Window to a New World

5 August 2011

Last Saturday night, at the demonstration in Jerusalem, I looked around and I saw a red river flowing in the streets. There were thousands of people there, people who haven’t raised their voices for years, people who had lost all hope for change, people who had closed themselves off inside their troubles and despair.

It wasn’t easy for them to join the rhythmic shouts of the young people with the speakers. Maybe it was the embarrassment of someone who isn’t used to raising a voice in public, a person who is afraid to shout out loud and even more afraid to shout out as part of a large group. For a few moments I felt that we, the marchers, looked at ourselves with a fair degree of wonder and some uncertainty, not entirely sure of ourselves,  or in what is bubbling up from within us: are we really “the masses,” an angry mob, fists in the air, like we saw recently during demonstrations in Tunis, Egypt, Syria and Greece? Do we really want to be that kind of mob? Do we really mean what we’ve been shouting rhythmically, “R-E-V-O-L-U-T-I-O-N”? And what will happen if we are “too successful,” and the fragile bands of this country start to crack? And what if this protest and the heat turns into anarchy?

But after a few steps something happens, gets into the blood. The rhythm, the movement, the togetherness. Not a threatening, faceless “unity,” but rather unity-not-unison, mosaic-like and messy, like a family, with a strong feeling of—here we are, doing the right thing. And then the shock comes—where were we up to now? How did we let this happen?

How could we have made peace with the fact that the government we elected has turned out healthcare and our children’s education into luxuries? How could we not have shouted and screamed when the Finance Ministry crushed the social workers, and before them—the disabled, the Holocaust survivors, the elderly and the retirees? How, for years, could we have pushed the hungry and the poor to soup kitchens and to charitable organizations for a life of humiliation, how could we have abandoned foreign workers to the people hunting and chasing them? How could we have abandoned them to trafficking in workers and women? How could we have made peace with the destructive displays of privatization while at the same time breaking down everything that was important to us—solidarity, responsibility, mutual assistance and a feeling of being connected to another nation?

It is well known that there were many reasons for this apathy, but the deep split surrounding the question of the occupation, in my view, is the thing that disrupted more than anything the control and warning systems in Israeli society. Our evil and diseased qualities as a society rose to the surface, and we—perhaps because of our fear to stand, eyes wide open, opposite the full reality of our lives—we enthusiastically dedicated ourselves to all kinds of people who would dull our senses, who would cause us to suppress the reality. Sometimes we looked at ourselves: some of us really liked what we saw; some of us were appalled. But even those who were appalled said, “well, that’s the way it is.” They called it “the situation,” as if it were fate or a heavenly decree. In addition, we allowed commercial television to fill up our collective consciousness and to dictate for us the terms of our fights for survival and predation, to split us apart from one another and to denigrate anyone weaker than us or different and “not pretty” and not rich. It has been many years since we have spoken to one another, and certainly many years since we have listened, because how—in this atmosphere of “catch what you can”—can we do it without trampling one another, without violence. Isn’t this what they’re telling and showing us, in every possible way—that it’s every man for himself?   

And the more we exhausted ourselves with unending denials, so we have become better fodder for control and manipulation and stupidity, victims of a subtle and effective “divide and conquer.” And thus, from money to money, from money to power, and to the press, our dealings with critical questions took a dive and became questions like “who loves this country and who hates it,” “who is faithful to it and who is a traitor,” who is a “good Jew” and who has “forgotten that he is Jewish.” Every rational discussion has been buried in a thick dough of kitsch and sentimentalism, the kitsch of patriotism and nationalism, the kitsch of self-righteousness and of victimhood, and slowly the ability to analyze soberly what is going on here became blocked, and at the end of the day Israel finds itself acting and behaving—towards its own citizens —in complete contrast to the values and the world view that were once its very soul and its inimitability.

But here, all of a sudden, and in contrast to all the predictions, something is rising up. People are waking up, opening up to something that isn’t entirely clear yet, where it is all going, and there are no words yet precisely to describe it all, or completely to understand it, but it is becoming more clear and crystallizing while calling out these slogans, which are all of a sudden blossoming from a cliche into live feelings, “The Entire Nation Demands Social Justice!”, “We Want Justice, Not Charity” and other sayings taken from other times, and once in a while there is a feeling in the air that there is a path to recovery, to mending, and this forgotten thing comes back to us,  our self-respect, of the individual Israeli and of Israelis as a whole.

There is an unbelievable power, a power which is also a bit deceiving and intoxicating, in this awakening. It is enticing to be swept away by euphoria— and in the renewal of youth—that the new movement has inspired. It is easy to err with the misconception that once again, we are destroying an old world to the very foundations.  But that’s not exactly right: the old world wasn’t all bad. There were great accomplishments, too, some of which will make it possible for the current protest movement to achieve some of its goals, as well as the freedom to express these desires. Therefore, this struggle must use entirely different language than struggles we’ve had here previously. Above all, it must be based on dialogue; it must be inclusive rather than exclude people, ideological and not sectoral and opportunistic. It shouldn’t be “every tent for itself.” This is the way for the protest movement to maintain the widespread public support it currently enjoys. A certain amount of vagueness by the protest movement makes it possible for every group within the movement to hold different and opposing political opinions and beliefs but still—for the first time in decades—to form a common human, civilian platform, and even to feel pride about being part of this community. Who in Israel can allow himself to relinquish these precious resources?

This protest movement and the waves of aftermath offer an opportunity for people who haven’t spoken to one another for decades finally to speak to one another. Different layers of society who are far removed from one another. Religious and secular, Arabs and Jews. Inside this process of identifying what unites us, there can also be a renewed dialogue between right and left wing, a discussion based on reality and more empathetic—for example, the left’s apathy with regard to people who lost their homes in Gush Katif, the settlers’ open wound—the type of discussion that could salvage what’s left of our mutual responsibility, something that a country in our current state cannot afford to let go of. In other words, if the spirit behind this movement really is to be found in the words of Amir Gilboa—“All of a sudden a man wakes up one morning and feels he is an entire nation and he begins to move,” then the movement must now continue on and sing, “and he said ‘shalom’ to everything he met.”

It is easy to criticize the steps of this young movement. And in general —it is always easier to find reasons to say “no” than to get up and make bold, brave steps. But anyone who listens to the mercies of the protesters hearts — not only on Rothschild Boulevard, but also in south Tel Aviv, in Ashdod, in the lower socio-economic neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Haifa and Ma’alot-Tarshiha—understands that we may have opened a window here to a new future. The time is right for such a process, and surprise surprise!—there are people, at long last, who are joining the fight. Maybe that’s what one young woman meant when she came up to me at a demonstration in Jerusalem and said, “look! The leadership is still terrible, but the people aren’t anymore.”

Originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth.