During these ten Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews are meant to dig deeply and critically–in a spiritual way–to self-assess their character and conduct with complete candor. In Hebrew, this act of self-critiquing one’s character flaws and strengths is termed a “cheshbon nefesh,” which literally translates as a bill (in the commercial sense) of the soul.
I will leave it to the Rabbis and Talmudists to interpret the harsh contradiction in the terms “cheshbon” and “nefesh”, but do offer up the observation that, in addition to the individual, the State of Israel is in dire need of some unsparing character assessment.
Founded 72 years ago on a socialist prayer, this besieged little sand-dune of a country has longed for peace with its Arab neighbors ever since. Peace and acceptance seemed impossible. In its place, Israel has, over the decades, lost so much and so many to war after war, terror attack after terror attack.
No one could have imagined as recently as August 12–the date that the UAE “normalization” protocol with Israel was announced—that Israel’s Arab neighbors would openly cultivate “normal” state-to-state relations.
These are heady days. Since August 12, Bahrain has also formalized its recognition of Israel and several other Arab nations–including Saudi Arabia–are expected to follow suit in the near future. (If one defines “near future” as being within the next two years.)
Steadfast Arab unity behind the rejection of Israel as a presence in the Middle East is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The insistence on resolving the Palestinian-Israel conflict with finality was always the reason given for this absolutist position. After years of Palestinian intransigence, their Arab brothers and sisters seem to have had enough.
As Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Emir of the UAE, stated clearly, Israel is a prosperous, innovative nation and has panted its flag firmly in the Middle East. Israel is not going anywhere. It is time the Arabs understood this reality and embraced their neighbors.
This peace is decidedly warmer than the frosty ones that have prevailed for the last few decades with Egypt and Jordan. Premised primarily on security-cooperation, these arrangements have yielded nothing significant at all in terms of “people-to-people” interaction.
The UAE, contrastingly, has fully embraced peace. In just over a month since the historic Abraham Accords were announced, there is a flurry of commercial, medical, artistic and scientific exchange programs and arrangements were announced. The opening of various offices in Dubai and Tel Aviv are imminent. And there has been enthusiastic online support of this initiative, much of it originating in the UAE.
Ironically, in the midst of this surge of regional acceptance, Israelis are more distracted by the domestic chaos unleashed by a distracted government. For the second time since March, Israelis are subjected to a full-on Covid-19 lockdown. The first one that began last spring ruined the Passover holiday. This time, the harsh measures coincide with the three-week High Holiday period.
It is all too much for so many reasons, perhaps foremost the fact that more than a few senior government officials–including the prime minister and president–openly flouted lockdown rules in April. Hypocrisy is not an effective motivator in a democracy.
By mid May, once the virus was sufficiently restrained, the public was released and, within a month or so, numbers were spiking. These days there are, typically, between 4 and 5,000 new cases. As has been the case from the beginning, the ultra orthodox and Arab towns account for the vast majority of those infected.
Many residents of the hardest-hit towns have also been defiant, with many refusing to abide by basic COVID rules: social distancing, wearing a mask in public spaces, and adhering to closure of religious study halls and houses of worship. Leading rabbis–particularly the head of the strict Lithuanian Haredim community–advised their followers to ignore government directives, assuring them that prayer and Torah study would protect them from infection and death.
As the numbers of infected soared throughout the summer, the government froze, doing nothing to manage the spread. Ultra-orthodox political leaders, responding to “talk” around the Cabinet table about targeting “hot areas” for lockdown– the majority of which were and are Haredi dominated– complained of discrimination and threatened to bolt the fragile governing coalition.
And so, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the government imposed on all Israelis a stringent, three-week lockdown.
And that is all that anyone is talking about. Not peace with the UAE, not the signing of the Abraham Accords in Washington, not the Normalization Agreement with Bahrain, and not the fevered speculation as to which Arab country would be the next to sign on to this peace movement.
For perhaps the first time ever, Israelis are so steeped in domestic discord that they have lost sight of the gravity of the moment, in which they are finally being accepted by their Arab neighbors.
There are so many ironies in this peace: that it was brought about by a president lampooned as a buffoon–a president who referred to the insurmountable Arab-Israeli enmity as an opportunity to strike the “deal of the century”; that the primary negotiator was his much-mocked son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who had no prior diplomatic experience; that it came together under the leadership of the beleaguered Netanyahu, who is still on trial for corruption and bribery; and, of course, that it went ahead in spite of Palestinian shouts of betrayal.
COVID will come and go, but the Abraham Accords have the potential to reshape the geopolitical reality of the Middle East and beyond. These accords further isolate Iran, Qatar, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Hezballah, and other extremist states and groups in the Middle East.
The UAE has embraced this new relationship with unbridled enthusiasm, engaging every sector of Israeli society. Their boldness is forging a path forward, and other nations are following.
In these Days of Awe, I hope that all Israelis take note and make or do a “cheshbon nefesh.” We must see through our collective rage at the government, which is obscuring what should be celebrated: a new, promising era of peace.
I understand the anger and share it. A second medieval lockdown is infuriating and will wreak havoc on the well-being of too many Israelis. But it will pass. Perhaps this peace is permanent.
Among the matters I will contemplate when taking my personal cheshbon nefesh will be gratitude to all who worked to bring about this peace and recognition. And I will work hard to manage my anger at the transient people and things.
Gamar Chatima Tova, we say when greeting one another in these Days of Awe. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year.