Israel’s true strength – its civilians

Israel’s secret weapon of success is not government officials; it is its civilian population.

Children on the first day of school in Jerusalem, 2014. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Children on the first day of school in Jerusalem, 2014.
Serving the public without being an official in the government this past month has taught me a critical lesson. When one is in government – an all-consuming job – there is a tendency to believe that our actions, alone, make or break the success of our country. There is a level of blindness to the significance of all the good that is being done outside of government. But now that I am no longer a member of parliament, I have come to recognize that while government is certainly an important factor, the true key to Israel’s success comes from its people.
Among my new roles, I host a radio show every Sunday on Voice of Israel called One Nation. Aside from interviewing members of Knesset and parliaments from around the world, I interview civilians who are making our country better. While I was aware of these remarkable Israelis and even worked with most of them while in the Knesset, my recent conversations with them have led me to realize that generating unity, strengthening education and improving health are actually being achieved by the initiative and creativity of the civilian population.
Eli Beer was a young boy when he saw a bus blow up in Jerusalem. His response to seeing people killed and maimed was to dedicate his life to saving lives. As a volunteer medic, Eli saw how difficult it was for ambulances to get to emergencies in a timely manner.
He, personally, witnessed people die as a direct result of medics not arriving in time.
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But instead of lobbying government ministers and Knesset members and trying to get the Health Ministry to do something, he started his own organization of 15 medics on motorcycles who could get to any emergency in Jerusalem within minutes. That evolved into United Hatzalah, whose 3,000 volunteers throughout Israel save countless lives on a regular basis.
Yossi Samuels was healthy at birth, but at the age of 11 months, a faulty DPT vaccination rendered him blind, deaf and acutely hyperactive. Yossi lived in a closed world for the next eight years and his disabilities took a tremendous toll on his family. Friends suggested that Yossi be institutionalized, but his mother, Malki, refused, vowing that if God would help Yossi then she would dedicate herself to helping other children with special needs and their families.
When Yossi was eight years old, a special- education teacher taught Yossi his first word, much like Anne Sullivan reached Helen Keller, and the world of communication opened for him. Malki remembered her vow, and she and her husband, Kalman, decided to act. They didn’t turn to the Welfare Ministry and Education Ministry with hopes for budgets within the regular state institutions.
Instead, they established SHALVA, an institution that provides special-needs services to more than 500 infants, children, adolescents and young adults through tailored programs and round-the-clock therapies.
Rabbi Karmi Gross saw a problem that all Israel recognized – the lack of a haredi institution which enables haredi boys to serve in the IDF while continuing their Torah studies in a serious manner. He didn’t spend time trying persuade the Education Ministry to do something about it and he didn’t turn to the Defense Ministry to address the issue. Instead, he worked hard to establish the Derech Chayim yeshiva that serves as the first haredi hesder yeshiva in the state’s history. During the first two years the boys study Torah in the morning and afternoon while receiving computer training in the evenings. Then, in years three and four, they serve in the IDF during the day in the fields of cyber and intelligence and return to their Torah studies at the yeshiva at night. Once the institution was established, he lobbied the Defense Ministry for the authorizations needed to be recognized as a formal mode of IDF service. The result is an established and popular yeshiva in which haredi young men are performing army service while continuing high-level Torah studies.
Or Rapaport and Tomer Dror, two young secular student activists in Jerusalem, noticed that haredim who had the courage to attend university were struggling with their acclimation into university life. They decided that someone had to assist them or the haredim would not continue enrolling in university.
They also saw rising animosity among many college students toward the haredi population as a whole, a dangerous trend for a country in need of healing and not further polarization.
Rather than lobby MKs to raise the issue in plenum sessions or committee hearings or write to government officials to address the problem, they established a mentoring program called Beliba Homa. As was covered extensively by The Jerusalem Post’s In Jerusalem supplement two weeks ago, they match secular students with haredi students who study Torah with them for one hour, after which the secular students provide tutoring for the second hour. Aside from helping the haredi students succeed in university, this project has led to friendships and close personal relationships between these two very different populations.
Government is important, and as a member of an opposition party I will continue to point out the flaws of the current government and work to improve it and ultimately replace it. But I call on all of us to learn from these examples and those of many other citizens who didn’t wait for the government to solve problems. Instead of simply sitting back and complaining about the issues that concern and bother us, stand up and do something about it.
Israel’s secret weapon of success is not government officials; it is its civilian population.
The writer served as a member of the last Knesset for Yesh Atid.