You can learn a lot about a nation’s health by watching how it celebrates its national holidays. In Israel’s case, compare how we celebrated our 50th Independence Day in 1998 to what celebrations involve today.
During the 1990s, Israel’s elite took a vacation from reality and history and they brought much of the public with them.
Then-foreign minister Shimon Peres said that history was overrated. The so-called “New Historians,” who rummaged through David Ben-Gurion’s closet looking for skeletons, were the toast of the academic world. Radicals like Yossi Beilin, Shulamit Aloni and Avrum Burg were dictating government policy.
The media, the entertainment establishment, and the Education Ministry embraced and massively promoted plays, movies, television shows, songs, dances, art and books that “slayed sacred cows.” Everywhere you turned, post-Zionism was in. Post-Judaism was in. And Zionism and Judaism were both decidedly out.
As he is today, in 1998 Binyamin Netanyahu was prime minister, and then as now there were prominent voices seeking to blame him for the absence of peace and every other terrible blight on the planet.
In 1998, the government invested a fortune in marking Israel’s 50th Independence Day. The main official celebration was a massive affair called Jubilee Bells that took place at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. More than 2,000 performers participated. But rather than serve as an event that unified Israeli society in celebration of 50 years of sovereign freedom, the event exposed just how far Israel’s political and cultural elite were willing to go in attacking basic societal values.
The Bat Sheva Dance Troupe was scheduled to participate in the program and present a dance set to the traditional Passover song “Ehad mi yodea,” (Who knows one). The song contains 13 stanzas that praise God, praise Jewish law, and outline the Jewish life cycle. In the number Bat Sheva was scheduled to perform, the dancers come on stage dressed as ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and by the end of the song, all they are wearing is underwear.
The choreography enraged members of Netanyahu’s cabinet including education minister Yitzhak Levy. They insisted that the program shouldn’t contain material that insulted sectors of Israeli society. The organizers tried to forge a compromise. But the dancers chose to boycott the festival.
Israel’s cultural and media establishment expressed shock and horror at what they viewed as the government’s attempt to infringe on artistic freedom. The Association of Israeli Artists demanded that a public commission be formed to ensure that the government would be unable to interfere in artistic freedom in the future. Major cultural icons declared cultural war against religious Jews.
The question of whether the dance was appropriate for an official, state- financed celebration of Independence Day was never asked. So, too, no one asked whether a dance portraying ultra-Orthodox Jews moving sensuously to a traditional Jewish song while taking off their clothes reflected the values of society.
To understand the distance Israel has traveled since then, consider Tuesday night’s Memorial Day ceremony at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. None of the performers attacked their fellow Israelis. And the best-received artist and song was Mosh Ben-Ari and his rendition of Psalm 121 – A Song of Ascent.
The psalm, which praises God as the eternal guardian of Israel, became the unofficial anthem of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-2009. And Ben-Ari’s rendition of the song propelled the dreadlock bedecked, hoop earring wearing world music artist into super-stardom in Israel.
IT WAS impossible to imagine Pslam 121 or any other traditional Jewish poem or prayer being performed as anything other than an object of scorn in 1998. Back then, it would have been impossible to contemplate a crowd of tens of thousands of non-religious Israelis reverently singing along as Ben-Ari crooned, “My help is from God/ Maker of Heaven and Earth/ He will not allow your foot to falter/ Your Guardian will not slumber/ Behold he neither slumbers nor sleeps – the Guardian of Israel.”
It’s not that the crowd would have necessarily booed him off the stage. He simply never would have been allowed on the stage to begin with. The 1990s was the decade that launched Aviv Gefen, the most prominent secular draft-dodger, to stardom.
Israel is no longer in the throes of an adolescent rebellion. It has regained its senses.
True, its celebrities look like Ben-Ari and not like Naomi Shemer. But the message is the same. Israel is a great country and a great nation. Zionism is in. Judaism is in. Post- Zionism is out. Post-Judaism is out.
When last year a group of performers announced they would boycott the Ariel Center for Performing Arts, the public reacted with anger and disgust, not understanding. Fearing a loss of state funding, their theater bosses quickly sought to distance themselves from the performers.
Israel’s return to its Zionist roots is the greatest cultural event of the past decade. It is also an event that occurred under the radar screen of the rest of the world. No one outside the country seems to have noticed at all.
The outside world’s failure to take note of Israel’s cultural shift owes to its failure to recognize the significance of the failure of the peace process with the Palestinians on the one hand and the failure of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza on the other hand. The demise of the peace process at Camp David in July 2000 and the terror war that followed launched the Israeli public on its path away from its radical post-Zionist rebellion and back to its Zionist roots. The failure of the withdrawal from Gaza, and the international community’s response to Operation Cast Lead, marked the conclusion of the journey.
The Oslo peace process was based on the radical belief that it is possible to make peace by empowering terrorists and giving them land, political legitimacy, money and guns. To embrace this nonsense, the public had to be willing to tolerate the notion that there was something unjust about the Zionist revolution. Because if Zionism and the cause of Jewish national liberation are just, then it is impossible to justify empowering the PLO, a terrorist movement dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the delegitimization of Zionism.
Most Israelis never adopted the post-Zionist narrative. But they did accept the doctrine of appeasement. And they shared the belief that if appeasement failed, the world would rally to Israel’s side.
Consequently, the beginning of society’s awakening to the lie of post-Zionism at the heart of the peace process was a function not only of the massive Palestinian terror onslaught that began after Yasser Arafat rejected peace and statehood at Camp David. It was also a function of the August 2000 UN Durban Conference and its aftermath in which the international community rallied to the Palestinians’ side. The latter demonstrated that just as Israel’s transfer of land and guns to the PLO had endangered the lives of its citizens, Israel’s conferral of political legitimacy on the PLO endangered the international standing of the country.
The lesson that Israelis took from the failure of the peace process was that Isra
el has no Palestinian partner for peace. And until the Palestinians change, Israel has no one to talk to.
el has no Palestinian partner for peace. And until the Palestinians change, Israel has no one to talk to.
While a slight majority of Israelis still support partitioning the land between Israel and a Palestinian state, the overwhelming majority of Israelis believe that Israel has no one to make peace with and therefore no possibility of successfully partitioning the land.
This is not the lesson that foreigners learned. From Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Tony Blair to Barack Obama to Nicolas Sarkozy, foreign leaders have insisted that the Oslo process had nearly succeeded and that its failure was a fluke.
The most the parts of the international community that are not completely anti-Israel have been willing to grant about the failure of the peace process is that it failed due to a lack of courage. By this telling, the problem isn’t the concept of appeasing terrorists with land, guns and legitimacy. Rather the problem is narrow-minded, cowardly leaders. And so the way forward for them is also clear: figure out a more attractive appeasement package for the Palestinians and put Israel’s feet to the fire to make it cough up the required concessions.
THEN THERE is the aftermath of the withdrawal from Gaza.
Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was a traumatic national event. The forced expulsion of thousands of Israelis from their homes led Israeli society to the brink of disintegration.
The move represented the last hope of the peace movement. If the Palestinians won’t sit down with Israel, so the thinking went, Israel can still appease them by simply giving them what they want without an agreement.
But not only did the withdrawal bring no peace. It brought Hamas to power. It brought tens of thousands of projectiles down on southern Israel.
Israelis expected the world to recognize the significance of this string of events. But that didn’t happen.
Instead of seeing the lengths Israel had gone to appease the Palestinians and side with it when its appeasement failed again, the international community refused to even acknowledge that Israel had withdrawn from Gaza. Condoleezza Rice forced Israel to continue supplying electricity and water to Gaza and providing medical care for Gazans in Israeli hospitals as if nothing had happened. No one accepted that Israel was no longer in charge.
As far as most Israelis were concerned, the final end of our vacation from reality came with the publication of the Goldstone Report in the aftermath of Cast Lead. Here was Israel, forced to defend itself from Hamas-ruled Gaza that was waging an illegal missile war against Israeli civilians. Rather than stand by Israel that had done everything for peace, the UN’s commission accused Israel of committing war crimes.
Undoubtedly one of the reasons so few outsiders have drawn the same lessons as the Israeli public from the failure of the peace process and the Gaza withdrawal is because the only Israelis they listen to are the few remaining holdouts from the 1990s. People like former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Ami Ayalon can expect to have every withdrawal-from-territory and destroy-the-settlements op-ed they write published in The New York Times, whereas Richard Goldstone wasn’t even able to get the Times to publish his admission that his eponymous commission’s conclusions were false.
This open door policy for Israeli radicals was defensible in the 1990s when a significant portion of the Israeli public supported them. Now it constitutes nothing more than an anti-Israel propaganda campaign.
From Obama to J Street to the EU, international actors interested in forcing Israel to make more concessions to the Palestinians cannot understand why their attempts continue to fail. How is it possible that despite their best efforts, Netanyahu remains in power and the Left can’t get any traction with the public? For the answer, they need to look no farther than Mosh Ben-Ari, his dreadlocks, and his rendition of Psalm 121. Israel’s adolescent rebellion is over.
Post-Zionism is so 1990s.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post