Israel, bleak and hopeful

jerusalem | The only thing missing was a guy in a bow tie saying, “Shake hands and come out arguing.”

Squaring off in the arena of Israeli democracy, journalist Daniel Ben-Simon and Rabbi David Hartman recently offered visitors from the Bay Area contrasting opinions on the current state of the state.

In separate events, sojourners from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation met in Jerusalem with both men during a recent mission to Israel.

Ben-Simon, a reporter from the left-leaning daily newspaper Ha’aretz, took a glum view of Israel’s economic and security status. Meanwhile Hartman, the Brooklyn-born founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute, presented a spirited, even defiant, defense of the country and its policies.

A compact man with command of several languages, Ben-Simon has a reputation as a champion of Israel’s underdogs, from Ethiopian and Russian immigrants to Palestinian and Israeli Arabs. Seeing himself as a “social physician,” he spelled out his own diagnosis of the national ills.

Israel, he said, is a story of two things: a conflict between its military and social agenda, and the Palestinian problem.

“We don’t know what to do about it,” he said of the ongoing intifada. “We’ve focused all our energy on our own survival. Israel is run by a military mentality.”

According to Ben-Simon, one notable exception only proves his rule, citing the 1990s as “Israel’s Golden Years,” when “the illusion of a peace process” moved the country’s social agenda forward.

“We used to have more solidarity with our poor and powerless,” added the journalist. “Now we’re set back 20 years while the Palestinians are back to the Stone Age.”

Hartman, a progressive Orthodox rabbi and author renowned for his dedication to Jewish pluralism, doesn’t spend much time hand-wringing about the West Bank Arab population, at least not anymore. The man is, in fact, table-thumping mad.

“Is it because of us that all our calamities occurred?” Hartman thundered from inside his Jerusalem-based institute. “Is it right to blame us for the son-of-a-bitch Palestinian who bombs us? There is a deep problem in Islam. How do you cope with your own failure in the modern world?”

Ben-Simon stressed Israel’s long-standing obligation to serve its huddled masses. But, he said, recent draconian budget cuts in social spending, coupled with expanded privatization and Bush-style tax cuts for the wealthy, have put the country’s social agenda on the back burner.

“Now we have a 15 percent drop in living standards for most of the country, along with a 40 percent poverty rate,” said Ben-Simon. “This war is hell for both peoples.”

On that last point, Hartman concurred. “I’m not saying there isn’t legitimate criticism. We’re a kvetchy people, but we never built our identity as a suffering people. Identity is shaped by what you dream about, what you aspire toward.”

So how to combat the current problems in Israeli society? Hartman has a ready prescription. “Intensify what we started here,” he said. “Let’s not give up on the centrality of Jewish learning. Let’s create models of possibility. I’m building a Judaism of aspiration.”

For Ben-Simon, the answers are trickier. “A recent Cabinet meeting was taken up entirely by a military debate. This is unacceptable in a civil society.”

Hartman echoed that sentiment: “The country has to renew itself economically and socially. Unless there is a commitment to equal citizenship, the society won’t survive. But giving up is not a Jewish option.”

Visitors from the Bay Area were impressed with both, though Hartman’s more hopeful message found greater favor.

“[Hartman] gave us principles for building a strong and vibrant Jewish community,” said Mike Freedland, a member of the JCF’s Israel and overseas committee. “He decided to deliver a message of hope.”

Dan Pine accompanied the S.F.-based JCF’s Israel and overseas committee on a recent trip to Israel.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.