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On Jewish Cynicism and Jewish Hope

It is naive to think that the dangers we face are not significant, but it is no less dangerous to counsel despair and abdicate responsibility for making things better
Dr. Tal Becker is a Vice President and Senior Faculty of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker served, until recently,

It is considered a dangerous failing in Israel to be a freier, a sucker. The region we live in is too perilous, our enemies too brutal, for naivete or undue optimism. Goodwill is often taken for weakness and invites exploitation. And so, as a people, we tend to worry more about worst-case scenarios than plan for best-case outcomes. We bristle at innocent talk by foreign leaders who lecture us about peace and hope, and still try to convince us that the opportunity to realize these dreams is imminent.

When the world was euphoric about the Arab “spring,” it was Israel that cautioned that extremists may be the first to take advantage of any democratic opening. We may still pray for a new and peaceful Middle East, but in the meantime we need to cope with the one we have.

As a people, we have certainly earned the right to be wary. The traumas of the past, and the dangers and increasing isolation of the present, do not encourage much else. While in many areas of human endeavor we remain an extraordinarily innovative and optimistic people, when it comes to shaping a better Middle East few of us are in the market for hope. On these issues we are like the guy you don’t want to invite to a party. We tend to be suspicious of those who are overly enthusiastic and positive, and skeptical of new ideas. We have become hard and passive.

But what Israel’s critics may not understand is that this state of mind may have less to do with the quality of its leadership than with the expectations of its people. What has been damaged in the decades of Israel’s struggle is not our capacity to imagine a different future, but our belief that it can be realized any time soon.

It is not, as many commentators claim, that Israelis no longer dream of a peaceful end to the conflict. A great majority of Israelis still support the vision of two states for two peoples. But a greater majority has trouble believing it is possible. If such an outcome were handed to them on a silver platter many would embrace it, but they will not fight for it or forcefully demand it of their leaders, because it seems too out of reach. For many, peace has taken on a messianic quality; it is in our prayers but not in our calendars.

The essence of a cynic is a dismissive attitude to the chances that things will get better. He regards as childish the passion and sincerity of those who believe otherwise. What others may see as uninspired or unmotivated, the cynic sees as sober and streetwise. Yes, he is a “realist.” But his brand of realism can bring out the worst in others and doom him to entrench and perpetuate the reality that he sees.

This sense of cynicism is common today amongst many across the Jewish world, especially on questions of Israel’s quest for peace and security, but it is largely foreign to Judaism. Cynicism is a protective layer we have cloaked ourselves in, but it does not run deep. It may be who we have become, but it is not who we are.

A cynical people does not emerge from the ashes to build a thriving state in its ancient homeland. It does not boast prophets and scriptures that not only imagine a just world but requires each of us to take responsibility for creating it. It does not devote time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for individual and collective self-reflection and renewal.

Indeed, each of our achievements as a people and as a state can be seen as triumphs over cynicism. They are the work of people who (even with their feet on the ground) held open the possibility of a different reality and worked against odds to achieve it. From the Exodus in Egypt, to the Maccabees, to Herzl and Ben-Gurion, it was the daring and courageous innovator – not the cynic – who shaped our national story.

As relations with Turkey, Egypt, and the Palestinians deteriorate the political discourse in Israel has found comfort in cynical tones. The “realists” caution us not to blame ourselves, not to think that these tectonic changes depend on us, or that our actions can alter the inevitable downward turn. We must accept our fate as a people that dwells alone and prepare to defend Israel against the dangers ahead.

It is indeed naive to think that it is all about us, that the dangers we face are not significant, or that it is up to Israel alone to change the course of Middle East history. But it is no less dangerous to counsel despair, and abdicate responsibility for making things better. The problem with cynicism is not just its false faith in the inevitability of Jewish history. It is that it saps our strength to actually confront with vigor and creativity the very real threats we face, and it narrows the space for imagining and building a just and vibrant Jewish and democratic society. Cynicism is self-defeating and, in its belief that we are the objects and not the subjects of our own future, it is the very opposite of Zionism.

The idea that we can either be hopeful and naive or cynical and realistic has always been a false choice. Our situation is too multifaceted for the comfort of this zero-sum thinking. Even if there is much we cannot solve, there is little we cannot improve. This is what was so promising about the unprecedented social protests that swept the country this summer. These protests were a rejection of cynicism and a return to the belief that things can and should be better. In demanding social justice, and believing it is possible, the thousands that camped and marched were demonstrating some of the best of Jewish and Zionist instincts.

Israel was not created in order to concentrate our Jewish anxiety in one place. It was created in order that the Jewish people could shape their reality, rather than have it shaped by others. To achieve this we need to shed some of the cynicism that years of struggle and suffering and peril have engendered. And on issues of peace and security, in particular, we need to cease conflating initiative with naivete. This inner work on who we are as a society is no less critical than the political and policy issues that we endlessly debate. It is part of our collective tshuva, part of our return to our authentic selves. And the good news is that this does not require of us to reinvent our fundamental nature, but to rediscover it.

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

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