Local leaders make predictions for Israels next 50

As the world ponders Israel's first 50 years of statehood, local Jewish leaders already are speculating about what's in store for the next 50.

The leaders join many in the diaspora and Israel who are acutely aware of the choices at this threshold between the last half-century and the next.

Decisions about Palestinian statehood, pluralism, widening socioeconomic gaps and the relationship between religion and government can no longer be swept under a rug.

"During the last [few] weeks it is clear that we can't ignore those issues for too much longer," said Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, a few days after returning from 50th anniversary festivities in Tel Aviv.

Religious politicking that prevented the Batsheva dance company from performing while scantily dressed at a jubilee celebration was a case in point, he noted, revealing the escalating religious tensions.

"In the last 50 years it has been, `We'll deal with this later, once we've overcome war,'" Nahshon said. But these "very important issues have to be resolved in the next era of Israel's history."

The federation official said he did not foresee a separation of church and state as a realistic solution. Instead, he predicted, Israeli policy-makers would seek to define public space vs. private space, where state-enforced religious law cannot tread.

"Private space," Nahshon said, "is individuals' freedom to make religious decisions on their own without state interference."

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of the Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto says the pluralism controversy steals some of the thunder from Israel's anniversary celebrations.

Fifty years ago, there was a tremendous desire to have a place where Jews could have religious freedom, he pointed out. "But instead it is a place of religious intolerance and that has to be resolved before the promise [of a Jewish homeland] is fulfilled."

Lewis added that pluralism is not the only social hot potato that must be handled during the next 50 years. Women, Israeli Arabs, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews and other groups must be given greater opportunities in society.

"We all dream that Israel will be a place where Jewish values will prevail, where there will be great sensitivity to all values, including those of the outside world," he said.

Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman of Berkeley's Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel warns that Israel will continue to disappoint those who regard the Jewish state as infallible.

While Finkelman praises Israel's past accomplishments, he says the country will never set an unprecedented example of peacemaking in its dealings with all its enemies. Nor, he believes, will it automatically offer spiritual sustenance to all seekers.

"Its leaders will remain human beings, fallible in one way or another…Israel will not qualify as utopia," he said, "unless Moshiach [the Messiah] comes."

In the meantime, local politicos have more immediate ideas.

John Rothmann, chairman of the board of the Jewish National Fund for the San Francisco region, expects nothing less than a Jewish renaissance during the next 50 years in which Israel will become a major economic power.

He predicts a Jewish population explosion in Israel as well as a flowering of poetry, art, music and drama that will help to create a more dynamic relationship with Jews throughout the world.

While Israel is still largely a nation of immigrants, in 50 years it will be a nation of second-, third- and fourth-generation sabras who share a common culture.

"That will be a tremendous revolution for Israel's future," he predicted.

On the darker side of the coin, Rothmann said, Israel will continue to guard against biological weapons and Islamic extremism in the region, struggling to safeguard future peace treaties. He also warned that Israelis should be wary about what may happen when Arafat passes from the scene.

Despite the confidence of his predictions, Rothmann conceded that "the future holds more questions than answers."

Naomi Lauter, regional director of American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said she tries to view Israel's future through the lens of past accomplishments.

She points out that Israelis have overcome many critical political predicaments in 50 years, and have remained committed to democratic institutions.

Lauter added that she hopes Israel's self-critical character and newfound economic strength will help the country resolve its current set of problems.

"I didn't think there would be peace with Jordan or Egypt. I [do] think there will eventually be peace with a Palestinian state," she said confidently.

Gerardo Joffe, president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East, also is optimistic as long as Israel doesn't make drastic concessions in striving for peace.

This will be achieved by making only concessions that Arab nations are willing to reciprocate, he said.

And finally, "I'm convinced that with the genius of the Jewish people, the next 50 years will bring accomplishment that will bring Israel to be equivalent in performance and accomplishment as the most advanced nations on Earth."

Wayne Feinstein, vice president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, said his vision for the future shows an Israel with safe borders and the absence of terrorism, cooperating with neighbors and enjoying an economy that continues to grow.

He added that he also hopes for greater cooperation between Israelis and Jews in the diaspora.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.