Middle Israel: Daniel Ben-Simon's calling

You will now be in a position to lead change in the Knesset.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit:)
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Dear Daniel, As you recalled in last week's Ha'aretz, while explaining your controversial decision to leave journalism and join politics, you were an eighth grader in Casablanca's best Jewish school when - to your trepidation - your teacher read an essay of yours in front of your class. You said you wrote "a tear-jerking lamentation" for a classmate who vanished, until you found out he had set sail to Israel. When Mr. Levy was done reading, he told you in front of the class: "I suggest you become a journalist or an author; that's your calling." Curiously enough, I had a similar experience roughly at the same time, in fourth grade. It was a damp winter day in Jerusalem when my friends noticed that I was talking to no one and holding back tears. One guy drew the attention of our teacher, who just nodded, but several hours later told everyone to take everything off their desks and write one page about anything. When the bell rang he collected all 40 papers and disappeared with them. Fifteen minutes later he returned and read my composition to the class. Unlike you, Daniel, I couldn't write about losing anyone to aliya, for the prosaic reason that we were already here. But I too had lost someone dear - my dog, a pretty, blackish, perennially happy and laughing poodle, who died the previous night. And since the oldest people around us were in their 40s, as the generation above them had perished in Europe, and since our oldest cousins were too young to have fought in the previous year's war - this was my first direct encounter with death. I understand your teacher was "strict and tough," but ours - the aptly named Yossi Melamed - was to education what Robert Frost was to poetry. He dialogued, played, sang, hiked and laughed with us and came to know us as well as - and in some cases better than - our parents. And so, all fell silent as Yossi Melamed read my smalltime recollections of how my poodle would jump at me when I returned from school, how he would run ahead of me between the limestones, thistles and flower carpets that sprawled between Old Katamon and the Valley of the Cross and how he would wake up the entire household every morning in time for school and work, except on Shabbat which he somehow knew to expect - until the previous night, when we opened the front door after hearing him scratch it one last time, only to see him lie there as motionless as the doormat under him, and then hear my father pronounce quietly, with the authority of a man who though still young had by then seen death pretty much from all its angles: "He is dead." OUR STORIES are not fully analogous. My essay was not about anything quite as momentous as losing a classmate or discovering Zion. More substantively, you arrived here at 14, while I was born in Hadassah Hospital, and you are a diehard socialist and now also a politician, both of which I am not likely to become anytime soon. For my part, I have led this newspaper's support of the economics you have attacked as a writer and will surely fight as a politician. And yet, I know exactly what your dedicated teacher saw in your writing. Mr. Levy saw you have what so many of our leaders currently lack: passion. You care for things that are larger than the luxury dwellings, Cuban cigars, fountain pens, Breitling watches, presidential suites and first-class flights whose brandishing has come to be confused here with leadership. Not only do you have feelings, you have gone the extra mile to probe the great dissonance of your biography: the gap between the lyrical Zion you coveted as a child, and the prosaic one you encountered as an adult. Your reports from Israel's godforsaken corners were journalistic gems, also for those who rejected the agenda that drove through them. In a society governed by leaders, from Left and Right, whose abandonment of their social and ideological roots makes it impossible to determine what they actually still care about beside themselves, your obsession with those falling by Zion's social wayside has touched thousands. Yet all this was fine as long as you fulfilled old Mr. Levy's observation and dedicated yourself to writing. Now, however, you are abandoning that calling in order to navigate an ocean Mr. Levy never recommended you chart. Understandably, many predict you will be eaten alive by these turbulent waters' sharks once alone in their midst. It doesn't have to be this way. THOUGH IT WAS naïve on your part to hastily celebrate Amir Peretz's rise to Labor's leadership as "a revolution," you are not naïve. It didn't take you long to concede you had been mistaken about Peretz, and now you are also sober about what politics has in store for you. Yet with all due respect to avoiding naivete, the question you should ask now is not how to avoid danger, but what is the best-case scenario: becoming, say, chairman of the Knesset Welfare Committee? Or deputy education minister? Or earning a seat on the Finance Committee where you will struggle for enlarged social spending? These may be nice to do, but let's face it: For you, a Moroccan-born secular intellectual, the root problem of Israeli politics lies not in this or that office, law or budget but in a social-political tragedy that has been at the heart of everything you decry. It's called Shas. Shas hijacked the social agenda, luring away from modernity, mobility and self-help the very masses to whom you have dedicated your pen. To matter as a politician, you should focus on marginalizing Shas. And the way to accomplish that is by changing the electoral system that has made Shas happen in the first place. That is where liberals like you and conservatives like me must meet. You say Israeli politics is decaying. How true. But why? The system is rotting because it is built to debilitate the political mainstream and put off real leaders, while prizing mediocrity and serving special-interest groups like Shas. In a district system, the mainstream would have larger and better representation and the margins' sway would shrink to their real size. If you want your second career to matter, make this your flag. I can't think of anyone in your party who is prepared to say today that the system and Shas are strategic problems, for the country in general, and Labor in particular. Today this insight is shared by academics and journalists, but not politicians. You will now be in a position to lead this thinking into the Knesset, and thus matter. Over the decades we have had numerous ministers and lawmakers who never stopped to think where history was headed, and what they should do about that. You can now help change that. It may be your calling.