What Israel can learn from Muhammad Yunus

It's been 19 years since I arrived in this country and the disappointments have been many.

October 23, 2006 19:48
3 minute read.
religious zionists 298.88

religious zionists 298.8. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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I arrived in Israel almost 19 years ago to the day. I had left a Soviet Union where Zionist life was actually thriving. I came to the land of my dreams not as a refugee seeking just any place under the sun. I knew why I had embarked on my journey of more than 17 years, often at great personal risk. I knew why I came to Israel as did so many other Russian Jews who shared my feelings and aspirations. We had been led to believe, through the media, by the Jewish Agency and via the Voice of Israel that every Jewish citizen of Israel lives in his homeland in dignity. Sadly, very soon after I arrived, I discovered that most of the claimed advantages of the Jewish state belonged to its glorious past. Even the word "Zionism" acquired a negative connotation in some Israeli circles. The mass media and the country's intellectual elite inspire acrimony between different Jewish immigrant groups. They've obstructed the revival of a homogeneous Jewish people after 2,000 years of dispersion. The media actively and cynically cultivate disdain of the weak and poor. Schools unbelievably select children according to their families' material means. The-powers-that-be hinder the economic integration of young people, thus encouraging them to leave the country. After 2001, reference to national identity was removed from our Israeli IDs; the word "Jewish" has virtually disappeared not only from our official documents but also from the Hebrew press. Even the anti-Semitic Soviet Union wouldn't dare strike such a blow to the national dignity of the Jews. IN THE last decades of the 20th century the interests of the Jewish national revival and those of Israel's powers-that-be came into real conflict, thus endangering the idea of the Jewish national home. We have witnessed how a persecuted and humiliated people's dream of a resurrected Israel has been reduced by these forces to one of nurturing as many millionaires as possible. The same people sit in the Knesset - for decades. Intellectuals appear concerned only with their personal success, while the media has turned into a mass brainwashing machine targeting poor, semi-literate and politically na ve citizens. New millionaires are appearing at a striking rate, while the reverse process of mass impoverishment is also accelerating. The middle class is gradually being squeezed out of the country's economic life. At the same time, a new trend is gaining momentum among well-to-do population groups: acquiring alternative citizenship for themselves and their children. These "lucky" characters can now cynically look down at their former country assured of their own future. LAST WEEK, Muhammad Yunus, a millionaire banker, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering a micro-credit scheme and his continuing efforts to eradicate poverty in his native Bangladesh. He did this at his own initiative and in spite of the powers-that-be in his country. He was determined to defeat poverty and illiteracy in Bangladesh. His hard work and devotion have won him well-deserved international acclaim. This great citizen of a very poor country has already saved 6 million of his compatriots from impoverishment and has given them a chance for a dignified life. It sounds like a fairy tale - this story of a kind and resourceful wizard who makes poor people happy. But it demonstrates that even a lone millionaire - providing he is a genuine patriot - can begin to solve a problem of national proportions. Instead of making money on the misfortune of poor people, as is often the case in our country, Muhammad Yunus disdainfully put bureaucracy aside and addressed the problem himself. The myth that unemployment is impossible to eliminate has thus been finished off by this one-man initiative. Now, in all likelihood, we cannot change the indifference and cynicism toward the people by our own powers-that-be, but perhaps we can aspire to do what needs to be done without them. I wonder. Can something like what Muhammad Yunus did happen in our country, among our people who have long dedicated themselves to being a light onto the nations? Can it be done in a country in which one bank is profiteering - and perfectly legally, too - to the tune of almost 400 percent? Can it be done in a country in which new immigrants get saddled with huge montages? In which basic housing is sometimes unaffordable? Can it be done in a country that virtually sanctions childhood illiteracy, thus destroying an entire generation's chances for obtaining professional advancement? After almost 60 years of national independence, the family and social fabric in this land seems governed by outdated laws and red tape. Against the achievements of Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh, and given the economic and moral travails in Israel, our powers-that-be have a lot to answer for. The writer, a former Soviet Prisoner of Zion, is a Jabotinsky Prize winner.

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