The Curse of the Eighth Decade
BY MENACHEM RAHAT
The threat of national disintegration, which destroyed the two sovereign Jewish states that preceded ours, remains an ever-present danger in the third iteration of Jewish sovereignty.
“Black Shabbat” – that’s what the media called the bloody attacks in Jerusalem on January 27–28 in which seven innocent Israelis were murdered and others were seriously injured – reminding us once again that from the point of view of the murderers who fulfill the curse of עַל חַרְבְּךָ תִּחְיֶה, “by your sword you will live,” there is no difference between different groups of Israelis. We are all destined for slaughter, G-d forbid, from their perspective.
But we must not be confused by the Palestinian criminal gangs. Ultimately, they are not the true threat to the sovereign Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. Far more threatening and dangerous to our future is the division and polarization within Israeli society.
The same brotherly hatred that came down to the world in the days of Kayin and Hevel, which was repeated in the lives of Yitzchak and Yishmael and Ya’akov and Esav, and exploded again with the brothers’ hatred for Yosef – this is the hatred that burns among us and threatens to overwhelm the Zionist enterprise.
Above the entrance gate to one of the pavilions in the Auschwitz death camp, I read with trembling a quote from the American philosopher Santayana (1863–1952): “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” And I remembered then the dark prediction of former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba: “The Arabs should not fight Israel; the Jews in their internal quarrels will destroy themselves.”
The State of Israel, now in its eighth decade of life and about to celebrate its 75th birthday, is today closer than ever before to the danger of a fratricidal war, each man against his brother. This is the moment to learn from history, before we destroy ourselves through the fire of hate.
We have much to learn from history. Twice before there existed here, in the Land of Israel, sovereign Jewish kingdoms, and the beginning of the collapse of both kingdoms began in the eighth decade of their existence. Both kingdoms existed for about 220 years, but the beginning of their end sprouted – with incredible timing! – in the eighth decade of their sovereignty. It is the duty of Israelis here and now to ensure that the situation here does not become a rerun of the terrible movie we’ve already seen twice before.
The first Jewish state, founded by King David, accomplished phenomenal achievements and survived united for 80 years. In the 81st year, due to internal conflicts, the kingdom of the House of David disintegrated into the separate kingdoms of Yehuda and Yisrael, and so began its fall. In the process, we lost millions of our brothers, the members of the Ten Tribes, who, according to Rabbi Akiva, “will not return in the future.”
The second Jewish state was the Hasmonean kingdom during the Second Temple era. It existed for 77 years as a united and sovereign kingdom. In the eighth decade of its life, the kingdom was torn apart by infighting, which led the representatives of the two camps claiming the crown to approach Pompey in Syria, each one begging him to agree to make them vassals of Rome. And so the sovereign Hasmonean state became a degraded protectorate state of Rome, devoid of proud Jewish sovereignty.
The establishment of the State of Israel 75 years ago is the third attempt to overcome the “curse of the eighth decade,” which defeated the two previous Jewish states. We are currently in the midst of our third opportunity, but it is uncertain whether we will survive it. Before our eyes, we are witnessing fratricidal hatred – and right now it really doesn’t matter who started it, because both sides bear equal responsibility for the terrible social chaos that is eating us apart, just as Bourguiba predicted. All the warning signs of a national catastrophe are flashing red. And don’t under any circumstances count on the possibility of a fourth chance.
Small comfort can be found in the fact that other nations have also experienced the “curse of the eighth decade” in a very painful way. The bloody American Civil War broke out 85 years after the adoption of the Constitution (oh, what luck – it happened to them in the ninth decade!). Italy became fascist and Germany became a Nazi terrorist state in the eighth decade after each nation’s unification. The Third Republic of France, founded in 1871, surrendered to the Nazi boot in 1940, in its eighth decade, while the communist monster that was born in the October Revolution of 1917 began to disintegrate in the 1980s and was finally shattered into pieces 74 years after its founding in 1991.
What is the spell that brings crisis and breaks up kingdoms in a nation’s eighth decade?
Historians point to several factors, whose cumulative impact can lead to a crisis. One explanation posits that a nation’s eighth decade ushers in the era of its third generation. While the first and second generations are acutely aware of the great responsibility placed upon their shoulders and are prepared to sacrifice and make major concessions for the good of the nation (“Anything but a civil war!”, as Menachem Begin said after the Altalena attack), the members of the third generation take the existence of the nation for granted and focus on their faction’s narrow agenda.
This is exactly what is happening today. The existence of the State is self-evident, even if there are serious threats from the outside: murderous Palestinian terrorism, Hezbollah missiles, Iranian nukes, and the like. With Hashem’s kindness, we will overcome all of these threats. On the other hand, the tsunami of hatred and factionalism may cause the vision of the Third Temple to collapse from within, in the spirit of Bourguiba’s twisted vision.
Against the backdrop of this devastating threat, right and left, Charedim and Arabs, veterans and new immigrants, anti-Zionists and post-Zionists, the religious and unbelievers, Mizrachim and Ashkenazim, citizens of the ‘state of Tel Aviv’ and citizens of the rest of the country must learn to forgo, compromise and come together in peace under the same umbrella. Only by following this path can we peacefully thrive – not only in the eighth decade, but also in all the decades to come, for eternity.
● This essay was originally published in Hebrew in Matzav HaRuach.
Menachem Rahat was the political reporter for Ma’ariv, and now writes as an independent journalist for a variety of online and print platforms. This essay was originally published in Hebrew in Matzav HaRuach.