Report from Israel: A Doleful Dispatch

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The hardest part of my aliyah? Right now. I can't stand the news; I can't stand the government. Always before, we were happy--we were building a country. We felt so good about what we were doing. Now? Well, it's not that way anymore.--Naomi Kubitsky, 79, "From Brooklyn to Hadera, 1951," Jerusalem Post, November 2, 2007.

A few months before I came on aliyah in June 1976, distinguished historian Melvin Urofsky, an acute and sympathetic observer of the Israeli scene, published "Uneasy--A Little--in Zion" in these pages. If not the content, obviously the title made a lasting impression. Indeed, what most strikingly dates Urofsky's piece is the touching diffidence with which he cushions his perturbation between apologetic dashes. A little uneasy! Uneasy! As 2007 slouches toward 2008, if only we in Zion, immured in a winter of discontent, might slip by with "uneasy," how fortunate it would seem.

When I first arrived in Israel, the disparity between rich and poor was less pronounced than in any other Western society. Egalitarian values--the classic kibbutz ethos--still were ascendant.

Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister, and, from the brilliant coup at Entebbe to victory in the European basketball championship and even the Eurovision Song Contest, the country seemed on a roll. Some three decades later, the income differential between Israel's salaried workers and its privileged classes, which expect and obtain compensation comparable to their American counterparts, has spiked. Kibbutzim themselves have gutted the ethos of mutual support, and we have morphed into the advanced society with the highest rate in the world of children living beneath the poverty line. Do I mind the gap, all the accelerating gaps between our rich and our poor, between then and now? Dreadfully when I think about it, which, to my shame, is probably as often as the rest of my countrymen and women.

The era of Ehud Olmert, our accidental prime minister, did not usher in this ice age of mendacity and selfishness the scale of which could never have been imagined by the country's founding generation. To a degree, most Israelis prefer not to acknowledge that self-interest and egoism that threaten to co-opt our future springs, summers, and dying falls were already regnant under the stewardship of Ariel Sharon. His financial and political shenanigans, blatant deficiencies in strategic planning and military preparedness--all perfectly evident not merely in retrospect--did not make us uneasy enough. This old bison had most of us buffaloed.

Despite the Italian suits and mirror-polished shoes of his successor, everything is now naked. To reward a track record of unabashed toadyism, Ehud Olmert, was elevated to the presumably hollow role of deputy prime minister in 2003. For nearly two years now, this canny operator's approval ratings as prime minister have fluctuated between single digits and the low teens. Yet he is simply symptomatic of Israel's new Gilded Age of me-ism and the triumph of privilege. The response of the country? Sullen frustration. Detached disgruntlement. "Detached" not because aloof but, after thirty years of watching one reform party after another fail miserably at making our Balkanized political system more responsive, we have grown so very weary of politics and our politicians. This is, we know, a perilous attitude, but given the mechanics of our parliamentary souk, we know there's not a damned thing we can do about it. Engulfed in a solipsistic sea, passivity reigns supreme.

Three weeks ago, I was nursing an espresso at a cafe on Be'ersheva s Midrahov Memshalti (Government Pedestrian Mall). At my back, the regional office of the Ministry of Interior; to my fight, the Negev's imposing Hekhal Tsedek, a stunning marble and glass structure perhaps six years old. Young, dark-suited, neck-tied lawyers of both genders--some shepherding scruffy-looking clients--stride purposefully towards the entrance of our Palais de Justice. …