An unsettling look at Israel’s future

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennet, who leads The Jewish Home party, plays a role in a novel about Israel’s future.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennet, who leads The Jewish Home party, plays a role in a novel about Israel’s future.

On a trip to Geneva this week, I had a chance to visit my friend Naava Mashiah, whom I haven’t seen in a while. Naava was born in Israel, but her parents emigrated to the U.S. when she was little — young, but old enough to remember her roots and to want to return. When she was 20, she came back to Israel, starting a new chapter in her life, or rather reviving an old one. Later, life and business took her to Geneva, but she remained strongly attached to Israel.

Before saying good-bye, she gave me the book she had just published, IsraEL 2023, Closing the Circle. To say that the book unsettled my mind would be an understatement.

This is an imaginary trip Mashiah is taking to Israel in 2023, after 10 years of absence. What she sees is appalling.

First, the country has changed its name to IsraEL, the second vowel being capitalized to emphasize the word El, “God” in Hebrew. If Israel has struggled for decades to walk the thin line between being both Jewish and democratic, then IsraEL is a theocratic state where Jewish law alone prevails, non-Jews are not wanted, and non-religious Israelis are concentrated in an area on the seashore called Hilonim (seculars, in Hebrew), once known as Tel Aviv.

IsraEL, in Mashiah’s scenario, is governed by the religious arch hawk Naftali Bennet, minister of education in 2015 and a strong ruler in 2023. To get a sense of what a far cry this is from original Israel, Ben Gurion Airport’s name was changed to Bennet Airport, where incoming passengers are checked for their Jewishness.

As Mashiah continues her imaginary tour, she can hardly recognize the country she has left a decade before. By annexing the West Bank, IsraEL has managed to turn itself into a pariah state among the nations. Scientists and scholars, fed up with government and religious interference, were leaving, and loyalty checks became common practice — echoing George Orwell’s 1984.

One comic relief in this frightening book is a visit Mashiah imaginatively pays to Shimon Peres, who, at the age of 100, still talks enthusiastically about some scientific invention that willl save the world, not realizing that in the meantime, the Israel he helped to create has been snatched from under his feet.

Sometimes Mashiah overplays the absurdity of these negative developments, turning it into caricature. Zubin Mehta, the legendary musical director of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, would never surrender to directives of government officials and play Jewish hymns instead of Brahms and Bach. Mashiah could have served her cause better had she portrayed this great musician as defying authoritarianism, like Arturo Toscanini before him, who refused to play the Giovinezza, the Fascist anthem, before a concert. The La Scala Orchestra obeyed him, because the musicians obviously feared the maestro more than they feared the Duce.

Nevertheless, everything Mashiah refers to in IsraEL 2023 has roots in Israel today. What she does is point to where negative trends could lead, if not stopped or changed in time. This is what makes IsraEL 2023 such a thought-provoking book, much like the futuristic novel Submission, in which Michel Houllebecq tried to shake fellow Frenchmen by setting 2022 as the year when France — through democratic elections — falls into the hands of an Islamist president.

Israelis reading this book may wonder what they could possibly do to avert the scenario Mashiah is prophesizing for them. After all, demographic trends in Israel, where more than half of the Jewish first graders are religious, seem to support Mashiah’s forecasts. But thinking out of the box may present some interesting opportunities.

Here is one example: There are more than one million Arabs in Israel, hard-working, law-abiding citizens, begging to be accepted as equals into Israeli society. In the early 1990s, one million Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union boosted Israel’s economy, science and culture. Today, integrating one million Israeli Arabs can likewise bring surprisingly positive results.

Naava Mashiah wrote her book because she deeply cares about Israel. If there is anything she really wants to happen, it is to be proven wrong. She sent us Israelis a wake-up call, and gave us eight years to change the course our country had taken. Let’s go to work.