‘We’ve Been In This Movie Before’

‘We’ve Been In This Movie Before’

The current moment, caught as it is between tragedy and farce, invariably echoes the past.

The week after Independence Day, I took the Number 18 bus to the Mahane Yehuda market, to run a few Friday errands. I got off at Davidka Square, where the Street of the Prophets meets Jaffa Road. In the midst of the square is a monument of the 1948 War, displaying a homemade mortar nicknamed “Davidka,” one of six deployed by Jewish fighters; the mortars were notoriously inaccurate but incredibly loud, so much so, the story goes, that Arab forces thought the Jews might have the atomic bomb. It’s been quite a while since we were David and they were Goliath, but we still cherish the myth.

In June 2003, a Number 14 bus was blown up in Davidka Square by a Hamas suicide bomber dressed as a charedi Jew: 17 Israelis died. The Israeli Air Force promptly retaliated in Gaza. That was at the height of the second intifada, during which more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians were killed. In recent years, Arab terrorists in our midst haven’t blown up buses or cafés. (In Jerusalem, we get the occasional stabbing, and lethal attacks on pedestrians by local Palestinians driving tractors and other vehicles.) But we as a nation do experience traumatic eruptions such as last summer’s devastating Gaza war, also known as “Operation Protective Edge.” On this year’s Memorial Day, Israelis grieved for the 67 IDF soldiers killed in that war; and the very next day, we celebrated Israel’s 67th birthday.

So it goes here, the welding of mourning and merriment, existential paranoia and picnics at the beach, hard-wired fears and world-beating feats of innovation in medicine, technology, modern dance. For an inveterate ironist like me, Israel is endlessly inspiring. For human-rights activists and pro-Israel activists, it’s a perennial battleground. Of course, the definition of “pro-Israel” is forever up for grabs in today’s anxious, fractious Jewish milieu.

For all that, the United Nations World Happiness Report, published in late April, ranked Israel the 11th happiest nation in the world, a statistic cheerfully promulgated by various pro-Israel websites that generally vilify the U.N. (I’ve long argued that my Israeli countrymen are skilled practitioners of utilitarian denial, going about daily life in the epicenter of Middle East conflict as if we lived in California.) On the other hand, the Gallup Positive Experience Index for 2014 placed Israel far down on the list, with a score of 61, tied with Haiti, Chad and Iran. (The U.S. scored 79, same as Rwanda, 10 points below top-ranked Paraguay. Go figure.) As with other polls, pundits, or news outlets, folks pick the answer that suits their preconceptions.

So here I am on that Friday morning in Davidka Square, crossing Jaffa Road, and what do I see in front of the Clal Building, an ungainly white elephant of stores and offices, but a couple of dozen young Israelis in red shirts, preparing to march down Jaffa Road, a few of them waving red hammer-and-sickle flags. What’s this? It’s May Day! As they march off in quaint solidarity with the workers of the world, I am seized by nostalgia. Not so much for Israel’s formative socialism, for the days when this was a country of the left ruled by a feisty Jewish Bolshevik named Ben-Gurion, though I frankly do yearn for a Jewish state dedicated to the prophetic vision of justice and equality enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, read out by Ben-Gurion in the Tel Aviv Museum on May 14, 1948. I need not quote from the Declaration: you know what I mean.

It was the rhythmic chanting that got to me: “Ha’am! Doresh! Tzedek hevrati!” over and over, “The People demand social justice!” This is what hundreds of thousands were chanting all over Israel in the exhilarating summer of 2011, four long years ago, on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, in Haifa and in Beersheva, with some 50,000 of us, it was estimated, marching in Jerusalem alone. For a guy my age, it felt like the exhilarating Washington rallies against the Vietnam War.

But the young organizers of 2011, a few of whom are now in the Knesset, were careful not to extend the demand for social justice beyond the Green Line, not to emphasize the shared humanity of Israelis and Palestinians and thus “politicize” the agenda. It was important to appeal to the great center, and the politico who rode this wave into the Knesset in the election of 2013 was Yair Lapid, the muscular, telegenic leader of the Yesh Atid Party. Lapid joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition but was pushed out last fall by Bibi, who then called new elections designed to tighten his grip on the country.

We all know what happened next. Bibi went to Washington to orate on Capitol Hill, insulting President Obama and delighting Republicans. (The controversial coup de théâtre cost Israeli taxpayers six million shekels ($1.5 million), according to Israeli press reports.) Netanyahu may or may not be right about Iran, who can know for sure? (I think he’s not, but both prophecy and plutonium are beyond my pay grade.) The beauty of Bibi’s game is that apocalyptic demagoguery cannot be proven wrong. Then, on Election Day, came his big xenophobic finish: the prime minister of the world’s only Jewish and democratic state warning the public that Arab citizens were coming out to vote in droves, and the only way to stop them was Likud. Even when the polls closed that night, many voters still believed the surveys that predicted that Labor (rebranded as the Zionist Union), led by the principled, moderate Isaac Herzog, would oust Netanyahu at last, and set the country on a new and hopeful course. How wrong we were.

Bibi set about assembling a coalition government of right-wing and charedi parties, promising plum ministerial posts to ultra-nationalists, and billions of shekels for ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. Tasked with paying the future bill was the designated finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, an ex-Likud parliamentarian whose economy-centered Kulanu (“All of Us”) party won 10 seats in the Knesset. And then — surprise! Shortly before the official deadline, the wily Avigdor Lieberman, slated to remain Israel’s foreign minister, was pleased as punch to announce that his six-seat Yisrael Beiteinu Party would not be joining the government, leaving Bibi with an ultra-fragile majority of 61 in the 120-member Knesset; pols and pundits speculated about the dark reasons for the dramatic betrayal, and the dubious longevity of the coalition.

What are some possible scenarios? Could the new right-wing government, held hostage by Naftali Bennett’s pugnacious Jewish Home Party, build more and more settlements, seek to purge the universities and media of dissident voices, hobble the Supreme Court, humiliate Israeli Arabs, and further infuriate the White House and many American Jews? Might the newly vented rage of Ethiopian Israelis brand Israel as a racist society? Will Netanyahu try to rope Herzog into a unity government, doomed at the start by its fundamental disunities? Will Obama and Europe force a two-state solution upon Israel and the Palestinians, via the U.N.? And when will we next go to war, and against whom?

There’s an Israeli saying, baseret hazeh k’var hayinu — we’ve been in this movie before. If it feels like a movie, a political soap opera, it’s worth remembering that Theodor Herzl was a man of the theater, a professional playwright, and Benjamin Netanyahu, at the end of the day, is an actor, casting himself in the role of visionary savior on the world stage. And yes, history does repeat itself, in cycles of tragedy and farce.

Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and screenwriter, has lived in Jerusalem since 1988. His translations from Hebrew include books by A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, and Meir Shalev.