“You took the wrong pill…you should have taken the blue one…”
So I was informed by a taxi driver in Tel Aviv, after the conversation inevitably settled on my decision to emigrate to Israel. The suggestion (referring to the film The Matrix, where the central character is given the choice between taking the blue pill, which will keep him safely in his current comfortable, illusory world; and taking the red pill, which will permanently remove him from the fantasy and cast him out into the real world) is appropriately cut to fit the unique contours of making aliyah. For the idea that is sold to the expectant arrival is that of the promised land, and that by coming here, we are coming home. In fairness, depending on the attitude of the immigrant, that assertion is not entirely unmerited – provided their idea of home is a bustling, complicated Mediterranean country, and not the ‘Jewish Disneyland’ of various youth programmes and holiday tours. But as soon as the concept of an absolute promised land gains traction and takes root, the problems start.
Certainly at first, living in Tel Aviv can give the impression that one has reached the promised land, that the dream became a reality, that we did it. That there is a Jewish state, and that it is filled with intelligent, cultured, witty people, who care about the country but at the same time wish for and believe in two states for two peoples. And this political persuasion seems so effortlessly convincing that it is not to be questioned. Only if it is to be thus, the argument goes, will we ensure that the dream continues and that we retain our morality and maintain our dream of a homeland. And it is supported by a uniquely powerful concept – that of the aforementioned promised land. It is a projection which strikes the heart and mind with surgical accuracy, and all those afflicted by a belief in and devotion to it suffer its exit wound on their Imaginary. Intangible and yet infused into some kind of collective memory, the ideal of Israel as the promised land is like the Northern Lights – a stunning, shapeshifting, amorphous display which fires the imaginations and desires of countless dreamers, seeming to hint at an ethereal paradise and yet remaining devastatingly out of reach. And like all dreams, it is evanescent, receding further and further the more we try to grasp it.
As a disclaimer, I have fallen captive to this myself in the past, and in moments of profundity am prone to it still; recently, while sleeping on a rooftop in Jerusalem’s Old City, I was awoken at 4.30am by the call to prayer emanating from al-Aqsa Mosque. There followed an ephemeral, atavistic experience, in which I was enveloped by the historical panorama of a chant that has echoed through the ages and a velvet blackness tattooed by the lights of the ancient buildings all around; at the same time, I was subsumed by a brief instant of insight where I understood why men have been driven to madness and death in pursuit of the dream of Jerusalem. But then the veil of inherited nostalgia that had descended lifted once more, the millennial yearning evaporated, and present-day Israel re-materialised.
And the reality is that the reverie is unsustainable, for it assumes certain post-partition elements that are simply not there. The central conceit behind having two states is that Israel will remain Jewish and democratic. Yet in truth many of those who wish to (and have the mandate to) safeguard the Jewishness of the state are not interested in protecting it as a democracy, and those who wish to see it retain some kind of democratic character are terminally disinterested in being Jewish. The cultural heritage is so frequently brushed aside, the religious dimension distrusted and sneered at, the history at best wincingly endured. It is difficult to see how the bottom would not fall out of any society facing such competing antipathies and apathies.
Yet it is not only what may be that points to this dead end, but also what has been. Shattered by streams of bombs and rockets, pockmarked by endless bullets, crippled by bad faith and hopelessly and helplessly deformed by 65 years of gradually altering physical facts on the ground, the two-state solution has been lynched and left for dead. These are outcomes that no amount of self-delusion and well-meaning protest marches can reverse, and whatever it is that one may wish for and envision, the cold and pragmatic assessment can draw only one conclusion. It is an agonising, wrenching position to accept, and one which signals the end of an era both in Israel’s self-perception and the expectations of the rest of the world. One calls to mind the words of Baha ad-Din ibn Shaddad, a close friend of Saladin, upon hearing of the sultan’s death:
“Then these years and their players passed away
As though they all had been merely dreams.”
So it is in these times of modern-day Crusades. This country is not a dream factory, and it has become something of a moral sweatshop. It is struggling vainly towards a peace proposal that has been crushed by its past and denied its future by the disunity of the present. Yet we must not squander Israel’s extraordinary potential; I am not proposing solutions or giving instructions, but I am suggesting a first step, which is to snap out of it. It’s time to take the red pill, despite what astute taxi drivers from Tel Aviv may tell you.