Israel: Dream vs. Reality Part II

Yesterday I had a wonderful lunch with our own Steven Abraham. We remember that Steven is in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, and this year he and his wife Shira are spending the year in Jerusalem. We met at a cafĂ© at the new mall right outside the Jaffa Gate (the Mamila Mall) that leads to King David St. It’s a beautiful setting, overlooking the wall of the Old City, and is obviously meant for tourists.

The stores are all high end clothing, shoe, and jewelry retailers, and it is kept very clean.
In addition to the setting, it was energizing to hear how excited Steven is about being in rabbinical school and becoming a rabbi. His studies are going very well and he can’t wait to be done in two more years so that he can begin sharing his excitement and passion with the American Jewish community.

After spending a lovely two hours, I made my way to the Shalom Hartman Institute to begin my week of study. The first session is always with the director of the Institute, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman. He begins with an update, a sort of what’s new in Israel. Obviously, since the war or operation in Gaza had recently concluded he gave his early assessment of Israeli society’s reaction. It was very disturbing. He began by highlighting the hope and optimism of Obama’s presidency and his slogan “Yes We Can”. Even though that attitude is applied to every aspect of Obama’s agenda, in Israel the attitude toward peace negotiations with the Palestinians is “No We Can’t”. Since the Oslo accords in 1993, Israel has seen failure after failure, and suicide bombings and repeated terrorist infiltrations. And that’s just in the past 16 years. Israel has also seen how with the noted exception of Egypt and Jordan the Arabs refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. This last operation in Gaza seems in some way to have been the last straw. Hartman feels that most Israelis would have preferred to have the operation continue until all of Gaza was leveled.

Another change that has been developing over the years, is the relationship to the Israeli Army’s policy of what’s called in Hebrew “tohar ha-neshek” or the purity of arms. That concept means that weapons will only be used in the absolute last case and that weapons will be seen not as a sign of power or control, but as dangerous or necessary evils. The Army always taught that all human life is sacred and that military actions would be conducted as justly and morally as possible. Hartman claims that it is no longer the basic assumption or rule of thumb of the Army. Many of the Army’s commanders come from the Orthodox school system that doesn’t necessarily teach these same Israeli concepts and it may be that the Army only now gives lip service to this ideal.

These two ideas were very disturbing to learn and really cause me to question the Israeli ideal I hold in my mind. It’s possible that Israel is becoming like all other nations, or even worse. After years of fighting for its existence and trying to hold the higher moral ground, Israelis are tired and fed up. That is dangerous for its values and dangerous for its future. Hartman recognizes that and hasn’t yet figured out how to overcome it and return Israel to its biblical vision of being a "light unto the nations". We can only pray that Hartman’s assessment may be wrong, or that he and other Israel philosophical leaders will begin to set Israeli society right again.


  1. Jonah,
    It was wonderful to hear of your visit with Steven & Shira. We only wish them peace and joy and speedy trip home in June. We miss them.
    Concerning your comments about the general populace and the army. I believe that the average Israeil has seen so little hope for an end to violence and the fact that they seem to so willingly accept the atrocities by the palestinian terrorists that they do in fact believe "No We Can'T". I have visited Israel only 4 times in the last 14 years, yet every time I leave the country I feel sad. I see such progress and promise yet so much dispare.
    Don't give up believing in "tohar haneshak" the turn-around may appear with only a few small victories.


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