Saturday, May 17, 2008

60 yes, but 120?

Israel is 60.  When Jews celebrate a personal milestone, rather than a happy birthday they are wished 120 years of life.  The reference is to Moses who purportedly lived to that advanced age.  I remember vividly as a child when my parents returned home from witnessing the United Nations vote for the partitioning of Palestine and participating in the celebrations that followed.  It was clearly one of the great days in their lives.  I remember too as a child singing the Hatikvah, just adopted as the official state anthem, with a new lump-in-the-throat meaning.  Despite a rocky and violent start, we had great hopes for this newly minted Jewish homeland.  Among others, as a family that survived Hitler, we saw it as a special vindication and, although we did not live there, a kind of safety net.  After all, Jews had been persecuted throughout much of history in lands to which we could never lay claim.  My family, residents of Germany since at least the 17th Century, was treated as illegals in the 1930s destined to either be exiled or extinguished.  They experienced both.

Israel is 60.  If only I could be confident that it will reach 120.  I no longer am.  Time is running out and, admittedly looking from afar, nobody seems to have any urgency about the clock.  It makes no sense to point fingers or to recount the missed opportunities or mistakes.  There is enough blame to go around, and many times over.  Israelis and Palestinians seem stuck, captives of the extreme and victims of too many words and too few actions.  I rue the day that Israel conquered the West Bank and more so the unending days of occupation that followed.  My parents celebrated partition.  It wasn’t an easy concept and, some will argue, a historically unnatural one.  Perhaps the day that a Jewish State was declared but not a parallel Arab state made where we are today inevitable.  Few in the world wanted the Jewish one, surrounding Arab countries absolutely would not permit the other.  Both are suffering the bitter consequences.

At our family Seder some weeks ago, a participant who is one of my parents’ oldest friends knew that I was supporting Barack Obama.  She, with a daughter living in Israel, asked me with some urgency if Obama was “good for the Jews?”  Her question reflected one of the whispering campaigns that have dogged his candidacy up to now and are likely to follow him into the general election.  It also reflected the mindset of another generation, and as one of those escapees from Hitler, an understandable one.  Of course the translation of her question was whether he was going to be supportive of Israel, both a globally Jewish and personal question.  I have little doubt that he will.

In contrast of course George W. Bush, who visited Israel to share in its celebration, is often described there and by some American Jews as one of the State's best friends.  Some friend.  Part of our current problem is that until a few months ago in what Catholics would call a legacy “Hail Mary Pass”, the Bush administration has paid lip service to, but largely ignored, the Israel-Palestinian conflict.  Bill Clinton may not have achieved his goal, but at least he tried spending a lot of personal and political capital in the process.   But it isn’t what Bush failed to do that has been so hurtful.  No American President in history has done more to destabilize the Middle East.  Thanks to their great friend, Israelis (not to mention Americans) are less safe than they were on January 1, 2001.  What’s going on in Iraq, with Al Qaeda and in the Holy Land are all intertwined, and the last seven plus years have only complicated the puzzle and diminished the possibility of a happy solution.

There has been a lot of discussion in the media and elsewhere about Israel’s 60th and the conflict that hangs over its head.  In recent years we’ve heard more talk about two states, finally.  To his credit, George Bush did speak of Palestine early on even if he did little to make it a reality.  What was so striking in listening to the views of thoughtful Palestinians in recent days is that their focus has turned to a one state solution, toward the inevitability of demographics that run heavily in their favor.  I admit to having become increasingly pessimistic about prospects for peace and reconciliation, but not without hope.  The question I ask myself today is whether, with all the posturing and submission to extremists on both sides, a tipping point has been reached.  We in the West take the short view of life, we live in the now and want instant solutions and gratification.  Other cultures, in some cases because they have less, patiently take the long view and are willing to wait for the inevitable, no matter how long it takes.  That’s true for Asians and probably for Arabs as well.  Israel is a Western country situated in the East.  Time, it pains me deeply to say, is not on their side.

Is Barack Obama or for that matter Hillary Clinton or John McCain good for the Jews, for Israel?  Let’s hope they are which may mean, beyond adopting a sense of appropriate urgency, that they will suggest paths or solutions that those asking that question may not always like.  One thing is clear, what we’ve been doing to date, that great friendship, hasn’t worked and may indeed have been destructive.  Israel at 120?  Oh, I hope it will come to pass, but it won’t by itself.  Prayers of thanksgiving may be appropriate on this 60th anniversary, but only humans can come to the table and reconcile their differences.  Hopefully, that will come to pass, and it better be soon.

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