“Our most surprising finding was a great and growing discrepancy between the way Israeli politics and society are discussed, at home and abroad, and the way they operate for real around the country”

Israel is a place of contradictions. For many Jews, Israel is a dream fulfilled: a national homeand a place of their own. It is also a homeland for Palestinians who also seek a state of their own.

Israel is a boisterous democracy, with courts committed to humane, liberal values and a contentious watchdog press. It is also a country where discrimination, especially against Arabs, is commonplace. Israel’s economic success has been remarkable, from the agricultural miracles wrought by the collectivism of its early days to the “Start-Up Nation” it has become. But economic growth has left many behind, producing gaps between the powerful haves and the vulnerable and often alienated have-nots. Israel is a rich and splendid quiltwork of cultures – some woven here and some gathered from every corner of the earth – that together produce literature, music, arts, sciences and scholarship of world renown. Yet many see it as a culture in decline, newly reluctant to fund universities, libraries, theaters and museums. Israel is a land of extravagant natural beauty. But its landscape is blighted by strip malls and polluted water and air, as open spaces yield to the asphalt and concrete of thoughtless development.All these contradictions can equally fund hope and despair. Increasingly, despair wins the day. Political discourse in Israel is self-lacerating; abroad, it is often unsparingly critical. Pundits, politicians and professors here make much of Israel’s flaws. Polls show that only a minority of Israelis believe that the future will be better than our embattled present. A good many doubt that the country will even survive for another generation. One hundred thousand Israelis have lately obtained German passports, which offer the ironic comfort of a place to escape should Israel fail.

This pessimism is twice a problem. It prevents us from seeing Israel’s extraordinary achievements, and thus from identifying those things that can strengthen and expand on those achievements. And it discourages us from giving voice to a vision for a better future. Absent such a vision for the future, it is hard to figure out what we ought to be doing today. Despair breeds inaction which in turn breeds despair. For too long, despair has been the tired motor of Israeli politics, and Israeli politics have been a tireless motor of despair.

This cycle can be broken, as the social protests of the summer of 2011demonstrated. For a dozen weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis spent night after night in makeshift encampments, discussing visions for Israel’s future. Half a million came out to demonstrate on a single night, under banners proclaiming a common commitment to “social justice,” and with a shared belief that the Israel we bequeath our children can be better than the Israel we inherited from our parents. This paroxysm of optimistic cheer did not surprise us. For the two years prior to the protests, and in the half year since, we have devoted ourselves to fashioning a vision for Israel’s future. To do this, we took to the road, meeting with leading scholars of Israel’s politics, economics, law, history, culture and society. We spoke with politicians and policy makers. And we set out to revisit the country. We spent days and nights with ultra-Orthodox Jews in Beit Shemesh. We did the same with Russian immigrants in Ashdod, with Palestinian Israelis in Nazareth, with Mizrahi residents in the development town of Yerucham, with Bedouin in the neighboring unrecognized village of Rachma, and beyond the Green Line in the settlement of Kfar Etzion and the Palestinian town of Beit Jallah. We travelled to Efrat, Um el Fahm, Tirat Carmel, Ein Hud, Haifa and Jerusalem. When the summer protests produced tent camps across the country, we visited them from Kiryat Shemona in the north to Dimona in the south.

In every place we visited, we found people working with single-minded devotion to strengthen the places which they live – their neighborhoods, towns and cities — and to building bridges between these communities and those that surround them. We met with concern for the future of the country, and frequently with disgust for its politicians. No less, we met with quiet and determined hope that things can be better.

Our most surprising finding was a great and growing discrepancy between the way Israeli politics and society are discussed, at home and abroad, and the way they operate for real around the country. The dichotomies that so many of us have for so long believed define the country – Ashkenazi vs. Mizrahi, Jew vs. Arab, secular vs. religious, center vs. periphery, native vs. immigrant, left vs. right – no longer reflect the complexity of Israeli society. There are commonalities in values and in visions that have gone largely unnoticed, and in these things that we share one find seeds of a common future characterized not by conflict, but by community.

It is far from certain that this future will come to pass; the nightmares of the pessimists have a plausibility that one cannot deny. But to bring about the future we wish, we must allow ourselves to imagine it more clearly, understand it better, and act to bring it about. The pages below represent a first effort to do this, as a practical and political exercise in hope, to describe Israel as it can and should be on the hundredth anniversary of its establishment, in 2048.

Shaharit-Israel_at_100-ENG-Online.pdf

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