Israel's psyche at 60

May 08, 2008|By Walter Reich

TEL AVIV, Israel - As Israel celebrates its 60th birthday, there's a remarkable spirit and courage here. Despite the rising tide of Islamism that surrounds the country and the constant threats to destroy it, Israel bustles with energy, commerce, science and the arts. And, most of the time, its people display a convinced optimism that Israel is here to stay.

But the image of Auschwitz, or some future version of it, is never far away. Neither is the dread that, in the end, the country could be annihilated - or at least relentlessly worn down. Safety and permanence are dreams no less than realities.

This visit to Israel is the latest of many I've made over 43 years. I'm here to get a sense of the psychological condition of this place as it turns 60. I've found, throughout the country, signs of its stubborn determination to survive, as well as reminders, to both Israelis and their enemies, of its tenuous and tempestuous history.

In Sderot in the south, rockets from nearby Gaza land regularly and sometimes lethally. Behind the police station, there's a long rack of exploded rockets, some chalked with the names of the people they killed or maimed. A contractor here shows me his house, the roof of which has a hole over the living room where the rocket had entered. His family was unhurt, and the town is trying to have the house fixed quickly so that residents don't look at it, get frightened and, like many of their neighbors, flee.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, is open about its intention to destroy Israel, however long it takes. And it, like its ally Hezbollah in south Lebanon, has adopted a military strategy that's strikingly effective in this age of television and the Internet: launching rockets at Israeli cities from places inhabited by civilians, provoking Israelis to strike back, and waiting for images of the resulting casualties to inflame world opinion. If Israeli leaders don't strike back, they fail to protect their own people; if they do, they receive global condemnation for using disproportionate force.

Hamas, or its ally Palestinian Islamic Jihad, had lobbed a rocket into Sderot the morning I was there. Earlier, it had sent longer-range rockets, supplied by Iran, into Ashkelon, a larger city where I stopped, farther to the north. Hamas may have rockets that can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; Hezbollah certainly does. Between Hamas and Hezbollah, all of Israel's cities are, or will soon be, within rocket range.

But the threats from Hamas and Hezbollah pale in the face of the possibility that, after a peace deal, the West Bank, lying alongside the length of Israel's population centers, will become a launching pad for still more rockets. And all of these threats pale even more in the face of the apocalyptic threat from an Iran that will almost surely have, within a year or two, fully operational, nuclear-tipped rockets that can incinerate all of Israel's cities. Small wonder that Israelis suffer from not only post-traumatic stress disorder but also pre-traumatic stress disorder.

Metulla, the country's northernmost town, is a lovely, wooded place, surrounded on three sides by a fence, just yards away, that separates it from Lebanon. Visiting there, I spoke with Bialik Belsky, the owner of a local hotel, who was born in 1934. Metulla has been rocketed by Hezbollah. The first thing Mr. Belsky wanted to discuss was his relatives, the four Bielski brothers who saved more than a thousand Jews by hiding them in forests in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.

A much more distant past was evoked for me farther east, on the Golan Heights. At Gamla, in a revolt against Rome 2,000 years ago, Jews made a last stand; according to Josephus, 4,000 of them died fighting the Romans and 5,000 jumped off a cliff. An Israeli group committed to holding onto the Golan Heights as well as the West Bank, areas captured by Israel in the Six-Day War, calls itself "Gamla Shall Not Fall Again!"

Past and present also intertwine in Caesaria, on Israel's central Mediterranean coast, where I was struck by the luxurious villas Israelis had recently built. But I was more struck by the remains of the villas, even more luxurious, that archaeologists have found, reminders of the long succession of powers that ruled that place: Persians, Phoenicians, Jews, Romans, Christians, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes and Ottomans. Any Israeli (or any Arab) who contemplates this spot's long history of shifting hegemony can hardly assume that Israel's is the last.

Israel's deep sense of the Holocaust's presence was brought home to me yet again during a stop at the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz north of Haifa - a kibbutz established by survivors of the Holocaust. As Israel celebrates its 60th birthday, reminders everywhere of the catastrophic past seep into the crevices of the vibrant present and haunt the sense of the country's future.

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