murdered by an Arab terrorist whilst protecting fellow Jews. My friends knew him well, and we all mourned the loss. As much as we try to forget the conflict and focus on our real lives, we cannot fully disconnect from its destruction.

And that fact weighs on the Israeli conscience more than anything else. Israelis in general don’t care much for the naqba, nor the naqsa, nor the continued occupation of the West Bank. Israel has painfully learned that nothing can be done. Failure after failure to reach a compromise, to assuage our guilt, to encourage coexistence with our gentile neighbors, have led to more bloodshed and a loss of our faith in ourselves and in humanity. One can say much about the ignorance of Oslo. One can ridicule the anti-democratic manner in which it came about, the utter illogical thinking that fostered its promotion and promise, but you can’t argue with the fact that those in favor of trying at least had hoped it might succeed.

Micah Goodman, in his book Catch 67, writes that the socialist idealism of the early settlement and state gave way to the pacifist fervor of universal peace. The utopian drive for a better society drove the kibbutznikim to return to Israel, to further the development of Israel and eventually formed the economic and strategic basis for forming a state. When the socialism of Mapai and Ben-Gurion wavered in the 1980s, Goodman claims that the Left could not bear the reality of the status-quo. Their desperate attempts to bring about the end of all wars did not bear fruit, and, thus, they have despaired of both utopian dreams.

The Israeli Right, as Goodman points out, also suffered setbacks. The Right does not demand all of Trans-Jordan anymore, nor does it demand even the biblical cities of Hebron, Shchem (Nablus), Bethlehem and Jerusalem. No politician from the Jewish Home party would argue that it makes sense for Jews to live in Bethlehem, as much as most serious politicians from the Left would not voice their support for a significant disengagement. . The inability of Israel to gain political/demographic traction in most of the West Bank has made the Right helplessly lost and so too despaired. Instead, I propose that the Right has become mainly a surrogate for the failed policies of Supply-side economics, as they have become the most vocal supporters of tax-cuts and austerity.

Additionally, the religious revival that plagued secular society towards the end of the last century has largely dissipated, and we witness increasing rates of secularization from within historically traditional and religious communities. Children leave religion, secular Jews have less and less to do with anything nominally Jewish, and religious tensions, long simmering, have begun to take hold of society. It ranges from the Inquisitorial cries of hadatah (forced exposure to religious training), to overtly caustic gestures by public institutions (e.g. the IDF) to impose a secular moral code on society, clearly intended to further inflame the situation, to media-driven witch-hunts on the part of an “enlightened” elite, and the parallel closing-off of religious societies to vast swaths of humanity in order to escape it all (with it the severe economic consequences of failing to educate the youth). As we have seen in America, chaos and dysfunction can only lead to corruption and baseless hatred, and I can bear witness to this breakdown in Israeli society that has now widened and threatens its future.

More concisely, and to paraphrase Shakespeare: Something is rotten in the State of Israel. To be fair, the world in general suffers from lack of stability. In response to Brexit, Trump, Catalonia, Syria, ISIS and on and on, we have accustomed ourselves to expect less of humanity, and of ourselves. It should not surprise you, then, that these forces of chaos and destruction have come to infect Israeli society as well. Why should Israel be any different?

In response to this existential confusion, Israelis (and, as it would seem most of the West) have doubled down: Israel must remain a Jewish state, though a state that accepts all forms of Judaism, all “Jewish” immigrants, never mind their halakhic status, and, above all, medinat kol ezracheha, a pluralistic, universalist state. Out of frustration, and in an attempt at keeping some coherent identity, Israelis as a whole have become less Jewish and more Israeli over the past two generations, and, as a result, have foregone much of what historically made Israel Israeli. A secular Jew may now have more in common with an Israeli gentile than with me! What is Israel without Judea, what is Israeli without Judaism? How can I consider myself Israeli if my peers do not concur? Personally, I do not maintain high expectations for most, but when I observe that an Israeli Jew, overtaken by his inability to identify as a Jew, in fear of reprisal from the gods of pluralism and conformity, condescends and regards me in a xenophobic light as an “other,” it pains me. It drives a wedge between us, and leaves me cold, isolated and lonely. I feel alienated by much of Israeli society, as I have become aware of my differences, and upon encountering the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv or the Bourgeois societies of the Mercaz, I feel a compelling sense of disaffection and anomie. I lack identity and familiarity.

Not that I feel so homesick. The anomie and loneliness that characterizes a young man abroad in Western society finds a parallel in almost all aspects of our lives, anywhere we live, a universal ailment. I know deep down that I feel the lack of brotherhood in expectation of greater holiness. In Israel, I experience the twin poles of instantaneous acceptance and immediate rejection. I get invited to strangers’ houses, meet and connect with amazing people, but also feel the cold rejection of greater Israeli society. I count myself lucky that I speak Hebrew well, feel comfortable culturally and religiously, and have wonderfully helpful friends, but I also know that I am privileged. Privileged to have actually paid attention in Hebrew class, to have experienced authentic Israeliness in ways most don’t. Privileged to have met people who care about me and help me along, and privileged that my parents have, for now, decided to support me in my crazy adventure. I also know that most don’t feel comfortable when they come visit. Most don’t even feel comfortable after living here for years. Some think that the army might allow me entrance into Israeli society, but they err. The army would just reinforce what I already know: Israel needs help.

So to my friends still entrenched in the depths of exile, I offer my sympathy. Sometimes I even envy you for having avoided this conflict. For those crazy enough to join me here, I have only one thing to say: Let us together rebuild society! Let us hasten the redemption!