On Tisha B’av, Laments for an Israel Seemingly on Edge of Ruin

Commemorating Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem is a bit of an exercise in paradoxes.

On the one hand, the remains of the Holy Temple whose destruction we lament on this national day of fasting and mourning are just a stone’s throw away, on the same hallowed ground where generations of Jewish soldiers died fighting for their land.

On the other hand, we live in an era when the Jewish people have the good fortune of being able to live freely in our own state in the place our ancestors prayed about for millennia. We read the Book of Lamentations and the Kinnot prayers that bemoan the destruction of the Jewish nation-state and our subsequent dispersion to the Diaspora, yet we have returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Jewish state.

Today, our holy temple is the State of Israel.

In 1948, when Israel was founded, and again in 1967 after Jerusalem was returned to Jewish hands, some Jews saw the victories as the beginning of the Age of Redemption — the most crucial step toward transforming Tisha B’Av into a celebration of the reconstruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

But for most Jews living in this sacred land, there is a sense that 60 years since the state was established and 40 years since Jerusalem was liberated, somehow there is something rotten in the State of Israel.

It’s in the news every day, it’s talked about at dinner table conversations, mocked by satirists, lamented by rabbis and analyzed by pundits.

Sixty years on, the temple we have built seems on the verge of ruin.

The threats come from within and without.

Not far enough away from Jerusalem, the modern-day king of Persia, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threatens to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, and he’s building the nuclear capacity to make that happen.

Closer to home, Hamas is acquiring the weapons it needs to turn southern Israel into the firing range that northern Israel was for Hezbollah during last summer’s war. Hezbollah, for its part, has restored the weapons arsenal it lost last summer and appears eager for another opportunity to humble Israel’s no-longer-invincible military.

And from Durban to The Hague, from Geneva to New York, the nations of the world bear witness to the castigation and delegitimization of Israel, at times lending their own voices to the clamor calling for Israel’s destruction, either explicitly or implicitly.

At home in Israel, the sense of ruin is palpable in other, more immediate ways.

The state built on socialist underpinnings now has one of the highest rates of poverty in the developed world. The leaders of the government we hoped would be a light unto the nations have proven either grossly inept or corrupt. Even when found guilty by the courts, Israeli leaders seem impervious to punishment.

In the last month alone, ex-President Moshe Katsav escaped rape charges in exchange for a deal to plead guilty to sexual harassment and indecent acts; Omir Sharon, son of the former prime minister, had his jail sentence for a fraud conviction reduced by two months and postponed yet again; and just this week former Knesset member Naomi Blumenthal had her eight-month prison term for bribery commuted to two months probation and six months community service.

The preponderance of cases like these give the Jewish state the appearance of a place where power, not justice, prevails.

It’s not only the government’s corruption and ineptitude that has Israelis lamenting the ruination of the Jewish state. It’s the people, too.

Secularists blame the Orthodox for ruining the state, siphoning off tax money to schools whose kids who won’t serve in the army, don’t believe in the legitimacy of the state and will uphold the Orthodox stranglehold on issues like marriage, conversion and religion in Israel. Orthodox Israelis say secularists are purging the state of its Jewish character through shortsighted education policies, unfair court decisions and lax immigration policies.

Settlers feel abandoned by a government that uprooted 9,000 Jews from the Gaza Strip during the 2005 disengagement and still contemplates trading away the West Bank for a false peace that will only hasten Israel’s demise. Left-wingers say the settlers have wrought Israel’s moral corruption by turning the Jewish state into an occupying power that persecutes an entire people in order to survive.

It’s not just about ideology, either.

Israeli drivers have turned the nation’s roads into avenues of death, where fatalities from car accidents far exceed those from wars and where even a normal car trip becomes an exercise in rage and survival.

Real estate developers snap up Israel’s few remaining open spaces and transform them into apartments, roads and office buildings while the government planning boards responsible for land management authorize wide-ranging construction projects with alarmingly short-term vision, all in exchange for easy money. Even the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, a national treasure, are now blocked from view by a new mall that has gone up right outside the Jaffa Gate.

Thirsty cities divert water from Israel’s few freshwater sources and turn a blind eye to wealthy corporations’ dumping toxins back in. Some of Israel’s most prized sites — among them the polluted Jordan River, the shrinking Dead Sea and the increasingly toxic Mediterranean shoreline — seem in various stages of ruin.

Israel’s best and brightest are moving overseas to take higher-paying jobs, government-controlled food prices are rising and every day seems to be hotter than the last.

So what do we do about all these problems?

First, we lament. In our tradition, the collective “Oy vey” we express on Tisha B’Av is meant to be our wakeup call.

Then, we act, however we can: We vote, we write letters to our representatives, we put a dime in the pushke, we volunteer, we make aliyah, we support worthwhile causes, we treat our fellow Jews and Israelis with human decency, we act like mensches even when no one’s looking.

Will this fix the problems of Israel and the Jewish people? No. But it’s a start, and we’ve got to start somewhere. Perhaps today it can start with us.

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