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The War We Haven’t Fought Yet

August 23, 2009

Aug. 22, 2009


It’s not even over, but we can already begin to imagine how we’ll remember the summer of 2009. Haredi residents of Mea She’arim unleashed violent demonstrations when Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat dared to open a parking lot on Shabbat to relieve unbearable congestion. A few weeks later, Jerusalem neighborhoods were once again filled with smoke from burning trash bins, and this time, municipal workers were attacked, because an apparently deliberately starved baby was removed from his haredi mother’s care.

The mayor responded by withholding city services from Mea She’arim, saying (correctly) that he had an obligation to protect the city’s workers. A director of Hadassah University Medical Center, where the baby was treated, was then threatened and had to be assigned bodyguards. The battle lines were drawn.

In Ramat Bet Shemesh, a small band of anti-Zionist, ultra-religious fanatics continued to terrorize other residents for outrageous behaviors like owning a television set. But though the campaign of terror was months old, the authorities still seemed disinclined to intervene. Elsewhere, when a massive gay-lesbian rally was planned in Tel Aviv to protest the murder of two youths in a support center, a 20-year-old soldier from a Nahal Haredi unit was arrested for sending a threatening e-mail, promising the gay community that the next attack would be even deadlier.

His remand was extended, but our memories were not.

THIS IS Israel, and a few days later, we’d all forgotten about him. Indeed, mostly forgotten about all these instances. “They’re a bit extreme,” we tell ourselves. We can muddle through this, too. After all, when you consider that we have Barack Obama, Iran, Gilad Schalit, the economy, swine flu and a few other matters on our plate, how much do burning trash bins really matter? They want to turn their own neighborhoods into a war zone – can we really be bothered?

I suggest that we allow ourselves to be bothered, deeply bothered.

A brief reminder of some American history. Israel, as we all know, is 61 years post-independence. The US was the same age in 1837. That year, Martin van Buren was inaugurated as the eighth president of the United States. Michigan became a state of the union. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales became a best-seller. Horace Mann introduced his educational reforms in Massachusetts, American Presbyterians split into the “new” and “old” schools and Samuel Morse exhibited his electric telegraph at the College of the City of New York.

The parallels to Israel are striking. A functioning political system was in place. The country did not yet have permanent borders. Educational reform was desperately needed. America was a deeply religious, and religiously fractious, country. There was cultural excellence and technological innovation.

Not bad for a country only 61 years old.

But in 1837, 61 years after American independence, Congress was also operating under the recently passed “Gag Law,” designed to stifle congressional debate on slavery. Those who favored the Gag Law hoped to conduct the business of state as usual, without undue attention to that nagging problem of enslavement. Yes, most people understood that there was a deep and dangerous fault line running through American society with radically different conceptions of the kind of society American ought to become, and no, no one knew how to resolve it. What the authors of the Gag Law believed, however, was that what mattered most was conducting business as usual and putting off the slavery debate. They did not want Congress discussing slavery (because many of them supported it), and they wanted to spend their time working on seemingly more pressing and immediate matters.

We Israelis, of course, have no need for a Gag Law. No legislation is required to get us to ignore the massive fault lines running just underneath the surface of our society. We have radically different conceptions of what the permanent borders of this country should be, but no national conversation on the subject. Nor is there meaningful public discourse about how to manage the cooling relations between Israel and its historically most trusted ally. And though everyone knows that we have at least two major populations who do not share a commitment to Israel being both Jewish and democratic, with the exception of a foolish and ill-fated demand for loyalty oaths, no one is terribly inclined to take the issue on.

LET US return to America in 1837. On the surface, despite the rumblings of slavery discussions, America was thriving. But in 1837, the US was only 24 years away from its Civil War. The fault lines would erupt, threatening the very survival of the country that had once hoped to ignore them. Somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 soldiers would die in the war; brothers would fight on opposite sides, sometimes killing each other. The war would rip the country asunder, and were it not for a leader of the likes of Abraham Lincoln, the US as we know it might not have survived.

With Lincoln, America elected a leader with a vision for the country and with the courage to fight for that vision. He knew that the price might be horrific. It is clear from his writings that he did not relish the bloodletting that preserving the union would require. But he stood fast. There are times, he understood, that one must be willing to say to large blocks of one’s citizens that their vision of the country is not ours, and that we will fight them – economically at first, then using force if we have to – to ensure that the democracy we envision survives, no matter what.

But those were different days. Some people in America knew what kind of a country they wanted and debated the issue fiercely. America wasn’t exhausted by seven decades of war. And perhaps most distressing, there’s no Abraham Lincoln anywhere on our horizons.

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