Almost six weeks since we returned from Israel, and the place still haunts me. The New York Times covers Israeli affairs with a thoroughness and realism I sometimes wish the paper took to our own politics. This morning's edition contains a profile of Ayelet Shaked, a former computer engineer sworn in this week as Israel's Minister of Justice. Strikingly attractive, demonstrably more than adept with eye liner and lip gloss, the article identifies this thirty-nine-year-old star of the Intractable Right as a hard worker -- " a robot" -- and openly promoting a "'nationality bill' that many see as disenfranchising Israel's Arab minority, about 20 percent of the population." Ecco -- Israel's new "Justice Minister?"
At a time when -- to my observation -- a great many Israeli Arabs are increasingly horrified by the chaos throughout the Muslim Middle East and quietly grateful for the protection and social advantages of residency in the Israeli state, an appointment like this must have horrifying implications. It has to nourish throughout the Arab community the apprehension that its days in Israel are numbered. Recent student elections in the universities of the West Bank came down heavily in favor of Hamas rather than the more moderate Fatah. Selecting a hard-nosed babe like Avelet Shaked doesn't help.
What kept coming through during our days in Israel was how heavily the stresses and costs keep building in this tense garrison state. Israel has a flourishing industrial life, from pharmaceuticals to armaments, but for the great majority of the citizens who keep the country running day to day the demands are incessant. Apart from the mandatory years of military service and the annual month of training for both men and women, there are the open-ended call-backs as war follows war.
Most memories of these engagements are not especially heroic. Our guide, Rotem Litov, a tank commander in his other life, remembers weeks on end, quite recently, getting through the days with the other four men in his tank laying ambushes for roving parties from Hamas. The tank was beyond cramped, and sanitation was such that the men took pills to bind them up until the battle was over, sometimes weeks. Nobody's mood improved a lot.
My college roommate's son-in-law, nominally a banker, is also a reserve lieutenant colonel and the commander of an artillery battalion whenever the balloon goes up. His son is an explosive specialist, and inescapably the family was on edge for months even after dad got back as the boy remained out there helping blow up mile after mile of the tunnels that survived the recent unpleasantness in Gaza. Dangerous work, a lot of unanticipated casualties.
Taxes are high -- close to confiscatory, 50% on the cost of a new car. Higher education is so expensive that families with roots in the United States are moving back here to educate the next generation. The prices of apartments in Tel Aviv rival Manhattan. The hands-on, post-religious, do-it-yourself mentality of the founders seems to be giving way to the priorities of investment bankers. A great many are expected to sacrifice, but not that many appear to be profiting, and the anxiety about the surrounding Muslims chokes off the populist impulses which would normally inspire a remedial labor vote.
Irreconcilables on the Arab side play into all this. We had one session with a spokeswoman for the PLO, a svelte lady of Armenian heritage. Her version of Israeli history was utterly expurgated and completely made up -- she left out things like the invasion of the Arab armies after Israel accepted the United Nations mandate, although she did fess up again and again when confronted with the details. She threw in comments like an aside to the effect that all the settlers streaming through to occupy the expanding enclaves in the West Bank were shipped in wholesale from the United States. That sounded highly unlikely: A social scientist I checked with afterwards agreed that such a projection was beyond wild. Some Americans had moved in, at best no more than twenty percent. And many soon went home. But propaganda like this may well be stirring up those Palestinian college students.
Despite all the above, there is hope. But the Middle East will have to move beyond provocation, beyond racism and delusions of group superiority into a larger humanity. Perhaps Allah will provide.