Civic activism can kickstart a Zionist renaissance - opinion

As political rifts in Israeli society grow wider, the renewal of civic activism has the singular ability to revitalize our governmental systems – in ways more essential than ever before.

A new Zionism (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A new Zionism
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

This past year, events ranging from the turmoil of Operation Guardian of the Walls (last spring) to barbaric terrorist attacks in recent months have brought to light the inability of government authorities to successfully respond to security challenges.

These attacks have occurred on multiple fronts, and have taken place during relatively tranquil periods.

There are many reasons for the lackluster response of those at the helm of government forces: a lack of manpower, a shortfall in appropriate training and, in some cases, mistaken security paradigms that have led to misjudgments in the field, or faulty insight into challenges and the proper rejoinder.

Yet, we see the opposite phenomenon in the civilian sphere. We are witness to organizations such as Hashomer Hachadash and Sayeret Barel, a magnet for volunteers who do battle against agricultural thievery and crime throughout the country. In communities across the country, cadres of volunteers created initiatives during the COVID pandemic that eased the loneliness of elderly people, with special attention to vulnerable Holocaust survivors. And after the Russian invasion in February, swift and resourceful volunteers banded together to rescue Jews of Ukraine trapped in war zones with no avenue for escape.

This phenomenon is a direct consequence of the confusion and inefficiency of Israel’s government authorities. It is both desirable and necessary to improve the responses to the most daunting challenges of our day. We now recognize that the shortfalls of the system – in spite of every effort to repair them – are built-in.

An Israeli flag [Ilustrative] (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)An Israeli flag [Ilustrative] (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In his book Basic Economics, the economist Thomas Sowell affirms the principle upon which economies are founded: The quest is to anticipate the needs that will arise within a given period of time, and to allocate resources and merchandise accordingly. But there will always be errors in the calculations, since needs and circumstances are subject to change.

Therefore, the attempt to swiftly alter the supply of goods and materials is an impossible effort. Even if the best minds were applied to the challenge, they would not be able to take into account all the variables essential to meeting the needs on each front.

According to Sowell, this is also the reason for the success of the free market’s decentralized knowledge platform, which enables suppliers and consumers in each locale to divert their resources in accordance with changing circumstances and to act swiftly and efficiently.

This principle also applies to the security systems. Although it is essential that these systems utilize their appointed powers, the scope of security challenges, on the one hand, and the limitations of resources and knowledge, on the other, have led to a situation where it is not possible to provide an immediate and effective response to dynamic circumstances.

Civic preparedness has value beyond the efficiency with which it can respond to changing circumstances when the government falls short. There is also the added value of solidarity and striving for the common good, which benefits all members of society. The 19th-century French thinker Alexis Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America, pointed to the force that would balance the striving toward “individualization.”

He noted the need for a force to bind democratic and capitalistic societies: When citizens must advance the public good, by necessity they find themselves in the pursuit of shared interests and are deterred from focusing solely on their own concerns. The free institutions in the hands of American citizens, and the political rights that they so readily utilize, remind each citizen, in thousands of ways, that he or she is part of a larger society.

IN CONTEMPORARY Israel, we are confronted by myriad challenges which demand urgent responses, yet the political system has remained unstable for extended periods of time. The system is unable to make critical changes in the short term.

But as political rifts in Israeli society grow wider, the renewal of civic activism has the singular ability to revitalize our governmental systems – in ways more essential than ever before.

We must remember that Zionism, in the words of the visionary Theodor Herzl, is the “infinite ideal.” The establishment of the state was by no means the conclusion of the Zionist dream.

In the past, there were leaders who propelled this desolate land to blossom, and they changed the course of history for all of the Jewish people. Who is at the helm of that pioneering spirit today?

Many of us have encountered the new leaders of this generation. They are young men and women, still in their 20s and 30s, guiding civic initiatives in their communities and Israeli society at large. They identify – and close – gaps neglected by government systems. But these outstanding individuals have yet to be properly recognized or adequately cultivated.

Their talents must be harnessed. That is the guiding principle of YESOD, a new leadership development initiative. The aim is to seek out these individuals and nurture their idealism and practical advocacy. Together, we can rally the leaders of a new generation. These are the individuals who will spark the Zionist renaissance of the 21st century – and we must support them.

The writer is the founder of YESOD, an initiative he is launching with like-minded colleagues after some 15 years of guiding young leadership programs in Israel and overseas. He is also the creator of programs to enrich Jewish identity and promote social mobility. He is a reserve-duty combat officer of a search-and-rescue division of the IDF.