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Four days before Independence Day, a memorial ceremony took place at the Moshav of She’ar Yashuv in the North in memory of the soldiers who lost their lives in the 1997 helicopter disaster. But this is no normal memorial ceremony – it marks the end of a two-month trek along the Israel Trail, starting in Eilat and ending at the place of the disaster. The two-month hike, which has now become an annual event, was set up by the parents of one of the dead soldiers in his memory.
But this has become much more than simply a hike. It has become a meeting place for people and groups within this diverse society to meet, walk together, talk, discuss their different views and perspectives on the state of the nation.
Each day is accompanied by a workshop or a seminar, to which outside speakers are invited. The topics cover the whole range of social, political and cultural issues which face Israeli society. There is a core group of about 60, with others joining and leaving on a daily basis. At the height of the walk, during Passover, there were days on which participants numbered a few hundred.
This is not the only group. The Israel Trail has become a popular breakaway for many people who do not have the time, desire or resources to travel abroad and are seeking to do something different – they may choose to walk the entire trail, or just parts of it, all of which (except for some parts in the South) are relatively easily accessible. It is a way of breaking out of life’s daily pressures and remembering just how diverse this country’s landscape is, despite its extremely small size – from the aridity and deserts of the South to the mountains, water and greenery of the North.
It has also become a place for chance meetings – along the trail, at temporary camp sites and arranging rides to and from the starting points along the trail. People assist each other, offering food, hospitality and emergency medical care. There are Israel Trail “angels,” people who live in communities along the trail and who offer hospitality and food to the hikers.
It has become one of the country’s great spontaneous social experiments, proving that people can get along with each other if only they would live and let live, rather than attempt to impose their own lifestyles and beliefs on those who do not think or behave like them.
AS WE celebrate another year of independence, Israeli society has become increasingly diverse. From left to right, religious to secular, wealthy to poor, this has indeed become the “normal” society which David Ben-Gurion wished for, with all the expected goods and bads. Long gone are the days when there was a single national ethos of state building, characterized by a single and unquestioning form of patriotism, greater social and economic egalitarianism (if only because there was little wealth to go around) and a single hegemonic national ideology imposed upon the country by a small, but powerful, ruling elite of the Mapai leadership.
Today, politics and religion have become more diverse than in the first two decades of the country’s existence. Mizrahi society has become empowered, the haredi world has grown beyond all expectations, while the influx of a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union has changed the social and cultural structure of large parts of society. While the younger generations have become completely disenchanted with the political institutions and their corruption, they have also become more socially aware and concerned about the ills of society.
The thousands of small nonprofit welfare and social organizations, grassroots organizations which have few resources other than their own willingness to act, operate throughout and across society, bringing people together and improving quality of life for tens of thousands.
But one thing remains unchanged. The Israel-Palestine conflict continues and, as we enter out 63rd year of independence, looks as far from being solved as at any point in the past 40 years.
Even this does not deter the hikers on the Israel Trail. It is quite common to come across secular, left-wing youth who shout the evils of occupation, dialoguing with right-wing settlers who are walking the trail to show their love for the Land of Israel. It is a sort of neutral space, not linked into the political hierarchies or ideological rigidity which is so characteristic of Israeli politics.
IT IS unfortunate that two large groups in society are not yet part of this great social experiment. Both the Arab and haredi populations, both of which experience the most rapid growth of all population groups, still find it hard to break out of their social and spatial exclusion – the Arabs because they find themselves unwelcomed by the Jewish majority, the haredim because they want to create their own voluntary ghettos which will not be infiltrated by outside influences. Occasionally, one may encounter members of these groups along the trail, but this remains the exception.
Dialogue, the ability to be different and respect the difference of the
other, to live and let live – all these are characteristics which are
sorely missing in large parts of contemporary Israeli society. The
Israel Trail has become one of the movable places where difference is
overcome and where people are able to listen and be listened to. If
anything is worthy of the Israel Prize, this year or next, it is the
organizers of the Israel Trail. But then again, it has come about
because of so many people who have developed it from grass roots
upward, that it would not be possible to award it to a single
individual. At 62, the Israel Trail has become a symbol for the sort of
society we should aspire to be – internally diverse but respectful of
each other.The writer is professor of political
geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International
Journal of Geopolitics.