Its time to heal Israel &mdash starting from within

A bit wistfully, an Israeli diplomat told me recently that his three adult children have settled in America. He said he couldn’t blame them because the prospects for a more productive professional career and more creature comforts were in the United States, not home in Israel.

It is a well-known, if little-mentioned, fact that many Israeli leaders have children living here, including former prime ministers who wax eloquent about the need for and benefits of aliyah.

The “brain drain” is a serious issue facing Israeli society, as is the growing number of young Israelis choosing to avoid military service (about 25 percent of those eligible), and the sense that Zionism has lost its ideological compass.

The prospect of an Israeli society unraveling politically, morally and psychologically is too disturbing to contemplate. But the evidence is all around us, even as most would prefer either to look away or focus on the mix of myth and pride that is Israel’s past.

Consider: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is widely distrusted and lacks respect at home, yet there is no urgency to replace him because many Israelis feel there isn’t a political figure on the horizon worth the effort of new elections.

Scandals of political, ethical and sexual behavior have reached the army, the Knesset and even the office of the president in the last year, but the overall public response has been more of sadness and frustration than outrage.

Most Israelis are reconciled to living with a deep distrust of their leaders, and Doron Rosenbaum, writing in Haaretz recently, notes that Israelis are so disbelieving of pronouncements from Olmert of peace with the Palestinians that “nobody would care if Olmert and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas were to announce they had given birth to twins and are handing over Jerusalem to the pope.”

It’s not just the current Israeli leaders who prompt such cynicism, but also a political and electoral system that favors marginal parties, fragmentation and stagnation. Thoughtful alternatives have been proposed that would make the Israeli political process more like America’s, giving the prime minister additional clout and stability, and making Knesset members accountable to constituents rather than to their parties.

But such action would require current officeholders to vote themselves out, in effect, and that is not about to happen.

Even the vaunted military, the pride of the state since its creation, is operating under a heavy cloud since the unsuccessful war in Lebanon last summer. The leaders at the top have been replaced, but the bitter memories of a war fought without a clear strategy or purpose remains, as does the image of hundreds of thousands of citizens forced from their homes by Hezbollah rocket attacks. Every day that the three kidnapped Israeli soldiers remain in captivity is a reminder that even the most powerful of armies seem helpless in the new equation of confronting stateless terrorist enemies.

As Hamas controls Gaza and Hezbollah rebuilds its strength in Lebanon, Israelis sense that another war is coming, led by two terror forces committed to Israel’s destruction, and manipulated by a government in Iran promising to wipe Israel out with nuclear arms it is developing.

Yet for all the real and frighteningly serious threats to Israel from its outside enemies, many thoughtful Israelis say their deepest fears are of the divisions from within.

The percentage of Zionists in the Zionist state is decreasing dramatically amid the growth of the haredis, the fervently Orthodox segment that opposes a democratic state, and the Israeli Arab population, which has increasingly identified with the Palestinian cause (to the point of calling themselves Palestinians).

Birthrates of both groups far outpace that of the rest of Israeli society, and both groups feel alienated and misunderstood, living in a country whose legitimacy they may not recognize. How many more years until these non-Zionists outnumber their countrymen?

While the politicians lack respect, they look like moral giants when compared to religious leaders in the Jewish state, whose chief rabbis have been accused of sexual and ethical misbehavior. They and other rabbinic authorities are best known for their embarrassing pronouncements that divide rather than unite society: issuing statements insensitive to women, non-observant Jews and non-Jews, like the most recent call to evict those Sudanese refugees who have found sanctuary in Israel.

Even in the more tolerant religious Zionist camp, a small but vocal and influential group of rabbis are advising Orthodox soldiers to disobey army orders to help remove settlers from their homes in illegal West Bank outposts. A dozen or so soldiers refused to take part in the dismantling of two homes in Hebron last week, and a worried army responded by jailing them in an effort to show it will not tolerate acts that could further divide the nation.

The bitterness and distrust toward the state in the wake of the disengagement from Gaza two summers ago is palpable and growing among many religious Jews. They insist that the net result of the removal of thousands of Jews from their homes in Gush Katif is that most of those citizens lack permanent housing while Gaza is now run by Hamas militants using communities inside Israel, like Sderot, as target practice.

One political outcome is that “unilateral withdrawal,” the central unifying theme of Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party, is now as comatose as its creator.

Perhaps reaching and recognizing this low point will spur the Israeli people — who remain remarkably optimistic despite their condition — to insist on more able and responsive leaders in every phase of society.

One thing is certain. We do our brothers and sisters in Israel a disservice by viewing Israel through the prism of an Entebbe-era past rather than its dysfunctional present.

Confronting the problem is the first step toward solving it.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of the Jewish Week of Greater New York.