Friday, July 22, 2011

Man in the Right Arena?

Foreign volunteers come to the Israeli army with the idea that serving as a soldier will put them front and center in the news coming out of the Holy Land. “No longer will I simply read what is going on from afar,” thinks the starry eyed future lone soldier, “but I will became an actor, Teddy Roosevelt’s man in the arena, ‘whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.’” While there is no shortage of dust, sweat and blood in the army, few soldiers play a central role in the decisive politics of the Middle East. Most, for that matter, have no idea about regional politics. Not because they have no interest. Soldiers simply have few opportunities to follow the news. This is especially true if you are a new immigrant with weak Hebrew skills unable to breeze through a local newspaper with ease.

So when my fellow soldiers began muttering about politicians passing extremist legislation and people sleeping on the streets in protest (separate stories, as it turns out!), I decided the time was long past to catch up on the local news. What I read shocked me: a successful consumer uprising against the price of cottage cheese, a more dramatic if less successful tent city protest against high housing prices, a doctors strike that has continued for over four months and two inflammatory bills in the Knesset, one that was approved to make boycotting Israel illegal and a second that seeks to create governmental committees charged with investigating human rights organizations.

Good lord, what is happening in this country?

The medical system has essentially come to a standstill, as doctors fight for higher wages. The government, rather than come to some reasonable solution, has instead asked the population to avoid any medical necessities for the significant future!

Israelis are pointing to Israel’s Arab neighbors as compelling examples of citizen protest. The cottage cheese consumers followed suit, and forced producers to lower prices through a Facebook campaign that attracted over a hundred thousand supporters. As if to take the example of Tahrir Square one step further, away from the safe confines of social media and into the streets, thousands of folks across the country have pitched tent cities in urban centers to protest high housing costs. Most of these folks are young adults from the middle class, a mainstream protest that one academic noted “is revolutionary in a big way, the fact that middle-class students began to struggle, that they feel that there is no future within reach for them - we are talking about the mainstream of society - this has never happened in Israel.”

The democratic process is in the hands of professional politicians like Danny Danon, the sponsor of both extremist bills, who described the legislation as “a lesson in democracy” designed to punish “political organizations that are outside the consensus.” So much for what I was taught in elementary school, that democracy is designed to protect the rights of the minority, the same minority that deviates from the consensus.

It is small comfort to read the words of Danon’s party elders, longtime Likud leaders like Reuven Rivlin and Benny Begin (son of the former Likud leader and PM Menahem Begin) that have mournfully castigated their own party’s legislation as “threatening to catapult us into an era in which gagging people becomes accepted legal practice (Rivlin)” and “[casting a large banner over the Knesset] bearing the words: ‘Here, it is dark’ (Begin).” Such leaders echo back to a forgotten generation of Israeli politicians that, for all their mistakes, were (or at least, gave off the impression as) men and women of real substance and human empathy.

It is an even smaller comfort to consider that all these news-stories would be swept under the rug were a nasty security threat to rear its head. Israel cannot allow men like Ahmanijedad, Nasrallah and the trigger happy leaders of Hamas to distract the country from serious cracks in the social order. For all the propaganda Arab leaders have thrown against Israel, it is not hatred of the Jewish state that is driving the Arab masses into the streets. It is fractured social systems, states that fail to protect the weakest members (including those outside the consensus!) of the population.

A soldier whiling away time in the army while reading of such compelling national crises cannot help but wonder whether he is waging the right fight. Perhaps this soldier, and other young Zionists burning to make a real difference in this country, can remember what Teddy Roosevelt was speaking about when he called on his audience of young adults to become men in the arena, stained by dust, sweat and blood. The year was 1910 and the audience was a hall of young Frenchmen who within a decade would die as soldiers in the trenches of World War One. But Roosevelt was not calling on them to enlist. The title of his great speech was Citizenship in a Republic.

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