29 March 2012
Parting the Waters
Here’s a cure for those of you feeling the Israel blues: spend some time with the next generation of Israeli patriots working to save their country. Earlier today I met with Stav Shafir and Yonatan Levi, two of the young leaders of the social protest movement that brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets last summer chanting for social justice. They continue their work today as leaders of an organization called the Israel Social Movement, dedicated to translating and channeling the power and energy of the summer social protests into real and lasting positive social change. These two twenty-six year olds and their colleagues see their mission as nothing less than reclaiming and reasserting the values Israel was founded on, and then building a better Israel on that foundation. Or, as they put it, to “Occupy Zionism.”
I asked Stav and Yonatan about their response to the critique one sometimes hears that the social movement, for all of its initial size and glory, had faded, that its accomplishments were ephemeral, and ultimately short-lived, that it would leave no lasting legacy. They both grinned; they’d heard that before. We can list the “dry” accomplishments of the movement, Stav said: lowering the age at which free education begins, creating new options for affordable housing, etc., but the real change is in the way people think about their place in society, their power, their sense of agency. There is now a hunger and a hope for change, and feeling that average Israelis can be agents of that change. (Indeed, a recent poll found that 45% of Israelis say they’ve changed their consumption habits because of the protests). And last summer’s protests were just the first steps in this movement.
Yonatan, born on Israel’s first kibbutz, said that the critique reminded him of the story of the Children of Israel leaving Egypt. The waters of the Red Sea parted, and the Israelites walked through to freedom. During that crossing they were completely transformed: they went from being slaves to being free people. But once they were across the Sea and the parted waters closed, the desert on the far side looked pretty much like the desert they’d just come from. It looked a lot like Egypt. In fact, the Israelites occasionally forgot they were free. They kvetched and longed for their old life in bondage. But none of this negated the transformation that had actually occurred, and after long years of wandering, the Israelites reached the Promised Land.
Stav and Yonatan and hundreds of thousands of others believe that Israel was similarly transformed last summer, even if that’s sometimes hard to see during this anxious spring. I believe in them and their movement, and I hope and pray that they are right. It is almost Pesach. As we celebrate our great story of liberation, a story that has served as an inspiration to millions of people around the world for thousands of years, let us ourselves take inspiration from the example of this new generation of Israelis lighting the way forward to a better Israel. Next year in Jerusalem. Next summer in Tel Aviv.