When I was growing up in South Africa, our Jewish day school had a draconian dress code. Teachers would regularly herd us into the bathrooms for an underwear check; anything other than regulation gray knickers speckled with blue polka dots meant automatic detention. I think we believed lacy lingerie could land us in jail. Theodor Herzl School had super-strict rules: talking in the corridors could get you caned. Not only discipline was closely monitored; so was the kashrut of pupils’ Judaism. A child of a mother converted in the Reform shul didn’t have a hope in hell of wearing panties in our school colors – you were Orthodox, or you were out.
How have the mighty fallen.
Last week the lovely young principal of my alma mater, who is not Jewish, visited Israel and some of the many alumni here gathered in my living room to meet him. It was a magical evening; we reminisced, laughed and drank wine by a roaring log fire while watching a utopian presentation about the site of our childhood. The grass is still greener there, and the sky inimically blue – but the institution has become a rainbow. There are 12 pupils from the tribe in the whole high school – yes, 12! – less than 10% of the student body. Some of them have Reform moms.
Christians and Muslims make up the majority.
Yet – and this is the stunning part – the school is still Jewish. Black kids dress up for Purim and girls in burkas sing “Hatikva” on Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day). The tuckshop is kosher; everything closes for all the holidays, even the second day of Succot is observed. Somehow, bizarrely and against all odds, the diminutive community in tiny Port Elizabeth has intertwined multiculturalism and Jewish values, and made it work.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, I couldn’t help comparing our situation here. We were all so Zionistic back in the day – the Zionism that makes your heart leap when “Oh, oh oh! The bus driver is wearing a kippa!” How did we get from that to the stomach- crimping “Uh-oh, the bus driver is wearing a kippa: maybe he has a kid in Amona who’s getting so much compensation that the health and education budgets for the rest of us have to be cut.”
Why have too many of us become jaded, burdened by crazy religious extremism and political dogma, and how can we re-burnish our enthusiasm for our homeland? Knowing now what we didn’t know then, would we do it all again? Then, in the crazy only-in-Israel fashion, the very night after our school event, God sent me an answer.
His spokesman was Gidi Argov; the scene was another reunion, this time at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, where I am lucky to teach. Argov addressed the annual alumni dinner of the program he initiated to foster leadership in memory of his father, ambassador Shlomo Argov, who was shot in London in 1982. He noted that all the existential threats against Israel when he was in the army – strong enemy states on every border – were gone. Today Israel is a regional superpower and the Arab world is collapsing in chaos.
But the internal threats that we are facing now, according to him, are just as serious.
Argov enumerated our problems: a lack of social cohesion, the dearth of upward economic mobility, our dysfunctional government and the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. Yes, he conceded, all countries have their difficulties. However, our democracy is still so young that it is very vulnerable; according to him the next 10 years will determine our next 100 years of history. It won’t be clear sailing; our public discourse is so vitriolic as to poison the atmosphere. “Take ownership,” he urged the exceptional Argov Fellows. “Don’t be observers. Work for change.”
Enter Polly Bronstein. Young, beautiful and a veritable dynamo, Bronstein, who grew up here, embodies that energy. Her Mexican parents instilled in her the miracle of Israel and she gravitated to advocacy, working as a Jewish Agency emissary in London.
“I came back in 2013 to a changed country,” she says, “with a ‘desert generation’ leadership that is causing us to be stuck.” Together with heavyweights such as Kobi Richter (pilot, founder of Orbitech) and Ephraim Sneh (ex-MK, minister and brigadier-general in the IDF), Bronstein founded Darkeinu (Our Way), a grassroots movement to take back ownership for the moderate majority of the nation.
Here is a complicated and hotly debated statistic: today, according to Sneh, Jews make up 52% of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Arabs, including their 2.5 million inhabitants of the West Bank, are 48%. If we maintain our current territorial unity, in a few years we will no longer be the majority in our own country. This is before we tackle the problem that we are today the pariah nation in the world, with even the United States not taking our part at the UN. Sneh claims that Darkeinu’s platform is simple: if after five wars and two intifadas in our short history, 52% of the country can get 78% of the land, we are doing well.
This would be the victory of Zionism.
Darkeinu’s core values include Israel’s right to be a nation state for Jews with democracy for all; the creation of the two-state solution with security for Israel; the shunning of violence and extremism; and social justice and civil solidarity for everyone. According to Bronstein, 46% of Israelis totally identify with these values while another 26% don’t consider themselves “moderate” but identify with the values. Fifty-five percent of this second group translates into 10 mandates; they include the voters in the “right wing” camp who fear the creeping extremism in our society. The shrinking of democracy is apparent to many voters, claims Bronstein, like the trends to muzzle the courts, the media, and even the voices of moderation in the army.
Many Israelis have had enough. Darkeinu volunteers knock on doors and ring bells and sign up 1,300 new names every week. That’s a lot of people who are prepared to give change at least a little chance.
Now it’s Hanukka, a time of hope and miracles.
Four years ago exactly, on the festival of lights, I had my last coherent conversation with my husband.
Elections in Israel were coming up, and Martin, who knew he wouldn’t live to see them, encouraged me to vote for Education Minister Naftali Bennett. It was two elections ago, remember, when the Bayit Yehudi leader was “brothering” everyone, cozying up to Yair Lapid and coming across as trendy and cool. We know how that turned out.
Now we wondered at my school reunion, with hindsight, and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett and Development of the Negev and Galilee Minister Arye Deri leading us who knows where, would we do it again? Would we still leave the swimming pools and temperate climes, the courteous driving and the Cadbury’s of the old country and come home? I look at my kids, at my students, at the Polly Bronsteins and the myriad of compelled, good, kind, compassionate, clever people of this country and the endless miracle of our existence, and I say with no fear of contradiction: of course we would.
Now it’s time to change the government and shine out our light into the world.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC.