JERUSALEM — One core manifestation of modern Western civilization — of both its greatness and its naivete — can be found in the popular greeting, “Hi. Everything OK?” The assumption is that everything probably is OK.
As moderns, it is our task and within our ability to marshal our skills, talents and resources to tame reality to fit this expectation. As citizens, we have a right to everything being OK, and it is the task of our laws and policies to deliver this “everything.”
In much of the world, however, such a greeting would be not only foreign but nonsensical. Where natural and human-made disasters are commonplace, where disease, famine, poverty, war, crime and oppression rule the day, no one would think of flippantly asking, “Everything OK?”
“Everything OK?” is premised on a myth of stability, on the myth that chaos and uncertainty can be kept at bay by our actions. This myth, and the desire to sustain it, is one of the most potent catalysts for innovation and human advancement in Western and developed societies. It is founded on confidence in our ability to shape the world and hope that tomorrow can mirror the aspirations our abilities make possible. Such confidence and hope are absent from much of the world, often creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
It is remarkable that Israel sees itself as Western and not Middle Eastern. “Hakol b’seder?” (“Everything OK?) is a commonplace greeting between Israelis. Missiles could be raining on our heads, our children could be in battle. A tractor, which most days serves as a vehicle for progress, could for one day be turned into a vehicle of terror and murder. Yet Israelis still turn to each other and say, “Hakol b’seder?”
As in other Western countries, this naivete is Israel’s engine of cultural,intellectual, technological and economic achievement. We think we can, and we therefore make demands on ourselves. But this naivete also can leave us unprepared to deal with the uncertainties and chaos that no wall or Iron Dome can prevent from penetrating our reality.
Given the latest war in Gaza, the answer is clearly “no.” Some things, indeed many somethings, are OK. But many things are not, and the challenge facing Israel today is how to assimilate this complex and imperfect reality within the worldview of “hakol b’seder.”
Everything is not OK when within striking distance of most of our citizens lies a terrorist organization with a charter that calls for our death and with the means to terrorize half of Israel whenever they wish. Everything is not OK when our only way to fight Hamas entails an unacceptable number of casualties on both sides. Everything is not OK when the only way we can defeat Hamas is at the expense of innocent non-combatants behind whom they take cover. Everything is not OK when we must impose a blockade, with its horrific humanitarian and economic costs, because we seek to limit Hamas’ access to missiles and explosives that will be aimed at our citizens.
Did we win (or are we winning) this war?
Again, from the perspective of “hakol b’seder,” the answer is clearly “no.” We still do not have the stability we crave and the security we deserve. While every nation has the right and, in fact, the duty to engage in a just war of self-defense, many in the world are giving Hamas a political victory as a result of its ability to victimize its people.
No, everything is not OK.
For some in Israel this reality is unacceptable. They believe that, if some of the world is condemning us anyway, we might as well try to deal with the terrorist reality on our borders “once and for all” by launching an operation that will “solve” the problem, banish chaos and return safety and order to its rightful place.
For others, this is simply someone else’s reality. When Syrians massacre Syrians, when Sunnis and Shiites blow each other up in Iraq — that is, when Muslims kill Muslims anywhere in the world — it does not undermine our myth of stability, for they are not a part of the Western equation. We need merely to change the channel and forget the chaos that has no bearing on our world.
Israel, however, is the only Western country in an ongoing conflict for its survival. As such, it is destroying the status quo and undermining the myth of stability. If Israel would just “behave,” remove the blockade, accept Hamas’ terms, we would not have to witness that everything is not OK, and then everything would again be OK.
For some, if Israel would simply stop its “aggression” and, even better, simply disappear, the Middle East could return to its rightful place — not as the cradle of civilization, but as the home of chaos from which they can safely change the channel.
It is time to admit that, even in the West, everything is not and does not need to be OK. When the myth of stability becomes an existential need, it can cause one to harness one’s power for greatness, but it can also cause the idolization of power as the sole protector of stability. The need for everything to be OK can cause one to embrace fanciful policies that promise to deliver the “once and for all,” regardless of the moral consequences. The need for everything to be OK can also cause one to embrace equally fanciful policies in which the use of power is never needed or justified.
The paradox of Israel is that the only way for us to be a Western society is for us to embrace some measure of instability along with “hakol b’seder.” The only way for us to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger. Everything will never be OK. The challenge is what to do when one recognizes this.
For many years, especially after the Second Intifada and the Hamas takeover of Gaza, we have been trying to tune out the Palestinians. Economic prosperity, buttressed by a disproportionately powerful army, a barrier wall and an ever-improving missile defense system have allowed us to believe we can ignore the neighborhood. As nearby nations deteriorate into total chaos, we psychologically need to distance ourselves from it.
We have forced ourselves to believe that, not only can we immunize our society from its effects, but we also can maintain the myth of “hakol b’seder.” For the myth of stability to be sustained, we need to believe that the status quo is sustainable. As a result, instead of catalyzing us to innovate politically, it has lulled us into conceptual stagnation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Yalon and the whole Security Cabinet, including its most right-wing members, all voted against a “once-and-for-all” military campaign in Gaza. They stood up with courage in front of an Israeli electorate craving stability and challenged us to recognize that this is not to be.
To be a society of values, to be a society which celebrates life, to be a society whose greatest efforts and creativity are directed toward the advancement of our way of life, we need to get back to those pursuits instead of sacrificing everything that we are to feed the short-term needs of an unsustainable myth.
Our government has taken a great risk and challenged our society to go outside its comfort zone and relinquish the policies, language and narratives which have become Israel’s psychological Iron Dome. They have broken the status quo.
I don’t know what is possible today or tomorrow between Israel and the Palestinian people, whether peace and security are attainable. I do know that the status quo never served our long-term interests. Now is the time to innovate. Now is the time to explore new possibilities and seek new friends.
The horrors of the war in Gaza are a reminder to us all that everything is not OK. As a Western society, however, we don’t accept what is not OK; we direct our hopes and abilities to make OK those somethings which are not. If we have the courage to do this, out of the death and destruction of Gaza may come victory for both Israel and the Palestinian people.
Donniel Hartman is a rabbi and president of Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem (hartman.org.il). This was originally published by The Times of Israel.