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Decency is a National Security Issue

October 30, 2015

sabra1It had been years since I’d been in an Israeli bank. The little that I’ve needed to do could be done on the website and at cash machines. And, let’s be honest, going to the bank here has never proven to be, well, very pleasant.

This week, though, I needed to help my mother with some changes to her account, so into her branch I went. The staff could not have been more professional. I was actually about to reconsider my “never go to the bank” rule, when a woman stomped into the bank, found the branch manager (who was standing right across from me) and started to scream – an ugly, abusive tirade that gave the manager no chance to respond – about funds that her daughter had deposited several days earlier and were still not available.

In the midst of her shouting, I looked around, and saw that no one was paying the least bit of attention. This, apparently, is no longer interesting behavior in Israel. Here, it seems, people can be rude in the extreme and even abusive, and no one so much as raises an eyebrow. I recalled the branches of the US banks I used to frequent – security would have come over, walked the woman out of the building and told her to come back when she knew how to behave.

Not here. Once again, I found myself hoping that it would be another few years before I’d again have to enter an Israeli bank. Banks, though, are but one example of where at any moment the sort of encounters can pop up that anyone who lives here knows and dreads. Call a utility company.Sabra2

Go into a cellphone service provider and try to change your contract. Call a health fund and try to make an appointment with a doctor. (I did that this week, and when I was told that she was booked through December, and I said that I’d hoped not to have to wait that long, the receptionist suggested, “So go to a different clinic and find a different doctor if it’s so important to you.” Lovely.)

Why does any of this matter? It matters because perhaps the most devastating part of this region’s most recent wave of violence, aside from the loss of life and the grievous injuries, is the realization (once again, for many of us) that this conflict will not end. It is not going to end this year, or next.

sabra4It is not going to end in the lifetime of anyone reading this column, no matter how young they may be. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as much to his cabinet this week. He told his ministers that although he does not want a binational state, “at this time we need to control all of the territory for the foreseeable future.” Whether he is right or wrong makes no difference for the moment. That is the prime minister’s plan, as has long been evident; his having stated it explicitly, however, will only fan the flames of resistance. Implicitly recognizing that, he also said to the cabinet, “I’m asked if we will forever live by the sword,” paraphrasing Abner’s question to Joab in Samuel 2 2:26. The premier’s response? “Yes.”

Again, the prime minister may be right, and there may sadly be no alternative (though reasonable minds could, and do, certainly differ). But if the conflict is really here to stay, then it becomes all the more critical that other, non-conflict-related dimensions of life here be more than tolerable.

Life here needs to be decent to the core. Life here needs to be good. Are there elements of life here that are wondrous and unique? Of course there are. The streets of Jerusalem on Shabbat. Little children walking by themselves to school. A sense of community and belonging that most of us never found to this extent anywhere else. Our children’s core values as a result of being asked to give back to their country – for years – before going to university and establishing careers. A sense of being “home,” of knowing that many weeks out of the year we can literally get into the car and drive to the places that are described in that week’s Torah portion. A certain Israeli esprit de corps that makes us feel part of something vibrant and noble. And much more.

We live here, most of us who choose to, because we believe in the Zionist project and because we love what life here affords us.sabra3

But will our children stay? Will our grandchildren stay? Most of us moved here, regardless of our political stripes, with a sense that this conflict could somehow be put behind us. With no hope for peace, though, the brusqueness of Israeli life is going to weigh on our kids ever more. The more they travel, the more they see how people behave in other parts of the world, the more they will begin to wonder if this is what they want for themselves and their own kids.

Life with no hope for peace and with little expectation of decent, quotidian exchanges is not what most people want. Will some people stay forever? Of course they will. Those who love the fight (and we have plenty of those). The theological simpletons (also in no short supply). The poor (tragically numerous).

They, and others, will stay. But those with options? The best educated? The most worldly? Those are the people we risk losing – precisely because they see how life is lived elsewhere.

None of this would be that hard to change. Education can do a lot. So, too, could community and political leaders who modeled something different; religious leaders who were decent human beings; politicians and police officers who did not go to jail. None of it is impossible. But none of it is very high on anyone’s agenda.

It needs to be. At the end of the day, this country will rise or fall based on who decides to live here. That has always been the case, and it always will be. Immigrants built this country, and human capital has sustained it. Ensuring that people want to stay here – in an era in which many people have other options – will determine the future of the Jewish state.

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