Singing the praises of Israeli President Shimon Peres today, Barbara Streisand will be expressing a personal yearning for a different Israel, and an international yearning for a different Israeli leadership. With all the festivities accompanying Peres’ 90th birthday party, it’s easy to forget that in Israel, Peres only began to receive this kind of reverence after being finally elected to the politically meaningless position of President. Seen as Israel’s last founding father (or grandfather), Peres is now receiving the popular support he never saw during his many years of public service.
The most interesting aspect of this adoration, though, is the pining for the generation of Israel’s founding fathers (דור תש”ח). This generation is seen as representing a different kind of Israeli leaders, and indeed, a different kind of Israel. The “old” Israel, or so it is believed today, was better. It’s leaders didn’t smoke cigars or drink whiskey during top-secret meetings, and didn’t spend tax-payers money to use a specially constructed bed on a short flight to Europe.
Now, whether these assumptions are true is beside the point, and after this last dinosaur moves on to his next life (and I wish him many more years of health and happiness), it may not matter anymore. But these comparisons to the past reflect a popular perception that Israel falls far from the ideals set by its founders. If you ask the “old timers”, Israelis today are nothing like the generation which fought for and established the Jewish state. Looking forward (as much as they can afford to), they fear the future.
But can we really fairly compare between the Israeli society of 2013 and that of 1948? So much has taken place in the past 65 years, externally and internally, changing the very nature and character of the country, making any such comparison unfair, and indeed futile. First and foremost, the most important change is the transformation from being the “underdog” to being the “favorite”, a change that as a society, we still have not come to terms with.
The catalyst for this transformation, in my eyes, was the 1967 Six-Day War. In this war, and its aftermath, Israel became greedy. The fantastic military achievement, and the accompanying border changes, made sure that Israel turned from being an insecure and mainly defensive country, which only waged (and fantastically won) “no-choice” wars, to become an overly confidant country that involved itself in wars it could have, and should have, avoided (1982). Since then, Israeli society has never been the same. Ruling another people, instead of being ruled, was never part of the Zionist plan. Zionist writings either ignored the Arab inhabitants as being irrelevant, or were seen as evenly sharing the utopia. This was the first, and perhaps the most important divergence from the Zionist vision.
So sure, Israel today is not, and will never be, the Israel of ’48. Instead of making comparisons to the past, let’s look to the future which can be, and must be, better. One of the many traits attributed to Peres, is his undying optimism, which in a region like the Middle East, shouldn’t be taken for granted. In an interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph, Peres reiterated his belief that peace can still be achieved during his lifetime. But an amazing fact about us Israelis is that the same optimism that makes us the “Start Up Nation”, cannot be applied to the chances for peace with the Palestinians. Israelis are either passive optimists (“it will be alright”), or passive pessimists (“there is no one to talk to”). If this apathy continues to rule, there will be no Israel to compare to ’48.
Israel is now going the way of all dreams, which once achieved – are never the same. Israel was a dream for so many people for such a long time. Once established, it was bound to begin losing its original charm. If we want to make a better future for ourselves and our children, and maintain whatever charm is left of this amazing country, we have to let some of Peres’ optimism rub off on us. With Sharon Stone and Barbara Streisand in his corner, it looks like it worked out nicely for Peres!