My Word: Old-New Israelis

It’s time to return to some of the basic, old values; a sense of priorities; and seeking middle ground.

Dafni Leef 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Dafni Leef 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I’m just an old-fashioned girl – middle- class, middle-aged, and, it seems, so middle-of-the-road that I’m in danger of being run over by the forces of change.
When student leader Itzik Shmueli used the term “New Israelis,” during this unforgettable summer of social protest, it didn’t speak to me.
Whenever I hear the phrase “the New Israel,” my immediate association is of a “new and improved” laundry detergent, which rarely gets rid of the old stains and has an unfamiliar smell.
I listened to Daphni Leef – the all-but-crowned queen of the protest movement – and I found myself agreeing now and again (especially on the days I’d received a bill for electricity, water or school books). But there were times I wondered what she was talking about.
I was particularly perplexed when I heard her speech in front of the crowd of 300,000 in Tel Aviv on September 3 in which she declared:
“At the demonstration in Afula I saw a sign: ‘For 31 days I have been proud to be Israeli.’ I stand before you and I am now proud to be an Israeli for seven weeks.”
Seven weeks? That’s it? I've been proud of being an Israeli for more than 30 years – some days more than others – and I was proudly Zionist in the Diaspora for almost two decades before that.
Leef explained: “I’m 25 years old. What are my biggest memories of this country? The Second Lebanon War, the period of terrorism, friends who were killed then, the assassination of Rabin, Gilad Schalit. And that’s even without going into that I’m a third-generation Holocaust survivor. This was my consciousness. Moments and memories laced with death, loss, pain, fear, and the feeling that everything is temporary.”
I’m 50, and what are my strongest memories? Well, definitely the First Lebanon War, in which my brother and most of my male friends served in combat positions; my own military service; the Gulf War with its real fear of non-conventional weapons; periods of terrorism (and not only friends who died – by the time you reach my age you discover there’s something worse than losing friends: seeing friends who lose children to war or terror). The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin I remember as if it were yesterday, and around November 4 every year, for close on 16 years, I have felt that instead of berating each other over who was responsible for the murder of the prime minister and fellow Jew, we should pull together to make sure that this never, ever, happens again. The abduction of Gilad Schalit of course plays on my mind – especially as I know one of the three families whose sons have been missing since the First Lebanon War in 1982. And, no, I’m not willing to discuss the Holocaust in a piece about social reform.
There are also, however, memories of which I believe we can all still be proud: Operation Entebbe was a very long time ago but we have every reason to still glow at the way Israel sent soldiers halfway around the globe in the most daring hostage rescue the world had seen. There were peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan – which despite the current strains have helped protect the country and also demonstrated that, despite what the world thinks, we do seek peace and not war. There was the IAF’s brilliant strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, which kept us and the rest of the free world safer for longer.
There were moments that Leef should also remember and could be proud of: the airlift of Ethiopian Jews; Israel’s rescue missions in the wake of natural disasters such as the tsunami and the field hospitals set up in places like Haiti and Japan. Ilan Ramon making kiddush in space… the collective shock of his tragic fate a few days later; these are also moments to recall.
We each have our own memories of the country’s greatest moments and its worst. If the good memories only started in the summer of 2011, they will seem dated before the year is out.
But perhaps this is the style of the New Israelis, a generation that expects instant gratification and constant change.
I knew I wasn’t part of it when I read several opinion pieces whose common thread was that TV interviewer Sharon Gal was wrong to even have raised the question of Leef’s evasion of military service because, in the New Israel, this is not what counts. Former Peace Now director Moria Shlomot, writing in Israel Hayom on September 9, for example, launched into a vicious attack on the generals of yesteryear before saying of Leef: “A citizen fighting for the soul of her country does not need a uniform and rank. The right to serve the country is no longer granted through the military.”
It’s a refrain I have heard and seen several times lately – that Leef’s contribution to society by helping mobilize 400,000 people in a social protest is more worthy than two or three years military service (plus reserve duty). One veteran even granted Leef his medal of honor.
I, too, welcome a less militaristic (and macho) society. The New Israel, however, should be aware that it has old enemies. The dream of a New Middle East, as expressed by Shimon Peres even as the Oslo Accords literally blew up in our faces, is not a nicer, gentler place. If anything, it has grown more extreme, less stable and better armed.
As an aside, it should be noted that if Israel does away with compulsory military service – before the Mideast conflict has been resolved – the result will not be a fairer, more civil society but one in which inevitably the bulk of the dangerous role of protecting the country will fall on the weakest.
I AM PROUD of this past summer – that for once Israelis were able to put aside political issues and discuss pressing social problems and that they did it in style. No other country – certainly not any participating in the ongoing Arab Spring or Greece and Spain just across the Mediterranean – did it the way Israel did, as a mammoth “summer happening” with camp-outs and free concerts.
Leef and her friends can be proud of the lack of violence and having put important issues on the national agenda.
But this was the summer of contrasts.
The average citizen knows that times are tough, and yet statistics issued this week show a record number of people traveling abroad – a staggering 1.2 million in July and August alone. And while Standard & Poor’s lowered the credit rating of the US, sending most financial markets into a spin, it raised Israel’s to A+.
How downtrodden are we when the stampede by bargain hunters at the opening of the first Israeli branch of Austrian furniture giant Kika resembled the mass assault by the Egyptian mob on Israel’s embassy in Cairo?
Then there is the sort of problem I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, truly: The type of socio-economic disparity that comes from having a thriving hi-tech industry.
We don’t need a New Israel, populated by New Israelis (whose basic philosophy is still powered by the old loathing of being a “freier,” a sucker). It’s time to return to some of the basic, old values; a sense of priorities; and seeking middle ground. That way, when today’s 20-somethings are middle class and middle aged they will be even more proud to tell the next generation about “The Summer of 2011.”
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.