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A Rediscovered Abundance of Goodness

October 28, 2011

Mr. Prime Minister,

Before the Shalit deal fades entirely from view, many of us are hoping that you have noticed what you unwittingly unleashed.  I don’t mean the next wave of terror or the terrible decisions that Israel must make before the next kidnapping.  We knew about those even before last week.  But last Tuesday, all of us – those opposed as well as those in favor (and there were persuasive arguments on both sides) – rediscovered something magnificent about this country.  It would be tragic if we returned to business as usual without pausing to take note.

In addition to Gilad Shalit, we got one more thing in return that few of us could have expected; we got a reminder of the abundant goodness that still resides at the very core of this society.  You could see it everywhere.  Compare the speeches on our side, celebrating life and freedom, to the blood-thirsty Palestinian harangues calling for renewed terror and additional kidnappings.   Compare the respectful restraint of our press to Shahira Amin’s immoral and abusive interview in Egypt.  But more than anything, we saw this reservoir of goodness in the streets – in the people so moved that they could hide neither the tears in their eyes nor the lumps in their throats.  We saw it in the throngs along the roads, people who wanted Shalit to know that they, too, celebrated his long overdue freedom.  And we saw it in the hundreds of people in Mitzpe Hila who continued dancing long after he’d entered his house and closed the door.  

We all felt it – it was innocent, pure and thoroughly decent.  We were witness that day to an entire country believing in something again.  Those young people outside the Shalit home were singing not only about Shalit, but about this land, this people, and about a future in which they still believe.  Did you see them?  Women and men, religious and secular, dancing with abandon in celebration of freedom?  Did you hear them singing anachnu ma’aminim benei ma’aminim …. “We’re believers, the children of believes, and we have no one on whom to depend, other than our Father in heaven”?  You didn’t miss it, did you?  Hundreds of people of all walks of Israeli life, proclaiming without hesitation their belief in something bigger than themselves?

The reason that the trade was wildly popular, Mr. Prime Minister, wasn’t ultimately about Gilad Shalit. It was about Israel.  About a country desperate to transcend the cynicism, that still wants to believe that it’s worth believing in.  Shouldn’t we – and you – therefore ask ourselves what can we do next to justify people’s belief in this place?   What will it take to make this a country that its citizens can love even when we’re not freeing a captive?

How about if we start by eradicating evil?  Take but one example and deal with it.  There’s a small but vicious group of kids living over the Green Line who bring inestimable shame on the Jewish people.  They burn mosques, tear down olive trees and sow fear everywhere – all with the implicit support of their rabbis.  And they make many young Israelis deeply ashamed of this entire enterprise.  Last week, you showed us that you do know how to take decisive action.  So do it again.  Rein them in.  Arrest them.  Cut off funding to their yeshivot.  If you show this generation of Israelis that your government stands for goodness even when that means making tough domestic decisions, you’ll unleash a wave of Zionist passion like we haven’t felt here for a generation.  It wouldn’t be any harder to do than what you just did, and it would actually do even more good for Israel than getting one soldier back.

And beyond goodness, there’s also Jewishness.  No, we shouldn’t make too much of that anachnu ma’aminim benei ma’aminim song, but admit – it’s not what you expect to see lots of secular people singing.  Yet they did.  Because this is a strange and wondrous country; not so deep down, even “non-religious” people aren’t “non-religious.”  Just like their observant counterparts, they’re searching, struggling, yearning – and at moments like that, they know that the well from which they hope to draw their nourishment is a Jewish well.

That’s why it was wonderful that you quoted from Isaiah (the Haftarah for Parashat Bereishit) in your speech.  It was your suggestion, I hope, that at its core, this society must be decent, but it must also be Jewish.  You know what the main problem with the summer’s Social Justice protests was?  It wasn’t the naïve embrace of high school socialism, or the utter incoherence of the demands.  It was the fact that there was simply nothing Jewish about their vision for Israel.  Dafni Leef and her comrades could have given the same vacuous speeches at Occupy Wall Street.  Or in Sweden, for that matter.  Those inane speeches were testimony to the failure of our educational systems and of Israel’s religious leadership.  The Yoram Kaniuk affair and the court’s willingness to let him declare himself “without religion” is a reflection not on him, but on the appallingly uninteresting variety of Judaism that the State has come to represent.  Can you – or anyone else – name even one single powerful idea that’s come from any of Israel’s Chief Rabbis in the past decade or two?  Me, neither.

But lo and behold, it turns out that Israel’s young people still want to believe in something.  We haven’t given them the tools to articulate it, but they still intuit that whatever we become, it’s got to be Jewish.  So ride that wave, too, Mr. Prime Minister.  What would it take to shape a country where the profundity at the core of Jewish tradition became once again the subject of discourse in our public square?  Does Judaism in the twenty-first century suddenly have to become dull and backward, or can we restore the intellectual and moral excellence that once characterized it?  Can you take this on, too?  Appoint the right people?  Build the right schools?  Can you help make this a country encourages those young people now searching for Jewish moral moorings?

For or against, hardly a single one of us is not thrilled that Gilad Shalit is home.  He deserved his life back.  But so, too, does this country.  Shalit, hopefully, will now get better and stronger with each passing day.  Israel must do the same.  It needs to get better – we need to be honest about the evils lurking in our midst, and we must exorcise them.  And we must become stronger, which we can do only by engaging with the roots that brought us back home in the first place.

Can you do this?  Many of us hope so.  Because if this fails, it will in the long run have made no difference that Gilad Shalit came home.  But if it succeeds, we might just come to see his liberation as the turning point in our collective return to believing in ourselves.


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