Every So Often: Thinking of You

As our children begin to reinvent Israel, they now give our generation the wisdom and explanations.

Social justice (photo credit: Talia Rubin)
Social justice
(photo credit: Talia Rubin)
Every so often, I think about writing to you, my good friend in America. I’ve visited you so many times. I’ve travelled from coast to coast. In the early 80s, I spent particularly rich times in Boston, when I served as a shaliah (emissary) from Israel. I learned to love and respect the American Jewish community – and I also became a diehard Celtics fan. (Getting to watch two championships in three years was more than anyone could reasonably hope for.) And I was in Boston again in the 90s, when I had the honor of studying at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
I learned a lot during my time at the Kennedy School. Professor Ronny Heifetz taught me the fundamentals of social leadership and management; Gary Oren taught me about de Tocqueville and civil society; and in Marshal Ganz’s classes I lapped up the lectures about the fundamentals of American voluntarism and how it led to the social changes in the 1960s and 1970s.
I took all that back with me and put it to good use when I became the executive director of the New Israel Fund in Israel. And while I was at the New Israel Fund, for more than a decade, you and I continued to meet – in New York, in Washington, in Seattle and sometimes in Boston. (Yes, I especially loved going back to see the Celtics – without them, life just doesn’t seem complete.)
Every so often, I get to thinking that I should write to you, my friend and brother in America. I think about those same old questions that I had to answer each time we finished eating our bagels and lox. You would look at me, the worry creeping across your face, and ask me, “So Eliezer, tell me, what’s going to happen over there, in Israel?” And I would try to explain. I would make excuses. I would squirm. The first Lebanon war. The inflation. The politics. The lack of Jewish pluralism. The way Arabs are treated. The never-ending conflict with no peace in sight. And the assassination of a prime minister. You always had an endless list of difficult questions and painful facts that I didn’t always know how to explain or excuse.
But no matter how uncomfortable I felt, no matter how many answers I didn’t have for you about the past, present and future of our country, I always came back to Jerusalem, the only place I really feel at home. And, immediately, I would become part of the problem again, and not just a commentator.
I still think about you every so often, my good American friend. I see what’s happening in your country – after all, we have Internet, too, you know. But we haven’t met or spoken together for nearly two years and now there’s so much to tell you about my country.
There’s a new excitement in the air over here. There’s a new full moon in our night-time sky and a new grass-roots movement. And they are bringing out the very best of Israeli society. Full of hope, this movement has suddenly sprung up just when we thought that we were stuck in a dead-end from which we would never escape. We told each other that we were hopeless, and we started to believe it ourselves.
And now, seemingly overnight, I find myself going back to those theoretical texts that I studied while sitting on the banks of the Charles River. I’m rereading the words of all those thinkers and activists who taught me that a society can reinvent itself, change direction, and find new horizons.
I know you’re going to remind me that I always tend to exaggerate – that my love for Israel is exaggerated; that my disdain for politicians and their deeds is overstated. That I make too much of the wondrous Russian immigration to Israel. That my rage at discrimination against minorities is out of proportion and that I make too much of the destructive status quo that persists between us and the Palestinians.
But I’ll still take a risk and describe to you very clearly what I see: In Israel, we are experiencing a sense of history-in-the-making that we haven’t experienced since Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat came to Jerusalem in 1977 or the morning after Menachem Begin came into power. The euphoria is everywhere and it’s all coming from the next generation, our children, who have been silent for years. And suddenly they are roaring, loud and clear.
In late July and in early August, they stood outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, in the streets of Tel Aviv, and in protests throughout the country. And we, their parents, listened in awe as a group of young people – most of them under 40 – talked to the crowds of over 300,000 supporters. In screams and in whispers, they told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “The People Want Social Justice.”
They didn’t say “we.” They didn’t say “I.” They said, “The people.” The Israeli people. And they called for “social justice,” that vague but tangible idea that once only activists in social change organizations used to quote. And when they call for social justice, they mean it in the only way that matters. They want kindergartens for their children, fair wages for teachers, decent pay for social workers, affordable housing, dignity for the elderly.
Are these really our kids? Those same kids that we thought would never be politically astute are now naturally talking about “the people.” And they aren’t searching for any validation – not from history, not from sacred texts, not from the pathos that we, their parents, bring them. They draw their inspiration from their own lives.
These young women and men from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Rehovot and Kiryat Shmona, Beersheba and Ashkelon are the Israeli people. They want a decent public health system, they want to be protected from the tycoons and robber barons who have taken over the Israeli economy and refuse to allow them to develop their skills, fulfill their potential and meet their own needs. Our children have found their own voice and they want to be on the public agenda. They are calling for a revolution because that’s what they feel, and their revolution is based on love, determination, talent, organizational savvy and rhetorical skills.
And we look at them and ask ourselves, where have these kids been up till now? And then we realize that these are our kids and we can’t help but wipe away a tear of pride.
Our own children are beginning to reinvent Israel. Everything we thought we knew, everything we were so certain about has suddenly been thrown into doubt.
For so many years, we, the older generation, have had to be the ones to explain everything. It’s so wonderful to now sit back and say to anyone who asks for our sage wisdom, I don’t have any explanations. Go ask them, the young people. They are wonderful and beautiful and smart and wise. They are hope, and it’s happening.
Every so often, I realize that we should be talking, you, my American-Jewish relatives, and me. Maybe, just maybe, dear teachers and mentors in universities and in the Jewish community, someone turned the light back on in Israel, and that light will shine in other places, too.
So I’ll be here. Every so often, I’ll come to these pages so that we can talk together. I hope you’ll be listening, and I hope you’ll talk to me.
Eliezer Yaari is a Jerusalemite, an author and a [email protected]