In our everyday discourse the belief that change is possible, that people’s characters and attitudes can fluctuate with time, is an attribute usually associated with naïveté. The wise and seasoned among us know better.
What is astonishing is that the pull of determinism remains strong even when evidence of change is all around us. As parents, our children grow and change before our eyes, and yet at each stage of their development we can find it hard to imagine them transitioning to the next. We are often drawn to seeing our current job, or our family life, or our emotional state, as fixed in stone even if our own very life experience points to the contrary.
When we look at the Middle East the same dynamic is often at play. In the last years we have watched the region undergo unprecedented change, and yet many find it hard to accept that more is yet to come. With each transition, many quickly persuade themselves that things have settled permanently into place.
Not too long ago Bashar Assad was considered the unquestioned and stable ruler of Syria. Today, the civil war that threatens his rule is seen by many as a tragic and fixed part of the landscape. In Egypt, few predicted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, fewer still its fall from power in such short order. Hardly anyone anticipated these changes. And yet, amazingly, there are still those who speak with conviction about the nature of the Middle East when the only thing that it seems possible to say with certainty is that we do not know what will come.
Our discourse and understanding of Israeli society can be similarly distorted by our pre-conceptions about the (im)possibility of change. In parts of the Jewish world the sense that Israel’s democracy is imperiled is seen as a constant. But despite the insistence that “it was always thus” it is hard to deny the evidence that Israeli society has become more democratic and pluralistic with each passing decade.
We forget too that Israel’s search for peace and security has known different phases. There have been times of utter despair, but also moments of justified hope; there have been times of more and of less security. The pollsters tell us that many in Israel have grown deeply skeptical about the prospects of peace, but in years to come this may be described as a period through which we passed, not a permanent state of being. After all, pollsters give us a glimpse of what people think today, but they tell us little about how they may change tomorrow.
This is not to say that everything changes all the time, that change happens quickly or that it necessarily occurs in a positive direction. Some features of our existence are deeply entrenched and exceedingly difficult to uproot. Hostility towards Israel is one of these features. But while the nature of Israel’s challenges can be similar over time, the way we adapt and respond to them does not have to be.
Our resistance to embracing the unpredictability and frequency of change may come in part from the fact that there are elements in our environment that can appear immovable. But it also stems from a psychological need to feel in control, from a basic human yearning for stability. Perhaps also by discounting the possibility of change we can avoid responsibility for our role in directing events. Ultimately, though, permanence is an illusion. And we need to be aware of how our attraction to it can warp what we see, what we think, and the decisions we take.
What we must resist is the view that real change is impossible; that somehow Israel’s present predicament is also its permanent one. This is a particularly dangerous illusion for it prevents us from asking the right questions. How does change happen? How can we identify the signals that it is coming? How can we shape events in our favor? And how do we influence hearts and minds? If we are trapped in the mindset that there is nothing new under the sun, we forfeit the capacity to be agents of change ourselves, and we hand it to others.
In our Jewish calendar, we have just entered the month of Elul: the period leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur where our focus is on Tshuva – on the opportunity to renew and re-create ourselves. A tradition in which the concept of Tshuva is so central, is a tradition which rejects determinism. It is a tradition which recognizes that being blind to the reality and possibility of change is immeasurably more dangerous and more impoverishing for our individual and collective existence, than is the fear and volatility associated with change itself.
Our Judaism, not just our lived experience, tells us to be conscious of the pitfalls of the chimera of permanence. It tells us to leave a space for the possibility of the presently unimaginable. It tells us that change is coming, the only question is whether we will be a part of it.