What the fires don't mean
While there is much we don't know about the days ahead, one thing is certain
I was riding my bike through an Arab village when the “air raid” siren went off on Monday afternoon. After a long day of sitting in front of screens, I’d needed some fresh air. I told my wife I was headed out for a ride; “take ID with you,” she said, “in case you get taken to the hospital. At least they’ll be able to call me.” I laughed and headed out.
A short while later, I was pedaling away in Beit Tzafafa when I heard what I thought was a lot of sirens – that many police cars? But then I realized that the pitch was different and it wasn’t lots of sirens; it was one long, unending siren. I stopped pedaling, listened, and realized it was the Red Alert for incoming rockets.
“Seriously?” I said to myself. Whatever. I continued riding, figuring it was nothing. What, they’re really going to fire rockets at Jerusalem? Come on. But then I heard the rockets explode. One. Two. A third. A fourth? It seemed surreal, but the panicked look of the few people on the street confirmed that something was up. I got to the spot where I had to decide between the longer route or the shorter one, and chose the shorter. Maybe being outside with rockets falling wasn’t the smartest idea. In the village, people were scattering, heading into their houses. A few looked at me quizzically as I rode by.
When I got home, my wife asked me if I’d gotten off the bike as we’re instructed to when I’d heard the siren. “For what purpose?” I asked her. “So the shrapnel can kill me when I’m crouching on the ground rather than on the bike?” It didn’t seem materially different. But more importantly, the idea of crouching on the ground, hands over my head (yes, that’s what they tell us to do, like those nuclear war drills we had in elementary school in the 1960’s) seemed worse than stupid; it actually felt offensive. The whole point of our collective return to this place is that we’re done with the crouching, finished with the hiding, beyond running and fleeing. Meaningless defiance and genuine wisdom don’t often overlap; still, I chose the former.
# # #
I didn’t want to (re)open this blog with a column on the conflict. In fact, my planned intention for this series was to illustrate that an Israel-conversation exclusively focused on the conflict misses entirely the essence of the Jewish state. If someone asked you to tell them about America, its greatness and its failures, the dreams on which it was built and the vision it might still have, would you respond with War of Independence, War of 1812, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan (yes, I know that I omitted most of the wars)? Of course, you wouldn’t.
But that is precisely what we do when we talk about Israel. Asked to list milestones of Israeli history, most people mention (if they know any Israeli history at all) the War of Independence, Sinai Campaign, Six Day War, Yom Kippur War, the Intifada’s, etc. The vast majority of the conversations we hear about Israel are about conflict: Obama was good for Israel, or not. Trump was good for Israel, or not. Biden is Obama 2.0, or not. Iran. Lebanon. Hamas. Hezbollah. Annexation. Palestinians. Occupation. The litany feels endless—but they are all about conflict. (Is it any surprise that many young American Jews just walk away in disgust?)
Yet just as a litany of America’s wars does not come close to capturing the essence of America, neither do Israel’s wars tell us much about what Israel is or is meant to be. We’ll get back to that in future columns. But even now, in the midst of the present crisis, it’s worth pointing very briefly to some of the recent developments inside Israel that have gone virtually unmentioned. Israel has been changing right in front of our eyes, and all too often, we just don’t see it.
Until the violence erupted this week, Israel was on the verge of a non-Netanyahu government. Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett had hoped to announce their coalition before Shavu’ot. And if the Bibi era was ending, why was that? It was because with the results so evenly split, a handful of votes makes all the difference. And now, Ra’am, the Arab party that had won a handful of seats and which had been vigorously courted by Bibi, had decided to side with the “change bloc”, as it’s called. In this little Apartheid state (as Rashida Tlaib referred to us again this week), the nature of Israel’s next government was effectively going to be decided by Israel’s Arabs. That’s how democracy works.
Few people noticed or mentioned that in a Lapid-Bennett government, Israel was going to have (in Bennett) its first Prime Minister from the religious-Zionist camp. Israel has never had a kippah-wearing Prime Minister before. Menachem Begin wore one ceremonially, but though instinctively traditional, he was not “observant” in the classic sense. Bennett would have been (will be?) the first. But following Bennett, Lapid was to serve as Prime Minister. Lapid would have been (will be?) Israel’s first Prime Minister who attends a Reform synagogue. Those two developments speak volumes about Israel; is anyone talking about it?
Many people love to claim that Israel is moving consistently rightward, and indeed, Bennett is much more hawkish than Bibi. But Lapid would presumably have blocked him on critical moves like annexation. Lapid is more of a centrist but would not have been able to move without Bennett. Is that a rightward move, or a decidedly centrist one? How many people have noticed that unlike some other democracies, Israel has a robust political center?
It’s become commonplace to point to our four elections (and now, a possible fifth one looming) and to say that Israel’s democracy is broken. That we need to tweak – or maybe change – the system cannot be denied. And yet, how many Israeli stores were boarded up prior to our elections? After the elections, how many Israelis screamed that the election had been stolen? Did we bring out the army or the police en masse on election day? Did we order security forces to surround and protect the Knesset? If one wants to point to a faltering democracy, is it really Israel we should be talking about?
Seismic shifts are taking place in the ultra-Orthodox world here. Talk to their leaders, as our students did this week, and you will hear some of them acknowledge that they are in crisis. For decades, they have prided themselves on believing that their way of life was essential to Israel’s thriving, that though they are accused of being parasitic, they are actually a rich resource for Israel’s spiritual needs. Now, though, as one admitted to our students, after the way they comported themselves during Covid, some acknowledge that they have become “a burden” to Israeli society. For some, at least, their sense of mission, is cracking. Others focused on what happened at Mt. Meron on Lag Ba’Omer. “Because we have the political power to keep the state at bay,” they said, “we end up killing ourselves and each other. It’s not the state that has to change, it’s us.” What might that mean for Israel’s future?
The list goes on. Wars make for gripping headlines, but they don’t reveal the Israel that’s taking shape beneath the surface. That’s what we’ll cover here in future columns as soon as this latest round of violence subsides.
# # #
Until the violence erupted a few days ago, the big story in Israel was that Covid was over. The pandemic was behind us. No more masks outside. The overwhelming majority of the country vaccinated (and among non-Haredi Jews, it’s virtually everyone). The IDF announced that for the first time in a year, there was not a single soldier ill with Covid. Hospitals began to shut down their Covid wards. The number of new reported daily cases continued to drift downward and hovered in the low double digits. It was when we went to a wedding last week with hundreds of people, no masks, no distancing, that it finally sunk in: at least for now, it’s over here. Life had returned to normal.
But this is the Middle East, and normal obviously didn’t last very long. Shalem College (where I work), like other Israeli universities, is back to teaching on Zoom, at least for the next couple of days. First it was Zoom because of the pandemic, and now it’s because of rockets. Israel has gone from Covid to war.
How long this will last, we do not know. How we got here will long be debated. What the rioting in Lod will do to Jewish-Arab relations in the country, we do not know. Whether this will send us to elections, we do not know. Given all the uncertainty, it’s worth noting that there is one thing we do know. It’s so obvious that we might miss it, but it’s the one thing that really matters. What we do know is how this is going to end.
Monday night, rockets landing near Jerusalem notwithstanding, we went to friends in the neighborhood for dinner in their back yard. With gin-and-tonics and BBQ aplenty, we chatted and laughed, periodically checking the news on our phones. Every now and then, we stopped talking so we could hear the shooting and explosions unfolding just over the hill in the Old City. At then, at one point, the news noted that there was a fire burning on the Temple Mount.
Something about the photos of the Temple Mount ablaze struck me. For the image of the Temple Mount consumed by fire is deeply rooted in Jewish history, imagination, and liturgy. The Temple burned in 586 BCE with our defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, and again in 70 CE when we were vanquished by the Romans. When it happened the second time, we were exiled from here and didn’t return in any meaningful numbers for close to 2,000 years. Now, on Monday night, we could actually see what the Temple Mount ablaze looks like.
One of the most extraordinary books of Jewish history that I’ve read in a long time, The Jewish March of Folly by Amotz Asa’el (at present available only in Hebrew), describes the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE, and the end of Jewish sovereignty that it wrought, as follows: 
… at some point a squadron of uniformed men emerged and led Jeremiah through the bloodied streets “chained in fetters, among those from Jerusalem and Judah who were being exiled” (Jer. 40:1); a long and gloomy convoy now proceeded along what is now is the path of the Light Rail, from today’s Damascus Gate northward. Some may have still turned back and, like Lot’s wife, thrown one last glance at their burning city, and some may have stared at the re-chained Jeremiah and recalled the jug he once raised above the Valley of Hinnom, and his warning “so will I smash this people and this city” (Jer. 19:11) and the sound of the jug’s smash.
The convoy, at any rate, proceeded at a funereal pace past what are today’s Sheikh Jarrah and French Hill neighborhoods until they reached Ramah, the town where the prophet Samuel tried to prevent the establishment of the kingdom which had just breathed its last breath.
On Monday night, the Temple Mount was ablaze again, but this time, no kingdom was going to breath its last breath.
The new few days here could well be awful. More people, including a father and his daughter, were killed overnight, and there’s no reason to assume that they will be the last. The airport had to be shut down, cutting Israel off from the world, and that could happen again. Israel called up thousands of reservists yesterday, and today is moving ground forces to the south; if they go in, there could be painful losses. Thousands of Israelis slept in bomb shelters last night, trying to comfort their very young children as they braced themselves for the horror of the next rockets that might fall. Many of us fell asleep last night to the endless shriek of sirens, and it’s likely we’ll be hearing sirens for days to come. There was violence rioting by Israeli Arabs in Lod yesterday, and whether that will explode further, we also don’t know.
Yet it’s also worth noting what we do know.
No longer does that image of the Temple Mount ablaze mean that we are going to face defeat. No longer do those flames mean that we are about to lose our sovereignty. No longer are those fires a prelude to exile. Those days are over, utterly behind us, because of what we’ve built here.
Whatever happens in the next few days, or weeks, this is not going to end like it did in 586 BCE or 70 CE. There will likely be some bad days here, but there will not be a bad end. The Temple Mount might have been burning once again, but that image notwithstanding, things are not going to end as they did in the past.
That is the essential difference between our past and our present. That, when you separate the wheat from the chaff, is really the only thing that matters. And it’s that certainty, that confidence, that is the largely overlooked miracle of this remarkable place we call home.
 English, slightly edited here, by the book’s author, quoted with his permission.