Middle Israel: Person of the year

He proved that voiceless, hopeless and penniless people could still stir the world.

September 29, 2011 09:03
Muhammad Bouazizi rally

Muhammad Bouazizi rally 521. (photo credit: Wikicommons)

Our Person of the Year 5771 is not an Israeli. Unlike Prof. Ada Yonat last year, this year no one in our midst brandished a lifelong project that represented something larger than one life, something that would encapsulate what Zionism set out to accomplish.

Now many will disagree and argue that the year’s social protest was so momentous that one of its heroes or villains should be Person of the Year; someone like Daphni Leef, the plump, outspoken hat-lover whose relocation to a tent in downtown Tel Aviv touched off the spontaneous flocking to Rothschild Street that soon swelled into a nationwide movement that engulfed hundreds of thousands. And if not Leef, then perhaps student leader Itzik Shmuli, whose idealism and soft language represented a refreshing antithesis to the typical Israeli politician; and if not any of the protest leaders, then maybe the nameless student who spent night after night in a tent in a romantic quest to change the world.Well, the problem with all these choices is that the year’s social upheaval has yet to actually change the world. Yes, in the future we may learn that the era that began when the Likud’s rise to power empowered a previously marginalized working class ended in 5771, when the middle class rose to its feet and demanded its own place under the sun. For now, however, there is no evidence that the summer’s protest is generating revolution.

And just like the protest did not produce the Person of the Year, neither did its Antichrists.

Price hikers like the owners of Tnuva and Strauss may have unwittingly landed at the heart of the year’s main public storm, but they neither caused nor undid the malaise of which they were a part, and are likely to be forgotten quickly.

One who may ultimately loom more prominently in the aftermath of the year’s social upheaval is Manuel Trajtenberg, the economist tasked with producing a blueprint for reforms that would please the protesters and serve the economy. If successful in this, he might be next year’s Person of the Year. This year, however, he too, like the protest leaders, has left no imprint on our daily life and thus cannot be crowned Person of the Year.

And since beyond the social-protest scene we also found no Israeli, whether a thinker, a statesman, a general, a scholar, a builder, an inventor, an artist, a scientist or an athlete who either inspired, provoked or entertained us, or encapsulated what is either pretty or ugly about us – we must seek our Person of the Year beyond our narrow confines.

CONSIDERING THAT the very concept of Person of the Year by definition appreciates the role of the individual in history, it might have made sense to honor this year Steve Jobs, Apple Computers’ departing leader who this year sealed a technological career whose historic imprint is arguably on par with Gutenberg’s, Edison’s, and the Wright Brothers’.

However, while naturally honored or dishonored by his or her selection, honor is a byproduct rather than an aim in nominating the Person of the Year, a distinction whose crux is about linking a person to a trend, an event, a failure or an accomplishment that actually dominated, or at least rose above others in the elapsing year.

And in Jobs’s case, his great inventions, from the Macintosh to the iPad, came in many years, each of which would have easily won him the title in its time – but they did not come in 5771.

The situation is far worse in the realm of statesmanship, where a sense of vacuum and levity this year gripped the entire world.

From Barack Obama’s loss of America’s previously impeccable debt rating; through the plunge of Hosni Mubarak from pan-Arab regality to courtroom mortality and from a devastated Japan’s appointment of a sixth prime minister in five years to Europe’s failure to cure its financial wounds – ours has been a year of political fallen idols and historic non-leaders, none of whom could be plausibly named Person of the Year. The only exception in this regard, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose springtime electoral landslide crowned him the strongest man in the Middle East, has not done this year anything markedly different from what he had previously done during nearly a decade in power.

Is, there, then, one person who this year represented better than anyone else a trend, event, image or moment that more than any other will be associated in the future with 5771? Actually, there is.

OUR PERSON of the Year, unlike last year’s Nobel Laureate, has not had an illustrious career, or indeed any career, or for that matter even just a life, whether in terms of his brief years’ length or in terms of their quality, which was wretched.

Muhammad Bouazizi lived a mere 27 years before he torched himself to death, after Tunisian municipal officials confiscated his poor man’s vegetable stall. Just how much of his drastic action was despair and how much calculation will remain unclear forever. He certainly did not delude himself to believe that he would topple his country’s corrupt regime, much less those of other Arab countries, let alone the undeclared leader of the entire Arab world. Yet he did.

Bouazizi was like the son of the rag peddler in the hassidic tale, who as a child saw Cossacks kidnap his father in the middle of a forest and then torch him to death in a fire that lasted only a few minutes, because that was all it took to burn to death that small Jew’s body, shortly after he told his kidnappers, “I am a rag dealer, but I am not a rag.”

The son’s conclusion was to eat compulsively.

“When they come to burn me,” he explained, “I will generate a real flame; I will burn slowly and I will burn a lot, so the world will see, so the fire will be visible from afar – all the way to the edge of the world.” It is doubtful that Muhammad Bouazizi knew much, if anything, about Hassidim and Cossacks, yet he implemented this tale’s moral in a way that few could predict. For what he torched was that “real flame.”

The extent to which his death will ultimately help reduce the kind of evil that made him take his life remains to be seen. But even if it doesn’t, Bouazizi has touched off the year’s main chain of events and, while at it, proved that even when voiceless, hopeless and penniless, a man could still stir the world, that even when abused, humiliated and dispossessed, a man could still light a flame that his generation could not ignore, and history will not forget.

That is why Muhammad Bouazizi is our Person of the Year.


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