I am not a politician, nor a political analyst, nor in any formal sense a journalist covering a story. I am simply a person who has lived in Jerusalem for over twenty-five years, experiencing the Yom Kippur war in a bomb shelter with two babies; the gas masks and the sealed rooms of the Gulf War, bus bombings on the buses I use, street bombings on the streets I walk on. I’ve experienced sending a son off to a military base for three years, and sending children off to school days after children of neighbors were blown apart in terrorist attacks. I tell you all this simply so that you might put the following words into the proper perspective:
In all the years I’ve lived in Israel, I have never felt such despair, such hopelessness.
And I am not alone.
I met a friend of mine in the supermarket the other day, a woman who , like myself, had moved to Israel from New York as a young bride in the ‘70’s. Both of us had come as avid Zionists and as deeply religious, committed Orthodox Jews. As the years passed, our lives strangely paralleled each others: We both had four children, two boys and two girls. And, despite all the setbacks in Israel’s turbulent existence, both of us had prospered. Standing in the aisles, we compared pictures of our grandchildren and discussed the Bar Mitzva of our youngest boys, who celebrated their coming of age in the same hall just weeks apart.
They were our last born, our babies, and now they were only five short years away from induction into the army.
“I just wish,” my friend said, her face weary, ” that I could get on the next plane out. This whole place is going to blow like a powder-keg, and I don’t want my youngest to be in the army when it happens.”
I was shocked, not only to hear her say this, but that her words so closely echoed my own secret, growing fears.
“I was so gung-ho when I moved to Israel,” my friend went on. “I believed that it was where G-d wanted me to be. I was so dedicated to building the country — I would have lived in a tent if I’d had to. I was willing to sacrifice everything to see it grow and prosper. But now, what should I sacrifice for? So that that ultra-Orthodox can siphon off more money from my pocket? So that they can send my son to get killed in the army while they sit back and pray? And this whole peace process….I wasn’t like so many of my religious friends who thought the whole Oslo process was a disaster from the word go. Who couldn’t stomach looking at Arafat, let alone shaking hands with him. I was, I am, in favor of anything that will make this a safer place for my children. But where has it gotten us? ” She shakes her head. “Things have just gotten worse, and now we can’t even defend ourselves because our hands are tied with all these agreements.”
My friend is not alone. There is a growing feeling of helplessness and despair in all the people that I talk to, people who have lived in Israel for decades and whose commitment never wavered through the wars and terrorist attacks and economic crises. What then, has happened over the last few years to so erode our feeling of confidence and strength?
In general, there is a sense of weariness in all those forced to shoulder what is increasingly percieved as an unequal share of Israel’s unavoidable military burden, and a not so unavoidable economic burden which forces working people to shoulder the enormous tax burden (50% of all earned income goes to the government). It is not incidental that the most militaristic and gung-ho posturing is coming from the newspapers and radio stations of the far right religious groups, many of whom do not send their children to the army or work for a living,. The unequal distribution of these burdens, and the cavalier attitude of those whom present Israeli law allows to remain outside the responsibilities of citizenship because of their religious beliefs, is proving one of the straws breaking the camel’s back.
Another source of despair, is the poor quality of Israeli political leadership. So many of those I speak to are totally disillusioned with everyone now in the political arena. The prospect of elections with the same faces shuffling around like an old deck of worn out cards, makes one feel acutely the absence of real choice, or real possibilities for change. If elections are going to be a rerun of Netanyahu and his fanatic religious cohorts and their platform of incompetent hawkishness versus the Labor party’s pie- in -the- sky dovishness, and its worn platform of belligerent secularism and nasty anti-religious generalizations, we will have the same results as before: a narrow, narrow majority by one or the other of the parties, while most of us hold our noses and vote for people we don’t believe it, for a platform that is only marginally less objectionable than the opposition’s.
I think it is this absence of real choice, this sense that “it’s damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” that is at the root of our current enuui.
What needs to be done to give us back our vision, our strength and our confidence in the future?
Frankly, at this point, I don’t know if anything can be done. We’ve slid so far down the mountain and the incline is so very steep. But because Israel has always been the land of miracles, and those of us who’ve chosen to live here have always been dreamers of the most impractical kind –people who could stand in a malaria-filled swamp and see a green and fertile plain; who stared at an expanse of fearsome desert and mapped out orchards and cities and universities–so I allow myself to join them and stare at the disastrous landscape of Israeli politics and economics and society and envision the following:
First, a new political agenda. This is the platform: A government in which all funds are distributed by a strictly goverened and supervised system according to absolute critieria. No more money to private pressure groups. No rent subsidizes for yeshiva students, no stipends. No more hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ hard-earned money going to little groups supporting fake Talmudic academies and organizations for Sephardic cantorial music etc. A reduction in taxes. Retraining for all those currently unemployed. Private funding for those enrolled in religious institutions of higher learning, to be raised by the institutions themselves from their followers here and abroad. An across-the- board reduction in all government ministry budgets, except for education and welfare, which should receive all funding currently going to private “amutot”, so that there will no longer be private, subsidized kindergartens with free lunches for those willing to support Shas or Labor — so that all Israel’s children, regardless of their parents’ political leanings, will enjoy the same subsidies.
Military service would be made mandatory for all Israel’s male citizens currently subject to draft, with army exemptions for yeshiva students limited to 1% of all draftees, with those exemptions going on a merit basis to those receiving the highest grades on an independently administered exam in Talmudic knowledge. The rest are to be drafted for the full three years of army service,, with the army accommodating the religious needs of ultra Orthodox men. All women are to be exempted from army service and allowed to choose national volunteer service in their communities– or the army– for two years in order to earn Army veteran benefits.
And what of the peace process? Less photo opportunities for hypocritical politicians and more efforts to involve the people of the region. Working groups of Jews and Arabs from every town and village, who will meet regularly and hammer out true agreements that can be kept and respected. I would like to meet with my neighbors in the town of Beit Iksa, a five minute walk across the valley from my home. I am sure they would tell me how much they resent how we in Ramot have dirtied the beautiful hillsides with building material and other debris. I would like to tell them to lower the volume on their muezzin and turn their speakers towards their village, instead of towards my house. I would like their children to visit our playgrounds, and I would like mine to stroll through their apple orchards. I know there will be anger and frustration and raised voices and incompatible desires. I also know from experience, that once a political problem has a human face, and a human voice, it ceases to be insoluble and begins to take on a human dimension, in which all things can be discussed and compromised. A true peace can only come between people, not between politicians.
And who is to administer this brave, new world? No more old, tired politicians who have grown fat and lazy with the years, their bottoms moulded to the bottoms of their comfortable chairs. No more ex-Generals who are lost outside a battlefield, and whose view of the country is a military map. No more of the same old faces we know so well and trust so little. Instead, we can recruit new faces—men and women– from the top of Israel’s industrial leadership, it’s universities, its cultural elite, and yes, it’s military, those who in the past have been too honorable and decent to get their fingers dirty in the horrible quagmire of politics. Those who don’t need the car or the driver or the cell phone; who have proven their worthiness in the outside world, earning a respectable living from a paycheck that does not come from a government checkbook.
Can it come true? Who said: “If you dream it, it’s not impossible?”