Rome and Jerusalem: Michtav

By Resa and Stanley Davids

The distance between Rome and Jerusalem (according to Wikipedia) can be calculated as 2307 kilometers, or 1434 miles, or 1246 nautical miles.  In 1862, Moses Hess saw those distances quite differently.  Though Hess’ name may not be familiar to most of us today, he nevertheless played a significant role in the evolution of geo-politics in the 20th century.  On the universal side, Hess was a friend of Karl Marx and was influential in the shaping of the Marxian approach to dialectical materialism.  He also helped bring Engels to embrace Communism.

Dove in Doorway

But, on the more particularistic side, it was Hess’ magnum opus, entitled “Rome and Jerusalem,” that helped set the stage for modern Zionism, especially in its socialist incarnation. Looking favorably at the rise of Italian nationalism and foretelling the growing disease of modern anti-Semitism, Hess warned about the dangers that German nationalism in particular would pose to the Jewish people.  He called for us to resume our role in the shaping of human history by reasserting our own nationalism, for we have been the ‘leaven’ (a hard word to use so close to Passover) that gives rise to the noblest of human values.

This past week, there was yet another fascinating interplay between Rome and Jerusalem.  The Roman Catholic Church awaited the plume of white smoke rising above the Sistine Chapel that would herald the election of a new Pope.  After weeks of what was, after all, the deeply troubling resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the selection of an Argentinean Cardinal (who has taken the name of Francis I) brought a sigh of relief.  But after that sigh, the world press and the Church itself are now anxiously trying to assess the impact that Francis I is likely to have.

And, here in Jerusalem, we were awaiting a metaphorical plume of white smoke that would indicate that Bibi Netanyahu was finally able to bring together the forces necessary to create a new government – after his shockingly poor performance in the national elections.  ‘Bibi, King of Israel,’ is no more.  In his place, sits a man who had to swallow his enormous pride, make friends with political and personal enemies, step far outside of his comfort zone to secure allies…just so that he could welcome President Obama on March 20th as Prime Minister of the State of Israel.

The pundits who described Israel as firmly held in the talon grasp of right-wing religiously driven ultra-nationalism, were wrong – at least for the moment.  The doomsayers who just knew that last year’s street uprisings that called for Tzedek Chevrati (social justice) could not possibly shake the unholy alliance of Netanyahu’s Likud, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, and the Haredi parties, were wrong – at least for the moment.  The columnists who saw Yair Lapid, founder of Yesh Atid (There is a Future), as just another pretty face who never should have given up his top-rated TV program, were wrong – at least for the moment.  And all of us who just knew that Lapid could never craft a workable alliance with Naftali Bennett (a modern Orthodox Jew, whose wife is secular, and who sold his software business for $145 million), only recently elected the head of HaBayyit HaYehudi – a strongly pro-settler, right wing religious party – were wrong – at least for the moment.

But, how do we in Jerusalem now go about trying to assess our own political future?  With no sense of shame, the pundits and doomsayers and columnists are once again boldly predicting the future.  The odds are quite strong that their rate of accuracy will not significantly improve in the coming months.  So we have no hesitancy about throwing in our own ‘expectations’ that may also soon prove to be worth little.

  • THE State is confronting a rising deficit, though nothing remotely as threatening as that confronting the United States.  Without Haredi parties in the government, we will see a sharp cutting back of those unconscionable handouts that have helped keep the ultra-Orthodox unemployed, impoverished and ill-educated (in all areas but Torah study).
  • THERE will be a sharp increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox men who will serve in the IDF or who commit to real (as contrasted with the current fictitious) national service.  This represents a tremendous shift in the status quo.
  • THERE will be a strong undertaking to raise the threshold which political parties must pass before gaining seats in the Knesset.  This might significantly reduce the number of tiny parties that waste dollars and votes in each election.
  • NEW efforts to launch affordable housing projects for young people will receive broad backing, though the Haredi parties will fight to retain their outsized share of the pie.
  • CONSTRUCTION in settlements in the West Bank – including those outside of the areas that presumably will be part of Israel even after a peace treaty can be achieved with the Palestinians – will accelerate.  Bennett would never have partnered with Lapid to push Bibi into a corner without a guarantee here.
  • THERE will be efforts to dramatically reform Israeli educational systems.  Here again the Haredim will be exposed to serious pressure to permit the Israeli core curriculum into their sector schools.  This may be the brightest hope of all.
  • A FORM of civil marriage is likely to be approved, though this probably will do little to enhance the standing of Reform and Conservative rabbis.  A new chief rabbi will be elected, and it is likely that the Haredim will lose their control of the rabbinic institutions.  But, this will do little to enhance the standing of Reform and Conservative rabbis.
  • TZIPI LIVNI will be in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians.  It is universal wisdom that she will be able to achieve nothing of significance.  So, we would look here to the possibility of some pleasant surprises.  Despite the profound concern with which most Israelis address the growing threat of a nuclearized Iran, the drumbeat demands for a pre-emptive Israeli strike are somewhat muted.  But, no predictions here can possibly be made.  Another kind of surprise will occur if Avigdor Lieberman, who as Foreign Minister was almost universally scorned outside of Israel, avoids conviction in the court case he is currently battling.  Bibi has promised Lieberman the Foreign Ministry if he is not convicted.  Tzipi will not be smiling.
  • THE Haredim will be kept out of the government until after the matters of military service, budget reductions, the chief rabbinate and educational reform have been duly launched.  They will then re-join the government and get paid handsomely to do so.  This might fracture the coalition, leading to new elections within two years.

We write the above with self-awareness: There is hope that Israel may find its democratic and Jewish foundations strengthened over the coming months.  It has been a long-time since the legitimate presence of optimism has been acknowledged in one of our Michatvim.  It is kind of unsettling.

Our city is festooned with huge American and Israeli flags.  Wednesday’s weather forecast is ‘sunny and clear.’  Well-designed posters are being attached to light poles at major intersections, proclaiming B’rit Amim – the unshakeable alliance between Israel and America.  Traffic jams will shut down Israel’s capital for three days.  Our streets are being scrubbed.  Obama’s chefs have been notified that the kitchen of the King David Hotel is already Kosher L’Pesach, so menus will be a bit different.

The white smoke appeared just in time.  We have a government.  We will have a major visitor.  Our homes (and in some cases, our cars) have been cleansed.  The winter rains have left most of Israel covered with flowers and greenery.  “For lo, the winter is past.  The sound of the dove can be heard.”

Resa and Rabbi Stanley Davids are longtime ARZA members and supporters. Stan is a Past President and Board Member and a current member of ARZA’s Leadership Council. The Davids made aliyah in 2004 and now split their time between Jerusalem and Santa Monica, California.

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