Critical Currents: Founders and offspring

Upcoming movers and shakers are far better educated, informed and sophisticated than their parents, let alone their grandparents

0205-chazan (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Only a handful of those who established the state will be around this coming week to mark its 60th anniversary. A few days ago, yet another icon of the founding generation, Yossi Harel, the skipper of the Exodus, was put to rest. As if all the idealism, sacrifice, heroism and commitment are slipping away with these last mythical remnants. Not so: With all due respect, the grandchildren stand up well in comparison; in many ways, they are far more impressive. Constitutive historical moments, by their very nature, produce seemingly mythical figures whose achievements are magnified as time progresses. Israel's first leaders are no exception. David Ben-Gurion and his cohorts are now moving from memory into history, along with the many less known who struggled to achieve independence and who fought to assure Israel's survival in those early days. As the details fade the squabbles are forgotten, and many of the mistakes are buried along with their perpetrators, the founders appear to have assumed gargantuan proportions, as if as a group they embody the traits so desired and so tangibly lacking today. Prominent among these are dedication, probity, idealism and selflessness. Yet to endow the first generation with these, and other similar, attributes is not only historically inaccurate (some necessary correctives are now coming to light), it shortchanges the children of the children and the essential tasks they are confronting. Today's upcoming movers and shakers are, by and large, far better educated, informed and sophisticated than their parents, let alone their grandparents. They possess the tools to assess their surroundings, weigh options and choose among alternatives. They are equipped with particularly well-honed critical faculties and have no compunction about using them extensively to judge decisions, evaluate performance and apportion responsibility. Gradually assuming decision-making positions, this new crop of leaders is more qualified (if not always more experienced) than its counterparts some 60 years ago. It still awaits the opportunity to display its wares publicly. This generation is also far less homogeneous than its forebears were. Today's young Israelis have grown up in a multicultural society. They know and expect variety and accept (if not always value) diversity. In contrast, the founders placed special cachet on solidarity, which all too frequently smacked of stringent conformity. Nobody will dispute now that heterogeneity and difference are part of Israeli life - they still, however, lack a firm egalitarian backbone. ISRAEL'S EMERGING generation is also more open to the world and exposed to its nuances than their predecessors. The founders - many of whom were idealists bent on structuring a new social order inviolable to corrupting influences from the outside and insistent on imposing their worldview on all newcomers - cultivated an odd kind of enlightened parochialism. The growth of information technology, much due to Israeli skills, has meant that citizens now are far less insular than in the past. They not only know more, they have seen more. Travel abroad - fast becoming the most popular national pastime - implies greater familiarity with other cultures, problems and challenges. How many of these insights are brought back home is the subject of much debate; what is not open to question is the increasing cosmopolitanism of large segments of Israeli society. Contemporary Israelis know comforts that their grandparents never dreamed could be experienced. Struggle and hard work, the motto of the founders, were transformed into a prosperity rivaling that found in the most advanced economies. This work ethic still holds fast, but its rewards are more unequally distributed than at any point in the past. In fact, more continuous present-day acts of heroism are conducted by women as well as men in this arena than on any other contemporary battlefield. And, yes, today's generation displays levels of commitment that do not fall short of those exhibited by their progenitors. If in the past it was the resistance movements, the fledgling army and then the nascent political institutions that captured the imagination, those coming into their own in the 21st century are dedicated to a greater range of markedly civilian rather than military causes, promoted with no less zeal. Environmentalists seeking a sturdier and more sustainable ecological balance do not have less passion than the Palmahnik of yesteryear. Nor do the human rights activists protesting extensive violations carried out in their name; the housing advocates working day and night to find solutions to the basic need for decent shelter; the Mizrahi intellectuals seeking to assure the survival and dissemination of their rich traditions; or the peace promoters persevering in the quest to end the occupation. These causes may seem less lustrous than those undertaken by previous generations; they are by no stretch of the imagination less important. There is also greater personal confidence around with which to carry outstanding challenges forward (among women as well as men, newcomers along with veterans). Indeed, all too often, the sabra bravado - that mixture of arrogance and self-assurance so characteristic of the post-independence generation - has been associated with lack of prudence. If channeled in new directions and to other purposes, it can also be constructive. In any event, it is surely very different from the deep-seated insecurity that permeated virtually every move of the first generation. In the collective domain, sadly, residues of this paranoia remain and still guide critical actions. A generation of competent, sensitive, well-versed and still remarkably engaged Israelis is replacing the icons of the early years of statehood. They are not prisoners of some of their biases, nor are they necessarily bound to their holistic outlooks. If they use their skills to advance a just peace and create a fair society, they may yet outshine their forebears and become the purveyors of true freedom for Israel.