Last Saturday night, at the Jerusalem demonstration, I looked around and saw a human tidal wave flowing in the streets. Thousands of people were there, people who for years have not spoken out, having lost all hope for a change. Instead they had cloistered themselves within their own troubles and despair.
It wasn’t easy for them to join the roar of the youngsters with the megaphones. Maybe it was the discomfiture of those who are not used to speaking out, and are afraid to scream out. They were even more reluctant to roar out in unison. At times I felt that we, the marchers, were looking at ourselves in astonishment and a tinge of doubt, not really totally believing in ourselves. We were not quite sure of what was emanating from within us: Are we really that kind of angry mob, waving their fists in the air, as we have seen in similar demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, Syria and Greece? Do we really want to be such a mob? Do we seriously mean it when we scream out to a drumbeat: “R-e-v-o-l-u-t-i-o-n!?!” What if the bolts that hold this fragile state snap open and crack? What if the protest and fervour is “too successful” and turn into anarchy?
But after we take a few steps something happens, and gets into our bloodstream: The pace, swing, and togetherness. Not the kind of threatening “togetherness” that wipes out individual identity, but a different kind of togetherness: a heterogeneous chaotic, familial medley. It is combined with strong sense of here and now, we are doing the right thing, finally doing the right thing.
And then there’s the shock: where were we until today? How did we let this come about? How did we acquiesce when the governments that we had elected turned our health, and our children’s education, into luxuries? How did it happen that we did not rush to the social workers’ aid when Treasury officials crushed them? And before them, how could we have acquiesced when the same treatment was meted out to the disabled, and Holocaust survivors, and the elderly and the pensioners? How did we forsake the hungry and poor over the years, abandoning them in soup kitchens, and in the care of charity organisations, setting them up for a lifetime of humiliation? How did we abandon foreign workers in the face of their hunters and persecutors, accepting the slave trade and trafficking in women? How do we put up with the ruthless march of privatisation thereby diminishing the value of everything we hold dear – solidarity, and responsibility, and mutual aid, and a sense of belonging to a single people?
We all know that there were many reasons for this indifference. But to me the deep schism over the issue of the Occupation is the most significant factor that devastated our society’s early warning and control systems. The flawed and unhealthy aspects of society were able to float to the surface. And we, perhaps because we feared facing the full reality of our lives, enthusiastically gave in, throwing ourselves into various opiates which dulled the sense of reality. Sometimes we looked at ourselves: some of us really liked a lot what he saw, while others disliked it and flinched. But even those who flinched, accepted it as the way things are, and called it “the situation” as if it was a matter of fate or a decree from heaven. In addition, we have let the commercial TV channels fill in most of the space in our collective consciousness, seeing ourselves in terms of struggles for survival and predation, pitting us against each other, and making us despise all those who are weaker than us, and different from us, and who are not “beautiful” or witty, or rich. And for many years now we have stopped talking to each other, and we have certainly stopped listening. It stands to reason that when the prevailing ambience is that of “grab what you can,” you cannot help but disparage the other and rob each other blind. For that is the way they demonstrate to us and remind us at every opportunity: it’s every person for themselves and their fate.
The more we exhausted ourselves through this non-stop squabbling, the more malleable we became so we could be bewildered, controlled, and manipulated, allowing ourselves to fall victims to an invisible but effective “divide and rule” syndrome. And so, discussion of important questions trickled down from capital to regime to media, steadily getting shallower. It made us bicker about “who loves the country” and who hates it; who is loyal to the country and who betrays it, who is a “good Jew” and who “forgot what it was like to be a Jew”. Every rational discussion was smothered in a melange of sentimental, patriotic, and nationalistic kitsch whipped up with self-righteousness and victimhood. Slowly but surely, the possibility of sober criticism of what has been happening here was stifled. Eventually, Israel found itself acting and behaving towards its own citizens in total contrast to the values and world-views that were once its essence and uniqueness.
But now, suddenly, and against all expectations, something has arisen; people are waking up. They are opening up to something, even though it is not quite clear what it is and where it is heading. There are no words to describe it accurately, or to understand it fully. But that thing is becoming clearer and it crystallises as we read the slogans: The clichés are breaking out of their casings and turning into a living, breathing emotion, “the people demand social justice”! “The people want Tsedek (justice) and not Tsedaka (charity)!” There are more such words and such slogans that are harking back to different eras. And every so often the air carries with it hints of a possible revitalisation and repair. That forgotten concept of self-respect, both on an individual basis, and for Israel as a whole, has returned.
That awakening has tremendous, albeit intoxicating and deceptive, power. It is tempting to get carried away by the euphoria and the youthful renewal that the new upheaval has created. It is easy to delude oneself that here we are again destroying the old world to the core. But that’s not quite right: the old world was not all bad. It also included some great achievements, which among other things, would actually enable us to bring some of the protest movement’s demands to fruition. The old world has also given us the freedom to express our demands. Therefore, this struggle has to speak a language different to those of previous struggles. Above all, it must be based on dialogue, which is inclusive rather than exclusive; which is principled, rather than one based on opportunism and sectoral interests. This is no time to be divided into our individual camps. That’s the only way the protest movement can hang on to the tremendous public support it currently enjoys.
It is the very ambiguity of this particular protest movement which allows each group to hold different political opinions and mutually contradictory beliefs, and yet recognise – for the first time in decades – a shared common civil and humanistic platform. It even provides a degree of pride in belonging to this community. Who in Israel can afford to give up such a rare resource as that?
This protest movement and its accompanying pressure waves provide an opportunity for communication between those who for decades have not communicated: between different, and disconnected, social strata; between the religious and secular, and between Arabs and Jews. This process of identifying what is common and attainable can open up dialogue between the Right and the Left, introducing a more realistic and empathetic discourse. For example, it can take up the Left’s indifference to those who were displaced from Gush Katif. This remains a festering wound for the settlers. Inclusive speech here may salvage whatever it is possible to save of the sense of mutual responsibility that a country in our situation can ill-afford to give up. In other words, if the spirit of the movement can indeed be found in the words of Amir Gilboa’s poem quoted everywhere, “Suddenly a man wakes up in the morning. He feels he is a nation and begins to walk”. Then we must continue with the next line: “And to all he meets on his way he calls out ‘Shalom!’”
It is easy to criticise the nascent movement, question its moves and doubt it. Indeed it’s always easier to find reasons why not to do something decisive and courageous. But whoever listens to the groan of the demonstrators, not only at Rothschild Boulevard, but also in Tel Aviv’s southern suburbs and the poorer neighbourhoods of Jerusalem and Ashdod and Haifa and Ma’alot-Tarshiha – would understand that maybe we have opened a window to a different future. The time is ripe for such a move, and surprisingly we also have, at last, the troops. Maybe that’s what the young woman meant who came up to me at a demonstration in Jerusalem and said: “Look, the leadership is still hollow, but the people are not.”
I hope and expect we can have a dialogue and debate in the comment thread about what is good or wanting in this essay.