Looking for Hope in the Land of Hatikva

June 4, 2004
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by Matti Friedman

HOPE WEIGHS MORE in Israel than it does in other places. It means more. It was a brow-beaten hope for the future despite the present and past that sustained Jews in the Diaspora, and it was hope that brought us here, to this sun-drenched patch of angry land squeezed along the Mediterranean coast: Hope that we could take control of our history and build something new.

The hope poured into Israel’s foundations is expressed officially in our national anthem (“The Hope”), and unofficially in the all-purpose Israeli verbal remedy for pretty much everything: “yihyeh beseder” — things will be okay, a blithe faith that whatever the problem is, it will probably work itself out, and that even if it doesn’t, we’ll live. And so it is all the more jarring that over the past three and a half years, that precious material has become so scarce in this place.

When the spiral of nihilistic violence, known as the Second Intifada, erupted in the fall of 2000, it followed one of the most hopeful interludes in the country’s history. I did not realize that it was an interlude. I was barely 16 when the Oslo accords were signed, and I grew up knowing that this conflict was a problem on its way to being solved. There was a song popular here at that time: “Here they come, days of quiet,” went the words, “after the great and terrible noise. We can rest a bit on the balcony, and gather the pieces of the storm.”

I moved to Israel in 1995, at the height of that interlude. I visited Jordan and Egypt, and it seemed possible that the borders were blurring. Israelis were far from starry-eyed, but they were confident, and the concensus was that things were going to get better.

Then this war started, and Israelis began to look like Jews again: Haunted by our past, still running, the Holocaust etched across our collective psyche like a jagged scar. “They have always hated us and they always will,” people were saying, people who had voted for Rabin a few years earlier, and they meant the Palestinians and all of the Arabs and the Germans and the French and the world. You could try to look for positive signs, for lone voices on the Palestinian side calling for moderation, for hints of quiet, and then they would inevitably be shattered by an explosion in Jerusalem or Gaza and blood on the sidewalk, and then more, and then more. Like all of my friends, I tried not to let terror destroy my routine or crack my sanity. I kept going, and living, and stopped letting things get to me, and when I looked up I realized that none of us really had any optimism left. I haven’t heard anyone say “yihyeh beseder” about the state of the nation in a very long time.

But I have sensed a change in the air over the past year. Israelis are an incredibly resilient bunch, with the supernatural powers of denial that one needs to board a city bus the morning after one blew up down the street. After more than three years of this violence, it seems to me that people here are stronger than they were — certainly not happier, but stronger. People ride the buses and go to the beach. The cafés in Jerusalem have inched back to full capacity, and it seems like a new café opens every week.

The panic that existed at first, the existential musings about the future of the Jewish State, have receded, replaced by a belief that we have seen the worst they can do to us and by the knowledge that we are still here. We have become inured to the suffering of our own and oblivious to the suffering of others, but we are still here. Other societies would have imploded out of fear and rage from far less. Israel is intact, and functioning, and if Hamas terrorists blow up a bus next week — and they might — we will pick up the pieces and tow the blackened hulk away and keep going. Our senses have been deadened, and this contains both a great sadness and a grim strength. No one expects peace anymore, but we expect to survive. That may be a poor excuse for hope, but it is far from insignificant. It will have to do for now.

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Matti Friedman grew up in Toronto and moved to Israel in 1995. After stints as a dairy barn worker, a soldier, and a university student, he is now a senior writer at The Jerusalem Report. He is an alumnus of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel.

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