You are here

Mr. Hawking, you're late to the party

For about one second, Israelis were peeved that Stephen Hawking was boycotting Israel. But then, just as quickly, they moved on.

Back in October 2012, I attended a two-day conference in Frankfurt dedicated to the state of Israel's fragile democracy. The conference was wholly devoted to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, to whether it is useful or even legitimate to boycott Israel, to the dangers of right-wing messianic movements dominating the political discourse and to the quandaries of Jewish identity.

The attendees, mostly local analysts, journalists and curious German Jews, all came for a very specific reason: They hoped for a sign, however faint, of progress. Something, even a hint, to show that Israelis have made some sort of progress at accepting that occupying another people is wrong. As it turned out, every Israeli speaker (including yours truly) was ready to disappoint them. The occupation and Palestinians, we explained, could not be further from the common Israeli mind.

This week, world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, perhaps similarly disappointed with Israel's disregard for the Palestinian issue, made headlines after pulling out of a high-profile conference organized by President Shimon Peres, thereby joining the academic boycott against Israel. And for a second or two, Hawking's move worked. Pundits roared, Israeli academics protested, the public was outraged.

For one second. And then, they moved on.

What with new austerity measures announced this week and Israeli start-up Waze reportedly on the verge of being sold to Facebook for a billion dollars, Israelis had a lot on their plate.

The sad truth is that Hawking is, unfortunately, kind of like that guy who gets to a party after the music has died and nearly everyone has headed home. Or in other words: He is much, much too late. The secret Truth with a capital "T" about the political discourse in Israel is that over the course of the past several years, the occupation has become less and less of an issue for the vast majority of Israelis.

We don't talk about it, we don't think about it. Hell, we don't even center our elections on it. Newly-minted finance minister and political prodigy Yair Lapid ran on a wholly-civic platform dedicated to social and economic issues, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ran on a platform that spoke plenty about Iran, but not much about Palestinians. Even Shelly Yacimovich, leader of the left-wing Labor party, abandoned the Palestinian issue, declared the Labor was never left-wing and wooed the center-right by stating she doesn't consider the settlements a "sin." Tzipi Livni, the only candidate who ran on a platform dedicated entirely to the issue of the peace process, won six measly mandates in the polls.

After the last attempt to renew the peace process, this time in Annapolis in 2007, failed, a realization began to take hold here: The conflict is unsolvable. So Israelis and Palestinians settled into a status quo that entails long stretches of nothingness, interrupted once in awhile by abrupt eruptions of medium-sized skirmishes.

Tense silence

The occupation, tragic as this may sound, blended in to the banality of everyday reality: a disturbance here, an act of random violence there, a burnt mosque or synagogue once in a while, a shooting every now and then – but overall, silence. Tense silence. It’s not peace, but it's not war either. It's just hostility, the kind that is allowed to fester, so long as it does so slowly and quietly.

Thus the occupation ceased to be a political issue. Free from it, Israelis have been freed to finally deal with their own internal problems: inequality, the soaring cost of living; corruption, religious freedom, and the separation of religion and state.

The onset of the Israeli social protest movement in 2011 symbolized, among other things, that the political discourse in Israel had moved on from the issue of the Palestinian territories. The kids setting up protest tent camps on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv deliberately shunned mere mention of occupation, in the interest of keeping the protest "non-political."

In an interview with Haaretz in July 2012, Habayit Hayehudi leader and current Minister of Economics Naftali Bennett said: "We have made ourselves hostages of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a conflict I personally find unsolvable." Even in the West Bank, he noted, Jews and Palestinians are learning, albeit resentfully, to live together. They may not like each other but are starting to realize that neither side is going anywhere, and a co-existence of quiet hatred is forming. "We've dealt with the conflict so much," he added, "that we forgot to fix the problems in the state of Israel. We have much bigger threats and much more urgent problems, namely the cost of living."

For the head of a right-wing, religious-Zionist party and former head of the Yesha Council to run on a largely civic platform is something new. Granted, Bennett gave lip service to questions of foreign policy, but for the first time in the history of the religious Zionist movement, the messages were aimed not only at the settler and right-wing crowd, but also at the general middle class, the educated and mostly Within-The-Green-Line-dwelling demographic that Yair Lapid had targeted.

Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi won 12 seats, many of those coming from Israelis who were not settlers. In fact, some of them even oppose the settlements. They still voted for Bennett because his views on the settlements didn’t matter to them: They were charmed by his attacks on the tycoons and by other non-occupation issues.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world

Outside of Israel, of course, it's a whole other story. People outside of Israel, Stephen Hawking probably among them, find it difficult to understand how Israelis can just go about their business, dealing with internal problems like recessions or separation of religion and state.

It seems the only times Israelis do think about the occupation is when: 1. There is a bombing. This has become rare. 2. There is a rocket attack. This only applies if you live in southern towns like Sderot or Be'er Sheva. 3. An international artist/speaker of some fame cancels a visit.

To understand why and how Israelis were able to detach themselves so fully from the Palestinian issue, one must take into account how fully they were immersed in it to begin with. For years, it was the only issue. It dictated election results (i.e "Peres will divide Jerusalem," the slogan that won Netanyahu the 1996 elections) and was the main cause of animosity between Israelis of different political persuasions ("Smallanim" being the most derogatory insult you could throw at someone in Israel – "smol" being the Hebrew word for "left" but also a play on the meaning of "small" in English).

As the issue divided Israeli society, tore it, corrupted it, not only did we not get any closer to solving the conflict, but our preoccupation with the Palestinian problem led us to ignore problems within Israel like corruption, inequality and violence, all of which grew worse and worse behind the smoke screen that is The Conflict That Cannot Be Resolved.

The fact of the matter is that barring a third Intifada, which seems unlikely at the moment, the Palestinian issue is doomed to be relegated to conventions in Frankfurt and to the pages of Haaretz.

It's not that all Israelis don't care – small pockets of resistance still exist, as well as small cells of activism -- it's that after years of dedicating the entirety of our national conversation to the question of what's to be done with the Palestinians, Israel has largely decided to leave the question unanswered for the time being. Israelis are no longer interested in talking about peace, or war, no matter which legendary scientist or aging rock star tries to force them to do so. And while it is tempting to say that apathy has replaced hope, that cynicism has replaced action, it would be both wrong and superficial to do so.

Internally, Israeli society is aspiring to new hopes, and replacing old actions with new ones. In the end, this process of healing from within could lead to that coveted progress on the Palestinian front. Perhaps, some day (and we're talking way down the line here), even to peace.

Asher Schechter