Israel at 64: After a tumultuous year, Israel faces new challenges and opportunities

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Israel’s geo-strategic condition

In the last year, the Arab awakening continued to transform the Middle East by way of ballot, bullet and popular uprising. The final outcome of this momentous process remains unknown, and we cannot yet determine when this tectonic political shift will reach stable form.

Akiva Tor

However, one aspect of the emergent political order is already clear. In every parliamentary election held last year in which Arab societies were given free voice, the parties of political Islam emerged as the unambiguous victors. Such was the case in Morocco, Egypt and even in cosmopolitan Tunisia. This is a political fact of the first order which we need to recognize and comprehend its implications.

Israel will make every effort to reach out to the leadership of political Islam. We will seek friendship and cooperation wherever possible, and correct, pacific relations when not, but it remains unclear if our newly empowered partners are receptive. The parties of political Islam hold a worldview that has not until now recognized the legitimacy and historicity of the Jewish national movement, and its varying iterations range from  Hamas, committed to terror and Israel’s destruction, to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose public pronouncements are more moderate.

The challenge of engaging political Islam is great — and perhaps insurmountable. But if we succeed even in part, the opportunity for deepening Israel’s regional acceptance is profound.  

Egyptian protests in February 2011 led to a sea change in the government and a presidential election in late May. photo/creative commons-ramy raoof

Israel remains committed to achieving a permanent peace with the Palestinian people on the basis of two states for two people. This is not a mantra, but rather the operative political principle of a wide and stable Israel government coalition.

To our regret, the Palestinian leadership continued this year to avoid a substantive negotiation and has refused to meet with Israel on a sustained basis. Hamas remains ensconced in Gaza and is an ongoing threat to Palestinian moderation.

Until such time as we achieve a full peace with our Palestinian neighbors, we will seek to engage them in a manner that allows maximal Palestinian economic growth and political empowerment which do not hinder our security.

The Iranian nuclear weapons program remains Israel’s greatest strategic challenge. Thankfully, the international community has at long last recognized that they too are threatened, and put strong economic sanctions in place. We hope this strategy will be pursued with determination and fortitude until Iran desists entirely from its nuclear weapons ambition.


Israel on the domestic front

photo/ap-oded balilty

Israel looked at itself in the mirror long and hard in the past year. We saw muscular economic performance, robust prosperity, high growth and low unemployment.

But we also heard the outcry of a struggling middle class, and we saw the deepening of simmering tensions between general society and the ultra-Orthodox. Both of these represent cracks in the social fabric that we must mend, with tolerance and without demonization, because we are a people and a nation-state, and also a family.


Strength of Bay Area Jewish community

In the last four years it is has been my privilege to represent Israel in the Bay Area. I’ve encountered a Jewish community that is passionate and engaged about Judaism and Israel, and that is blessed with a devoted and skilled professional and lay leadership.

The synagogues are vibrant, the day schools and Jewish community high schools are hubs of quality Jewish and secular education, and the Jewish organizational framework is constantly seeking ways to be more relevant and cutting edge. The Jewish community is far stronger and more united than at times it believes of itself.

My caveat regards our strategic vision. The core affiliated Jewish community is strong and has created structures for deepening learning and transmitting Jewish identity.

Haredi Orthodox men argue with secular Israelis in Beit Shemesh on Dec. 26, 2011. At left, thousands march Aug. 20, during a protest in Tel Aviv against the rising cost of living in Israel. photo/jta-kobi gideon-flash90

But the great mass and majority of Bay Area Jews live their lives outside of all frameworks of Jewish affiliation. How shall we engage our brothers and sisters living next door to us and invite them into Jewish life?

One obvious means is Birthright, the only program in the toolbox of Jewish identity which is largescale and capable of reaching everyone. But here, I fear we suffer an eclipse of judgment.

Taglit-Birthright’s free, 10-day trip to Israel is open to all Jewish young adults, ages 18 to 26, post high school, who have neither traveled to Israel before on a peer educational trip or study program nor have lived in Israel past the age of 12.

Last year, 3,489 young people in the Bay Area applied to Birthright. But 2,484 of them (62 percent) were not accepted and were deferred to waiting lists. The great majority of these people will not reapply, and it is unclear when, if ever, we will have the opportunity to engage them again.

These are the unaffiliated of whom we speak, and they are the community’s promise. A young Jew working at a start-up in Mountain View or living in U.C. Berkeley dormitories hears that the Jewish people are offering them an opportunity to visit to their homeland. They are intrigued and come knocking at our door — and we turn them away.

This is a failure of vision whose remedy is well within our community resources, even in a year of slow economy. I urge you that we meet this obligation to our future.

Akiva Tor is completing his four-year term as consul general of Israel to the Pacific Northwest, and will return to Israel this summer.