A poll reported in last Friday’s Yedioth Achronoth brought me back to
reality (or one version of it) after a visit to Israel that concluded with
an inspirational tour of Israel’s equivalent of Independence Hall in
Philadelphia. It is the place where David Ben Gurion declared the
establishment of the state on May 14, 1948.
Israel’s Independence Museum, on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, is
worth a visit just to stand where Ben Gurion did (in front of a photograph
of Theodor Herzl) as he read out the words of Israel’s Declaration of
Independence. The room is in a basement because Tel Aviv was already under
attack from the neighboring states; in recordings of the event, one can hear
the air raid sirens.
Almost as interesting as the room where independence was declared is the
story of the house in which the room is located. It originally belonged to
Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv. He built the house on the spot,
actually a sand dune, in which he and a group of Zionist pioneers stood in
1909 and decided that here was the place to build a Jewish city adjacent to
the Palestinian town of Jaffa.
Today, of course, the Dizengoff house is at the heart of a Tel Aviv-Jaffa
metropolitan area with a population of two million. The city is named Tel
Aviv after a book of the same name by Theodor Herzl.
Herzl, who died 44 years before independence but who predicted it to the
year, was the kind of visionary who would not be surprised that his dreams
– and the dreams of others like
Meir Dizengoff – were realized.
After all, in his will, written in 1903, he asked that his remains be buried
in his home city of Budapest “until such time as the Jewish people”
establish independence in Israel “and re-inter my bones in Jerusalem.”
Herzl’s state funeral did, in fact, take place in Jerusalem in 1949.
People like Herzl are not surprised when their visions become reality.
They knew it all along. But Herzl, like most of the Zionist pioneers who
followed him, would be surprised at what some Israelis believe about the
country of his dreams today.
In an article in Friday’s Yedioth Achronoth analyzing the Dahaf Institute
poll, Sever Plotzer concluded: “The Israeli people is telling its leaders
clearly and decisively: You are destroying the country. You are destroying
society. You are not trustworthy. You are pushing the country to the brink
Plotzer writes that the following poll findings “speak for themselves.”
65 percent of Israeli citizens believe that Israel is in the midst of
73 percent believe Israel is in the midst of social breakdown.
79 percent accuse the government of cruelty to the weaker sectors.
68 percent of Israeli citizens charge the government with causing
deliberate harm to social solidarity.
But those are not the most troubling aspects of the poll. After all,
America goes through periods –
think of LBJ’s last years in office and of Watergate
– when public disillusionment with
government is rampant. But this goes much deeper as Plotzer points out.
“An unprecedented wide gap has formed between the actions of the rulers
-- the correct word to describe the present government from the citizens'
perspective -- and the desires of the subjects. The citizens have lost
their trust in the people who rule them and could also lose their trust in
“The public feels that the government has turned its back on it, and
rudely. The public also feels helpless. Completely helpless: 88 percent of
citizens said in the poll that Israel has no social protest, or that protest
has no effect at all. Nine of ten Israelis are therefore convinced that the
legitimate methods of protest against rulers available to the common citizen
do not exist in Israel of 2004 and/or that they accomplish nothing. No one
up there listens or cares. It's a waste of time. They have no problems with
that regarding the media, by the way: it is perceived as a faithful
reflector of all the distress.
“According to this poll, Israel is in a pre-upheaval state. There is but
a step between us and despair over democracy and its institutions and a
willingness to listen to demagogues. This is fertile ground for extreme
ideologies, superstitions and flight from reality.
“We are walking on the very thin ice of a melting national consensus.
Another few ill-considered and crude steps and the surface will shatter.
Thirty-eight percent of the citizens already distance themselves from
Israeli society and feel the glue of solidarity that keeps us united giving
way. Every fourth Israeli has already crossed the threshold of separatism
and does not feel part of Israeli society, expatriates who have not
One need hardly inquire about the cause for this depressing state of
affairs. One need only note that, just prior to the collapse of the Oslo
process in 2000, Israeli optimism was, according to all the polls, at an
all-time high. In contrast to the no-growth economy of today, Israel was
experiencing an almost unheard of 8% growth rate. Foreign investment and
tourism had reached an all-time high. Israeli-Palestinian security
cooperation had reduced terrorism to an all-time low. With formerly closed
trade and diplomatic doors opening to Israel throughout Asia, Africa, and
the Arab world, Israelis looked forward to a new era of peace and
Contrast that with today.
This is not to argue that the root of Israel’s national sense of despair
is entirely economic. There are other problems, but most of those, like the
widespread economic suffering, derive from the continuing war with the
Nevertheless, there are supporters of Israel who honestly believe that
the disastrous status quo is preferable to the risks of pursuing peace. It
is hard to fathom. In what other area in life does one choose the certainty
of pain and misery over the risk incurred in pursuing a possible cure?
It is not like anyone has ever seriously suggested that Israel simply
withdraw from the ’67 territories without security guarantees (early warning
systems, forward-based troops, etc) -- although some of the unilateralist
ideas being advanced today by the Sharon government do come dangerously
close to withdrawal without recompense. But Madrid, Oslo, Camp David, Taba,
the Roadmap – as well as the
various peoples’ initiatives now circulating -- all would provide US and
other international guarantees (not to mention the guarantee provided by an
unmatched IDF) in exchange for territories which, one can argue, detract
from Israel’s security rather than add to it.
Preserving the Zionist dream requires negotiating a way out of the deadly
status quo with the Palestinians now. Last week’s Dahaf poll demonstrates
that those who favor erecting barriers to negotiations are doing Israel no
favors. As the old adage goes, with friends like these, who needs enemies?