/ articles for review

Did We Win the War? ‘Everything OK?’

The popular Israeli greeting belies an illusion about the world we live in


Originally published in Times of Israel

One of the core manifestations of modern Western civilization – of both its greatness and at the same time its naivete – can be found in the popular greeting, “Hi. Everything OK?” The assumption is that everything can, and even should, be OK. As moderns, it is our task and within our ability to marshal our skills, talents, and resources to tame reality to fit this expectation. As citizens, we have a right to everything being OK, and it is the task of our laws and policies to deliver this “everything.”

In much of the world, however, such a greeting would not only be foreign, but unthinkable and nonsensical. Where natural and human-made disasters are commonplace, where disease, famine, poverty, war, crime, and oppression are the rule of the day, no one would think of flippantly asking, “Everything OK?” There, even a something being OK is a rare achievement.

“Everything OK?” is premised on a myth of stability, on the myth that we have both the right and the ability to create order and predictability, that chaos and uncertainty can be curtailed through our actions or behavior. This myth, or more accurately the desire to sustain it, is one of the most potent catalysts for innovation and human advancement in Western and developed societies. It is founded on confidence and hope: confidence in our ability and hope that tomorrow can mirror the aspirations that our abilities make possible. Such confidence and hope are absent from much of the world, creating a cycle of despair and a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

It is remarkable that Israel sees itself as a Western phenomenon and not a Middle Eastern one. “Hakol b’seder?” (“Everything OK?) is the commonplace greeting between Israelis. Missiles could be raining on our heads, our children could be in battle, a tractor, which every other day serves as a vehicle for progress, could for one day be turned into a vehicle of terror and murder, yet Israelis still turn to each other and say, “Hakol b’seder?”

Like much of Western civilization, this naivete is Israel’s engine for achievement and agent for excellence. We think we can, we expect we can, and we therefore demand of ourselves. This naivete, while serving as the secret ingredient for our cultural, intellectual, technological, and economic success, does not always leave us prepared to deal with the uncertainties and chaos which no barrier or Iron Dome can prevent from penetrating our reality.

“Everything OK?” In the aftermath of the latest war in Gaza, the answer is clearly, “No.” Something, and indeed many somethings, are OK. But many things are not, and the challenge facing Israel today is how to assimilate this complex and imperfect reality within the worldview of “hakol b’seder.”

Everything is not OK when in striking distance of most of our citizens lies a terrorist organization with a charter which calls for our death and with the means and the desire to terrorize half of Israel whenever they so will it. Everything is not OK when our only avenue for defeating them will entail an unacceptable amount of casualties on both sides.

Everything is not OK when the only way we can fight Hamas is at the expense of innocent non-combatants behind whom they take cover. Everything is not OK when the only deterrent at our disposal is to wreak havoc on their society. Everything is not OK when we are forced to impose a blockade, with its horrific humanitarian and economic costs, simply because we want to limit their access to missiles and explosives that will be aimed at our citizens.

Did we win the war? From the perspective of “hakol b’seder,” the answer is clearly no. We still do not have the stability we crave and the security we deserve. While every nation has the right and in fact duty to engage in a just war of self-defense, and the demands of justice in war cannot neutralize this right, many in the world are going to give Hamas a political victory as a result of its ability to victimize its people. No, everything is not OK.

For some, in Israel, this reality is unacceptable, and if some of the world is condemning us in any event, we might as well go for it, and “once and for all,” deal with the terrorist reality which exists on our borders. If we have a right to expect that everything be OK, there must be something that the powerful army of “Startup Nation” can do. “Once and for all,” one operation that will “solve” the problem, banish chaos and return safety and order to its rightful place.

For some, around the world, this reality is unacceptable. Everything is not OK in Gaza, and if evil cannot be defeated and terror disarmed, it implies that maybe everything is not OK in our world. When Syrians massacre Syrians, when Sunnis and Shiites blow each other up in Iraq; in short, when Muslims kill Muslims anywhere in the world, it does not undermine our myth of stability, for they are not a part of the Western equation. I need merely to change the channel with my remote in order to forget the chaos which has no bearing on my world.

Israel, however, is the only Western country in an ongoing conflict for its survival, and as such, is destroying the status quo and undermining the myth of stability. If Israel would just “behave,” remove the blockade, accept Hamas’s terms, we would not have to witness that everything is not OK, and then everything would again be OK. For some, if Israel would simply stop its “aggression,” and even better, simply disappear, the Middle East could return to its rightful place, not as the cradle of civilization, but as the home of chaos to which I can safely relegate to the channel that I do not watch.

It is time to admit that even in the West, everything is not and does not need to be OK. When the myth of stability becomes an existential need, it can cause one to harness one’s power for greatness, but it can also cause the idolization of power as the sole protector of stability. The need for everything to be OK can cause one to embrace fanciful policies which promise to deliver the “once and for all,” regardless of the moral consequences. The need to believe that everything is indeed OK can also cause one to embrace fanciful policies in which the use of power is never needed or justified.

The paradox of Israel is that the only way for us to be a Western society is for us to embrace some measure of instability along with “hakol b’seder.” The only way for us to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger. Everything will never be OK. The challenge is what to do when one recognizes this.

For many years now, in particular after the Second Intifada and the Hamas takeover of Gaza, we have been trying to tune out the Palestinians. Economic prosperity, buttressed by a regionally disproportionate powerful army, a barrier wall, and an ever-evolving missile defense system, have allowed us to believe that we can ignore the neighborhood. As the nation-states of this neighborhood deteriorate into states of total chaos, we psychologically need to distance ourselves from it.

We have forced ourselves into believing that not only can we immunize our society from its effects, but we can maintain the myth of stability in which “hakol b’seder” is a coherent greeting. For the myth of stability to be sustained, we need to believe that the current status quo is sustainable, and as a result instead of catalyzing us to politically innovate, it has lulled us into conceptual stagnation.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yaalon, and indeed the whole Security Cabinet, including its most right-wing members, such as ministers Lieberman and Bennett, all voted against a “once-and-for-all” military campaign in Gaza. They stood up with great courage in front of an Israeli electorate craving stability and challenged us to recognize that that is not to be. To be a society of value, to be a society which celebrates life, to be a society whose greatest efforts and creativity are directed toward the advancement of our way of life, we need to get back to these efforts, instead of sacrificing everything that we are and value in order to feed the short-term needs of an unsustainable myth.

Our government has taken a great risk and challenged our society to go outside its comfort zone and relinquish the policies, language, and narratives which have become Israel’s psychological Iron Dome. They have broken the status quo.

I don’t know what is possible today or tomorrow between Israel and the Palestinian people, whether peace and security are attainable. I do know that the status quo never served our long-term interests. Now is the time to innovate. Now is the time to explore new possibilities and possibly find new/old friends.

The horrors of the war in Gaza are a reminder to us all that everything is not OK. As a Western society, however, we don’t merely accept what is not OK as a given but marshal our abilities and hopes to find those somethings that we can make OK. If we have the courage to do so, despite the fact that everything is not OK, out of the death and destruction of Gaza, may come victory, not merely for us, but for both Israel and the Palestinian people.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics