Israel, The Long View
by Melvin Konner
I’m sitting on the porch of the home of my friends the Selas, in Binyamina, south of Haifa, gazing out on the garden they created, which has a semi-tropical feel despite the chill in the air. A breeze stirs the eucalyptus branches and agitates, just a bit, the huge palm leaves—although Pazit says they are small this year. We breakfasted on persimmons and pears from the garden, which also yields grapefruit, lemons, and figs after their kind.
A dog starts barking steadily outside the fence as an old tabby strolls leisurely between the dog and me. Apart from that reminder that the dog doesn’t always lie down with the cat, you would not guess from this peaceful scene that Israel lives under a looming nuclear threat, that extremes of inequality only two decades old have frayed the social fabric and sent hundreds of thousands into the streets, that rockets from Gaza still rain down on kibbutzim and cities in the south, and that the West Bank, very near where I sit, could soon become a source of the same kinds of attacks.
I’m here for an intense week of lectures, visiting friends, and, as always, plotting my next visit. This trip was funded by a grant to the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, for a conference on “Judaism in Evolutionary Perspective.” I gave the keynote and closing addresses, one on the evolution of religion and religious (including Jewish) practices, the other on the evolution of mating systems, including Jewish patterns of sex and marriage, Biblical and beyond. Before that, upon arriving, I drove straight from Ben Gurion Airport to Ben Gurion University and made it just in time for my own talk on “The Jewish Body.”
I’d lectured around Israel many times, but this was the first time I was asked to speak on Jewish themes. I warned my hosts that I was bringing coals to Newcastle, or maybe olives and dates to the Holy Land, but they said I bring a diaspora perspective, which they need here. I didn’t reply that almost half the Jews in Israel came from the diaspora, but in any case the lectures seemed well received. My Hebrew is still only good enough to apologize (I hope graciously) for having to lecture in English, but as I told them, their English is a lot better than my Hebrew. At the Schechter, I was simultaneously translated into Hebrew. The audiences seemed engaged and the people who invited me seemed very pleased; I guess that’s about all I could ask for.
As I announced to the group at Schechter on Thursday, it was my mother’s Yahrzeit, and she would have been very happy to have seen me there. Since she was deaf and the lectures were academic, she could not have understood them in any language, but she would have been glowing nonetheless. In the morning I had walked from hotel to Kotel with the sun just coming up over Jerusalem and said Kaddish for her in a minyan at the Western Wall. We had another minyan in the afternoon (women counted this time) during a break at the conference, the service led by Rabbi Arnold Goodman, who was my rabbi for many years in Atlanta. A very moving experience.
Despite the summer protests, things do not seem much changed here from when I left in June. The cabinet adopted a report recommending changes stimulated by the protests; some think it’s inadequate; some it’s a step forward. People are debating that, as well as the wisdom of exchanging a thousand Palestinian prisoners (including terrorists) for one kidnapped soldier; whether to try to pre-empt Iran’s nuclear program with an air attack, if that is even possible; how much to push for peace with the Palestinians now that they have made their (failed) bid for unilateral recognition by the UN, and Hamas and Fatah have joined hands again; and so on. There seems to be a consensus here that the vast uncertainties of the “Arab Spring”— brutality in Syria, ongoing troubles in Egypt, questions about the new Libya, and so on—make this a good time to watch and wait.
The young doctors are on strike and may be punished or forced to go back to work by court order. Arguments abound as always (two Jews, three arguments). The secular Jews at least seem pretty pessimistic, but the believers, even the Conservative Jews of the Schechter Institute and its network, do not. Life goes on for everyone in this dynamic and creative society, even for the Arab-Israelis and the Palestinians who are sorely oppressed by the intransigence and incompetence of their own leadership, investment and technology are slowly improving conditions. Much more needs to be done.
Yesterday I met a wise, soft-spoken, 70-ish psychologist who just decided to spend the last phase of his life promoting and teaching non-violent strategies for social movements bringing about change. May there be more like him, and may they foster equality and peace. As Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” I take the long view, and I see reason to hope.