Israel in 2048: Normal Is Still Elusive
There have been many changes in Israel over the past six decades: Imagine what another 40 years will bring to the Jewish state.
Last night I had the loveliest dream. I was standing in a crowd of several hundred thousand in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, listening raptly to a speech given by the president of Israel.
She looked about 70, with long, beautiful white hair and surprisingly good skin. I didn’t catch her name. She spoke perfect Hebrew with an American accent.
“Brothers and sisters,” she began, “we made it! Who would believe that Medinat Yisrael, the Jewish state, is 100 years old?”
The president’s motherly face beamed from on high in a vast hologram hovering over the Mediterranean Sea. Members of the throng who preferred a sharper image peered at their wrist-screens or activated their intracranial digitizers. It was a little like 1984, but in a good way.
“This century,” the president said sadly and smiled, “has known too many wars in our part of the world. The Afghan War, the Iraq War, the Gaza War, the Pakistan War, all within very few years. There were many people in those days—you older folks remember all too well—who argued for waging preventive war against Iran, but cooler heads prevailed.” The gray hairs in the crowd sighed with recognition as young Israelis multitasked on their phones, making calls to cousins on the moon while watching Hollywood classics such as No Country for Old Men.
The president went on to rehearse, almost ritualistically, the extraordinary events that led to the current tranquillity. The sudden implosion of the Iranian regime led inexorably to the demise of Hezbollah in the Fourth Lebanon War and a Sunni-Shiite détente in Iraq. Then came the bravura performance in Damascus—before a live audience of two million—by the unsinkable Israeli diva and peace emissary Dana International and the consequent negotiation of a peace treaty with Syria that transformed the Golan Heights into a flourishing tourist mecca for Jews and Arabs alike. “As many of you may know,” winked the president, “I was legally married to my second husband, Don, at the Katzrin Hyatt by a Conservative rabbi, back when you still couldn’t do that in Israel proper.”
The era of good feelings had its downside, however. The president reminded the huge assembly of the perils of Israeli complacency. Israel’s persistent inability—inconceivable in retrospect—to relinquish its undemocratic rule of Judea and Samaria had inevitably resulted in international boycotts and economic sanctions and the eventual imposition by the United Nations of a so-called “one-state solution” in which all Jews and Palestinians in Israel were granted citizenship in the Democratic Republic of Israel-Palestine. Even the American Congress, weary of rutted road maps and broken promises, went along with the plan.
Israeli leaders and diplomats lobbied to exclude Gaza from the formula, arguing that its Islamist regime was incapable of peaceful integration into a binational state. But this agenda was thwarted by a coalition of religious zealots funded by Russian Jewish oligarchs and their American counterparts who brought about the triumphant reestablishment of Jewish settlements in Gaza. Left-wing dreamers saw a Middle Eastern Belgium.
“Most of us,” recalled the president ruefully, “predicted Bosnia.”
Tensions rose. Arab and Jewish police, soldiers, paramilitary forces and private security firms managed to keep violence to a minimum as the first joint parliament—successor to the Knesset—prepared to revise the Law of Return to limit Jewish aliya and open the gates to Palestinian immigration. Years went by with that thorny matter unresolved as parliamentarians continued to wrangle over the lyrics to the national anthem.
“And then a miracle happened,” continued the president, “no less a miracle than the parting of the Red Sea.” It began with something known as supersize-subprime mortgages, which shook the American economy. The exodus was led by expatriate Israelis who fled Silicon Valley and returned home, turning their talents to a spectacular economic revival of their native land. Hundreds of thousands of American Jews moved their capital to Israeli banks and their families to high-rise apartments in the big cities and split-level homes in new towns in the Negev, where they raised many children and grandchildren.
Owing to this vast american influx, which in short order surpassed even the great Russian aliya of the late 20th century, the parliament overhauled the political system and enacted a constitution. Governmental stability was a shock to most Israelis, but they learned to live with it. Religion and state were pried apart at last, and even rabbis named Tamar and Elisheva were authorized to perform weddings. The housing boom and biodigital revolution brought unemployment down to near-zero levels, and poverty became a thing of the past. Israeli pharmaceuticals, added the president proudly, had sharply increased life expectancy for women and men the world over. “I myself,” she said to a roar of applause, “will be 98 later this year.”
Following the discovery of oil near Khan Yunis, Gaza declared its independence, which Israel was the first country to recognize.
The West Bank became federated with Jordan, and its Jewish residents became dual citizens of Israel and Palestine, the exception being hard-line settlers in Hebron who were relocated en masse to Beit Shemesh—“a difficult moment,” euphemized the president—but permitted to commute by armored bus twice daily for prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs.
And then I woke up.
It’s a tricky business, futurology. As Rabbi Yohanan observed in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 12b): “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.” Who in 1967—when as a college sophomore I listened to broadcasts of the Six-Day War on a clock radio the size of a toaster—could have dreamed of Google or BlackBerrys? And who, four decades ago, could have imagined that the glorious conquest of Jerusalem’s Old City by the Israel Defense Forces carried with it the seeds of an existential dilemma that on the country’s 60th birthday would appear to have no viable solution?
In 1902, in his utopian novel Altneuland, Theodor Herzl looked a mere two decades into the future and envisioned a Zionist liberal democracy in the Land of Israel that was so progressive and prosperous that the local Arabs were pleased as punch. Asked whether he regarded the Jews as intruders, the novel’s principal Arab character, a Berlin-educated businessman called Reschid Bey, replies: “Would you call a man a robber who takes nothing from you, but brings you something instead? The Jews have enriched us. Why should we be angry with them? They dwell among us like brothers. Why should we not love them?”
Can any of us today read this without wincing?
I remember how naively surprised I was, some years after my aliya in 1988, by a poll in which only 82 percent of the Israeli public was sure this country would still be around in 50 years and that the newspaper account applauded the overwhelming optimism. But a centennial would be no mean accomplishment, given the maddening sense of contingency that continues to attach itself to the legitimacy of the Jewish state, as if what the United Nations gave the Jewish people in 1947 could actually be taken away if the world grew tired of us.
On a more apocalyptic level, far be it from me to engage in predictions about Islamist nuclear weapons, especially given the myriad risks of unintended consequences if Israel or anyone else despaired of nonviolent solutions to the growing Iranian threat. Let’s assume instead that some unforeseeable variation of my reverie comes to pass and Israel as we know it does indeed live to 100.
In the spirit of Altneuland, we may safely envision marvelous advances in science and technology, agriculture and environmentalism, scholarship and the arts—and a shelf of Nobel Prizes and a couple of Oscars to prove it. We may also admit with a sigh that a great flood of North American immigration is unlikely because Israel has forever been populated by a mosaic of Jewish refugees, and imagining a catastrophic motive for American aliya is awfully unpleasant. Multicultural Israel in the decades to come is likely to remain politically splintered and socially fractious, even if—and perhaps especially if—we somehow manage to reach a modus vivendi with the Palestinians and the Muslim world. Cynics perennially argue that we need to feel threatened by others to prevent our internal dissolution. I would like to think this isn’t necessarily so.
What I believe instead is that the great Zionist fantasy of normalization—that given Jewish sovereignty we would come to resemble the other nations of the world—is not only implausible, but also undesirable. We are a special people, for which we continue to pay a special price. We are tiny in numbers but disproportionate in accomplishment, raising envious and suspicious eyebrows wherever we reside. From time immemorial, we have been an argumentative people, forever challenging each other and the God who made us what we are. To be otherwise would be so boring, wouldn’t it?
Stuart Schoffman, a longtime columnist for The Jerusalem Report,is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.