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To Overcome a Grim Present and Envision the Future, We Must Look to the Past



 

By Michael Oren

             

This piece is a modified version of my speech given at the Jewish National Fund Global Conference in Denver, December 3, 2023.


 

Who can speak about the future when our present is so bleak? Who, through all the pain and the trauma of today, can think about tomorrow? And yet tomorrow not today was to be my topic tonight.

                               

I was invited to this remarkable gathering of the JNF to speak about my new book, Israel 2048. Published in English, Hebrew, and Arabic in one volume, it’s the outgrowth of a project that began when I was the deputy minister to the prime minister and one day, schmoozing, I mentioned that we Israelis are always so bogged down in our current crises that we never think about the future.

 

“Let’s do a major study,” I said. “A vision of what Israel should look like on our hundredth birthday, in 2048.”

 

The prime minister enthusiastically agreed but before the project could get off the ground the government fell. Whereupon, together with my good friend and hero, Natan Sharansky, we held discussions on 2048 at Jerusalem‘s Hartman institute—a fascinating conversation that ended suddenly with COVID. Like so many of us, I retreated to my office and began to write, furiously, 22 chapters on every aspect of Israeli society, foreign policy, and defense.

                               

The result was Israel 2048: The Rejuvenated State. In it is a vision of a state enjoying security on its borders, peace with much of the Middle East, and an honored place in international affairs. It is a state with a world-class health, education, and social services system, a state that balances modernity and tradition, individual rights with national obligations, the nation-state of the Jewish people everywhere that guarantees equal status for all of its citizens.

 

It is not a pollyannish vision but one grounded in realistic policies and a willingness to address the hardest and even existential challenges.

 

Israel 2048, a timely book if there ever was one, at least until October 7.

 

But who can talk about the future now when hundreds of thousands of IDF reservists are away from their homes, away from their families, and desperately fighting for us? Who can talk about the future when more than 150 of our brothers and sisters, our parents and children, languish in Hamas captivity?

 

I ask myself those questions and the only answer I found to fall back on my training as an historian. To find the courage, the strength, to gaze into Israel’s future, we must first look back to our past.

And the day I look back to is nearly 80 years ago, May 8, 1945. That was the day, you’ll recall, that Nazi Germany surrendered. The whole world was celebrating, parades, fireworks, sailors kissing girls in Times Square. But one man wasn’t celebrating, and his name was David Ben-Gurion.

 

The leader of the Zionist movement, the man who would become Israel’s first prime minister, Ben-Gurion was an avid diarist. His diaries, written in nearly indecipherable Ben-Gurion script, take up an entire archive. He’d be interviewing you and writing about it at the same time. It used to drive people crazy.

 

But on that May 8th, while the whole world rejoiced, Ben-Gurion wrote only three words, “Sad, very sad.”

 

And how could he not be sad? One out of every three Jews in the world was dead. With them, it could seem, died the Zionist dream.

 

Ben-Gurion mourned, with those words—sad, very sad—he lamented. But then he got to work. There was a state that had to be built. Homes, jobs, schools for hundreds of thousands. A homeland for the homeless and a modern army to defend them.

 

Much of world might have thought that the Zionist dream was dead, but not David Ben-Gurion. Not the Jewish people, decimated but by no means defeated. Sad but united, we were determined to come home.

I can’t help but wonder if Ben-Gurion were alive and writing on October 7, what would he have inscribed in his diary? Sad, very sad? Or perhaps, “horrific and utterly nightmarish.”

 

The Nazis murdered Jews in an industrial, methodical way, knowing that even the most diehard antisemites would been discomfited by the realities of Auschwitz. With few exceptions, the Nazis took few photographs of their butchery and were careful to cover up its evidence.

 

Hamas, though, rejoiced in its slaughter. It reveled in the decapitations, the mutilations, the immolations, and the rape. Where the Nazis went to great lengths to keep their atrocities quiet, Hamas live-streamed them to an applauding Palestinian and jihadist world. Hamas terrorists bragged to their parents about slitting the throats of six year-olds, of tying entire families together and setting them in fire.

 

And though the terrorists massacred “only” 1200 of us, does anybody doubt that, unchecked, they would have outdone the Nazis in murdering not six million but seven million Jews and in ways that would have made even the Nazis uncomfortable?

 

Horrific, nightmarish, for the terrorists not only celebrated the trauma of October 7, they perpetuated it by taking more than 240 hostages, among them dozens of women and children, the elderly and the sick, and casting them into darkness to starve and suffer unbearable torment.

 

Horrific, nightmarish because the army created to ensure “never again” was a no-show for hours on the morning of October 7 and the state established to care for our deeply wounded society was dysfunctional. And then the state had to choose between rescuing the hostages or restoring its security, between destroying Hamas and in the process losing the hostages it held.

 

Horrific, nightmarish, finally, because so much of the world failed to feel our people’s pain, and many welcomed it. For the Jews, they said—affluent, powerful, and white—had it coming to them. The Jews are settlers in a colonial apartheid state, they said, the Jews got just what they deserved. From the victims of a real attempted genocide, we were found guilty of committing a fictitious one.

 

The Holocaust ended in May 1945 but the conditions that created the Holocaust—the wholesale dehumanization of Jews—thrive today on university campuses, on city streets, and in much of the media. At such moments, the natural response would be despair.

 

Yet despondency is not an option—not for Ben-Gurion in May 1945, and not for us, today, nearly two months after October 7. Today, we, too, must roll up our sleeves and get down to work.

We have a state to rebuild, entire communities to revitalize. Schools to construct, parks to plant, and cultural centers to inaugurate. We must heal the wounds and revive the faith—and we must do it literally under fire as this war for our very survival continues.

                               

We must not despair but, on the contrary, we must seize and welcome this moment, for with every great crisis—and this crisis is immense—comes historic opportunities.

 

Now is the time to address many of Israel’s fundamental and potentially fatal flaws. Perhaps the most threatening of those flaws is what I call the hemorrhaging of Israeli sovereignty.

 

For two thousand years, we Jews did not enjoy sovereignty and then, 75 years ago, we found ourselves the proud owners of a sovereign state. But ownership did not equal understanding and today Israel is indeed hemorrhaging sovereignty. And nowhere is that bleeding more acute than in that region so close to the JNF’s heart, the Negev.

 

The Negev represents 62% of Israel’s pre-1967 territory, but Israeli sovereignty essentially ends at Beersheva. I lived in the Negev for years and watched it disappear under illegal Bedouin building. If I build a tiny unauthorized addition to my balcony in Jaffa, I’ll be summoned by the police. But there are more than 400,000 illegal Bedouin structures in the Negev, an almost unbroken belt of them extending from Gaza to the Hebron hills.

 

In that area, there is no effective Israeli law—not against drug smuggling or gun trafficking and not against polygamy. The result is the world’s fastest growing populations. A population that once considered itself neither Palestinian nor Islamist but which, due Israeli negligence, has now become both.

 

Now, once we have secured our borders we must act to restore order within them. We must put an end to illegal building, to outlaw polygamy, and apply our sovereign laws.

 

Much is being done to improve the lives of Bedouin women in Israel, but there is much more to do. We have the opportunity to embrace the Bedouin as an esteemed part of our society, to provide them with first-rate education, ample housing, and modern infrastructure. Many Bedouin men have served in the Israeli army and Bedouin were among the victims of the October 7 attack. We must work to make them fully, proudly Israeli.

 

A dearth of sovereignty also characterizes our relationship with a markedly different, far larger, and more familial sector of Israeli society.

 

All together, the Ultra-Orthodox Haredi communities—and note I said “communities” for they are very different—make up close to 13% of Israel’s population. They are in many ways extraordinary and admirable communities, willing to weather poverty for what they believe. But much of Haredi life, especially the education system, lies outside of Israeli sovereignty.

 

In that system, thousands of Haredi children receive at most a second-grade modern education, with little or none of the math and English they need to someday enter the workforce. By 2048, demographers predict, almost half of the students in Israeli elementary schools will be Haredi. Turning 18, they will not be able to enter our high-tech workforce—the economy will simply become unsustainable.

 

Here, too, important work is being done. Prior to the war, I spent serious time visiting innovative Haredi institutions dedicated to integrating Haredi youth into Israeli life. The Shiluvim project in Jerusalem, that trains and prepares young Haredim for a professional life outside of the yeshiva. And the sixteen Netzach schools where I met Haredi students who told me of their dreams of joining the IDF and later learning to be engineers. The Netzach schools whose visionary principal, Rabbi Menachem Baumbach, told me that the list of the students waiting to get in is do long that he he could double the number of those schools overnight if he only had the funding.

 

Then came October 7 and along with the images too horrendous to observe were other photos—of thousands of Haredim enlisting in the army, others supporting out soldiers, waving Israeli flags. There was the phone call I received, the first ever for me, from the office of one of the world’s the largest Hasidic sects telling me that rebbe wanted to meet. Of course, I went to him and listened as, with outstanding clarity, he spoke about the complex challenges facing us—us, not me, in the State of Israel.

 

Much has been done and much is happening yet still great efforts must be mounted not to alter the Haredi way of life but to make it an integral and productive part of Israeli life, now and in the future.

Sovereignty means not only extending Israeli law over the Negev and teaching Israeli education to the Haredim. Sovereignty means developing Israel’s periphery, the development towns and struggling farms, and the region that is close to both my heart and the JNF’s —Hagalil, the Galilee, where I was also privileged to live. Where my daughter today lives.

 

Sovereignty means eliminating mortal threats not only to the south of Israel but in our north. For no sovereign nation on earth would sit quietly while a terrorist force 100,000 strong, armed with 150,000 rockets, many of which can reach Eilat and Dimona, arrays openly on our northern border and proudly plans our destruction. Today, knowing what terrorists can do to our people, knowing that no wall, no matter how sophisticated, is impregnable, who will raise a family in Metulla and Kiryat Shmona?

 

Sovereignty, we now know, means facing up to and grappling with the threats that could make sovereignty impossible in the future. It is our sovereign duty to finish the job of destroying Hamas. And when it’s done, we will continue to fulfill our duty by demilitarizing Gaza and internationalizing its reconstruction while maintaining far-reaching security control.

 

Throughout, we will keep searching for a responsible Palestinian leadership that cares more about nurturing their own children than they do about massacring ours. We will keep searching for peace, no matter how futile it often feels, not by falling back on failed formulas but exploring new ones —trusteeships, cantonment, federal solutions. Peace is a strategic and moral imperative for the sovereign Jewish state.

 

For Israel is not only a sovereign state—there are about 190 of those in the world, it is also, uniquely, the Jewish state. We are the nation state of the Jewish people and the nation state of all Jews everywhere, irrespective of how we practice our Judaism or who we vote for president or prime minister. We are the nation-state of every Jew who believes that Israel has the right to exist and the right to defend that existence. And the nation state of every Jew who is being threatened or attacked because she is a Jew. For the Jewish students at Cornell, Columbia and dozens of other campus where pro-Hamas protesters are calling for cleansing the country of Jews, Israel is your nation-state.

 

Though the mass dehumanization of Jews that enabled the Holocaust continues today unabated, the Jewish people today are no longer defenseless. The Jewish people today have the Jewish nation-state, ready to welcome you home should you choose to and to stand beside you if you don’t. The Jewish people today, unlike the 1940s, have the might of the Israel Defense Forces.

 

Envisioning the future—it’s not easy through the grim and painful window pane of the present. And, yes, to get that glimpse of tomorrow we just might have to glance back at yesterday.

 

To one day, in particular, almost three years to the date after that May 8th entry in Ben-Gurion’s diary. May 14, 1948, and Ben-Gurion was at it again, scribbling.

 

He wrote about the massacre that occurred the previous night at Gush Etzion, 125 of its defenders butchered and dismembered and sent back in pieces on British trucks.

 

He wrote about an army with no tanks or planes and only a million bullets to fire at six invading Arab armies lavishly armed with both.

 

He wrote about the great many people—from US Secretary of State George Marshall to half of the members of the Zionist Executive Committee, who assured him that declaring independence could result in a second Holocaust.

 

He wrote details large and trivial, several pages worth. But gone now was the sadness, replaced by determination and faith.

 

He had an army to build that would one day be more than twice as large as the British and French armies combined. He had a democracy to create that would become one of the five or six countries in the world never to know a second of non-democratic government. He had to ingather refugees from 70 different nations, who didn’t speak the same language or share a common culture and forge a nation that would sustain one of the world’s most successful states—with world-class universities, universal health care, and more Nobel Prizes than Olympic gold medals, and only a Jewish state would be proud of that.

 

Finally, at the end of that day’s entry, May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion managed to scribble in the margins: “Today I declared the reborn Jewish state.” Ben-Gurion wrote. “Today I declared the State of Israel.”

Today, 75 years later, we, too, must somehow look beyond our sadness, past our present crisis, to a future that is more secure, more prosperous, and peaceful. We must embrace this moment of Jewish unity, roll up our sleeves and get to work. And who on earth better at doing that than the JNF?

                               

For decades, you’ve been supporting the people of the Gaza Envelope and now, through your Israel Resilience Campaign, you’re supporting them again—massively—with food, housing, and school supplies for the tens of thousands displaced. Providing them with essential security and even firefighting equipment, social services and trauma care, even mobilizing volunteer agricultural workers.

 

Here in America, and throughout the Diaspora, you’re helping the targets of antisemitism, particularly on college campuses, to resist their almost daily encounters with hatred. In the face of all those vilifying Zionism as colonialist and racist, you are building a magnificent Zionist Village to teach our your people—and the world—the beauty and righteousness of Zionism.

 

You are rolling up your sleeves and getting to work just as you’ve done for the last 122 years. Like Ben-Gurion before you, you’re determined never succumb to despondency no matter how dark the days. To build in the face of destruction, to plant where the forests have been burnt, and to strengthen the backs of those who often felt overburdened.

 

Through it all—the wars and upheavals, the aliyot and the triumphs, you have been there overcoming sadness, beating out the odds. And today, in the wake of the worst day to befall our people since the Holocaust. You are doing it again. Each and every one of you—picking up a pen or shouldering a shovel. Forging with your faith, as much as with your might, a future every bit as brilliant as our past. And assuring now until our hundredth birthday and well beyond, the State of Israel and the people of Israel, live.

 

Assuring that Kfar Aza, chai.

 

Kibbutz Be’eri, chai.

 

Sderot, chai.

 

Nahal Oz, chai.

 

Guaranteeing that now and forever, Am Yisrael chai.

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