Community activism can restore faith in the age of Trump – and Netanyahu

It’s easy in an age of complicated politics and entrenched powers to despair – but that’s not what good democratic citizens or Zionists do.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
I just returned to Israel after my first trip to Donald Trump’s America, which is looking ugly. I have rarely seen Americans – and American Jews – so cranky. Disappointed Democrats – about three-quarters of American Jewry – are so furious they insult anyone who dares to say anything good about Trump or, God forbid, voted for him. And Trumpistas – including many Orthodox Jews – feel so insulted by the liberal contempt they excuse every vulgar, authoritarian or thin-skinned Trumpism. A month into Donald Trump’s rocky and rolling first 100 days, the gap is widening, the polarization growing and the mood souring.
But there’s democratic good news lurking behind these clouds: millions, from both sides, are engaged, demonstrating a faith in democratic popular politics we miss in Israel. After decades of laments about American apathy, Donald Trump won by mobilizing frustrated anti-Obamaniacs, while the now-frustrated Obamanians are fighting to preserve Barack Obama’s legacy.
By contrast, on the 2,885th consecutive day of Benjamin Netanyahu’s second round as prime minister, Israeli politics feels stale. Netanyahu’s latest scandals, reeking of cigar smoke, sweet champagne and submarine fuel, have demoralized Israelis. Israelis’ instinctive cynicism and resignation is worsening.
It’s easy in an age of complicated politics and entrenched powers to despair – but that’s not what good democratic citizens or Zionists do. Gloria Steinem recently vowed: “We will not mourn, we will organize”; Arik Einstein promised “you and I will change the world.”
In that spirit, in our neighborhood of Jerusalem’s historic German Colony a merry band of idealists (including my wife) is combating “the man”: Mayor Nir Barkat’s irrational push to ruin Emek Refaim – and its small businesses – by shoving an unnecessary splitoff of the Blue Line through that charming, narrow, historic street-scape.
These urban activists are discovering how hard it is to mobilize people in a cynical age, with a municipality welcoming citizen input as enthusiastically as Trump welcomes reporters. Jerusalem City Hall just printed slick brochures celebrating this Emek Refaim runaway train line, hijacking the shekels of citizens who hate the project to support the project. Moreover, because Jerusalem’s City Council, like the Knesset, is party-oriented not district-based, local concerns get ignored too easily. Community councils, which should be the city’s ears and the community’s voice, are often caught between stroking the mayor who funds them and representing their constituents, even when, as in this case, the overwhelming community sentiment is absolutely against to this extraneous, expensive extension.
Nevertheless, the citizens have made their stand – and made a difference. Forty thousand people “liked” the anti-train Facebook page. Community meetings have mobilized hundreds – including 350 on one night alone. More than 700 people filed specific legal objections to this destructive white elephant – an overpriced waste which, beyond all the ways it will damage a beautiful, historic urban nugget, violates good train sense. The main train line will run on the parallel street, Derech Hevron, barely a kilometer away, with Emek Refaim flanked by train stations at both ends. Experts in densely populated and richer cities like Los Angeles, Vancouver and New York accept stations within a kilometer’s walk. For less populated areas like ours, over-building is economically idiotic, a narcissism of treating small spaces like big ones.
This activism has gotten traction because the city rammed through the usual planning processes like a runaway locomotive. Someone should save the mayor from himself, and stop Barkat’s Bizbuz (waste), Nir’s Folly. The ambitious Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz can become a hero by intervening.
Still, note the upside in these dispiriting times.
In plunging into politics, these citizen-activists met their neighbors and discovered community. They encountered an extended family of Emek Refaim shopkeepers, who, while fighting for their financial lives, look out for one another. This Hanukka, at Salon Mary’s community candle-lighting, Ruti Dana, heir to her mother’s lingerie shop, one of Emek Refaim’s oldest institutions, toasted the shopkeepers’ tight-knit community. As citizens snacked on the Waffle Factory’s surprise contribution of holiday sweets, Dana recalled that when Salon Mary celebrated its fifty-fifth anniversary: “Each of the cafes and restaurants on the strip sent me 55 of their signature treats.” Emek Refaim embodies community at its best, a relic in a modern world – now threatened unnecessarily, unfairly.
It’s easy to stay home. It’s easy to surrender. It’s easy to stay in your bubble – and demonize others. I challenged my American audiences: “invite someone who voted the ‘wrong way’ to lunch and speak to them.” A lovely psychologist corrected me: “invite someone who voted the ‘wrong way,’ and listen to them.” Here in Israel, let’s also remember what we’ve built here, by not being pushed around, by standing strong.
In his Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, Eliezer Ben-Yehudah described his epiphany, realizing that Jewish unity required sharing land and a language.
But, he wondered, could the Holy Hebrew tongue serve as that modern community builder? He encountered many modern everyday situations with no appropriate Hebrew words. So, he wrote, “with the simple logic of adolescence, I concluded: If the only thing missing for us to speak Hebrew is the simple, natural language of everyday life, that gap must be filled. ...From that day forward, I decided to fill it.”
And he did.
We need Ben-Yehudah’s teenage “logic” – in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in Israel and America. We need to remember that you and I can change the world – because our parents, our grandparents – and their friends – actually did.
The author, professor of history at McGill University and a Visiting Professor at the Ruderman Program at Haifa University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.