Interesting Times: On spirit and sacrifice

Contrary to popular belief, Zionism is not dead.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
It's that time of year again. Just after Pessah, as winter and summer battle briefly over the weather, comes our annual emotional roller coaster. Immediately after Holocaust Remembrance Day, out come the plastic Israeli flags that jauntily jut out of car windows. Then, tamping down this cheery atmosphere, comes Yom Hazikaron, when the entire nation remembers fallen soldiers. Finally, with zero transition time, the roller coaster climbs up again, as we shift to celebrating Independence Day - generally by finding a patch of grass for a picnic barbecue with family and friends. It is a time when I think more than usual of my brother Alex (see, who fell in Lebanon 20 years ago this September, and how I could possibly bring him up to speed on what has happened since then. Even Alex, who had a rather grounded view of the threats Israel was facing, could not have imagined that the decades following would not see progress toward peace, but the opposite: a regression toward existential fears not felt since the early years of the state. Capable of finding the humor in his own doubts and dilemmas, Alex once wrote of having "angst in my pangst." Since this is an apt description of our national mood, it is worth recalling what is going right in this country, and some grounds for realistic optimism. CONTRARY TO popular belief, Zionism is not dead. It has become fashionable to portray Israeli youth as ignorant of their past, increasingly materialistic, and decreasingly in maintaining or defending, let alone building, the nation that their parents and grandparents fought to create. It would be facile to deny that these trends exist. But alongside them is evidence that the dream of Israel is work in progress that takes on new forms. This Pessah, my family visited Kfar Adiel, the first of five student villages founded just five years ago by two friends, Matan Dahan and Danny Glicksberg (see Their simple idea: turn the classic formula for developing the Negev and Galilee on its head. Instead of building factories and hoping people would come, entice the best university students to start building their lives in the area and the jobs will come to the people. Here's how it works: the students receive subsidized housing and tuition in exchange for 10 hours a week in community service and pledging much of their vacations to building the villages in which they live and to helping other projects in distressed areas. The formula has proved so successful that over a thousand students apply for the 300 spots in Adiel, Dimona, Yachini, and "urban villages" in Beersheba and Kiryat Shmona. Over 5000 children and adults participate in the community service projects led by the students. We stayed in the caravans the students had managed to turn into a yuppified, campus-style community. We, our kids included, had a blast laying stones and smearing wet concrete into the Negev sand, constructing what will become permanent student housing. From even this brief experience, it was obvious what attracted these students: the opportunity to be part of something meaningful by building a community, a village, and their country all at the same time. Last summer, during the Second Lebanon War and despite the fact that many of the students were called into reserve army units, they built three of the five current villages. One of them was a group of apartments in the toughest neighborhood in Kiryat Shmona, a development town near the Lebanese border that was hit by dozens of Hizbullah rockets during the war. (A wonderful video on the project shown at the recent AIPAC annual conference can be seen at This is not the only encouraging development in the North. Within days of the war's end, the Israel Critical Capital Foundation - founded five years ago by American oleh Seth Altholz - opened offices in the Galilee town of Rosh Pina to help businesses that had been hit hard by the war get back on their feet. Though this particular initiative was sparked by the war, it is not just about patching over war damage. Each business that applies for help from ICCF must commit to a business plan developed with its team of business consultants. Each company is then walked through the process of obtaining commercial loans to finance the new plan. In essence, the ICCF is spreading a new paradigm for the relationship between philanthropy, business, and government. In the old paradigm, government and charities would haphazardly prop up businesses in ways that wasted money, weren't sustainable, and therefore did not really create jobs. In the new model, creative philanthropists are a catalyst for fixing a market failure which, once corrected, would allow them to step aside. In Israel, small businesses comprise 90 percent of the private sector, yet these companies receive only about 5 percent of bank lending. In the US, by contrast, small businesses are the most lucrative lending sector for banks, which came to understand that this is where the most potential for growth lies. By teaching businesses and banks how to profit from each other, the ICCF model has the potential to revolutionize the financial sector and consequently, the economy as whole. IT IS EASY to let the daily drumbeat of corruption, negligence and failed leadership give the impression that the country is going down the tubes. But there many private efforts combining passion, idealism, and out-of-the-box thinking in ways that can bypass politics and transform our society. While in the army, Alex wrote in a letter to an American friend, "There are many things about this country which I truly hate. ... But because I see this place as my home, I don't pile the cons on one side and the pros on the other, and decide whether it is 'worth' staying here. Home is home and it will take more than irritations to force me to leave. I want to make this place better." I wish I could show Alex these projects, and many others. They recall his spirit, are worthy of his sacrifice, and would make him still feel at home.