In high school I used to go the library each day and read the newspaper. The first thing I would do was to skim the headlines and look for stories about Israel. When I immigrated to Israel a few years later I felt that instead of being a spectator sitting on the side, following the events in the newspaper, I would get to be a player in the game.
During my early years in Israel I was very politically active. Israel is not a representative democracy. We have no senator to whom to write nor do we have a congressional office to visit. Therefore, the most common way for an Israeli to make his voice heard by the government is to take to the streets and demonstrate. I used to go to a lot of demonstrations. However, at a certain point I felt they were ineffective, and, as my wife pointed out, with all the performances it was like going to a rock concert. We started to stay home.
I adopted a new attitude of influencing people locally, of living my life as I believed and not hiding my opinions. By speaking my mind and acting according to my beliefs, I have seen that other people are influenced, opinions and behaviors change and this too affects society.
However, this summer a change took place in Israel. Honestly I can’t tell you exactly what triggered it, but people have become so frustrated that they have taken to the street, people who have not demonstrated in years – myself included.
There have been a series of events that were in the headlines, beginning with a rise in the price of cottage cheese and a grass-roots boycott, and continuing with tent cities that are present in every Israeli town to protest the price of housing, but something even bigger happened this summer.
People have identified with these and other causes to a point that they poured into the streets on the first Saturday night of September. After not being at a protest for years, I joined them. I was among an unprecedented 50,000 people in Jerusalem demonstrating that night. With simultaneous events in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, I was among more than 400,000 people who participated in Israel’s largest demonstration ever. I was there.
What struck me about the speakers and the crowd that night was that there was a cross-section of society, yet there was a common cause and sense of purpose. We felt a part of something bigger than ourselves in what has been called Israel’s second Independence Day. We were telling the government not that we want Israel to exist, but what kind of Israel we want to exist. While speakers made it clear that we they were concerned with all Israelis and our neighbors, I felt that this was a very Jewish and Zionist demonstration.
The chairperson of the Hebrew University’s Student Union, Itai Gotler, quoted from the Torah we had read that morning “Justice, Justice you shall pursue” and from the Haftara “Wake up! Wake Up! Stand up Jerusalem!” And there we were, standing up, pursuing justice, acting on the words we had read in the synagogue that morning, words which were read in synagogues the world over and which had been written centuries ago with a very contemporary message which we had the privilege to act upon. Jerusalem was standing up – and I among them.
The speakers emphasized that they were not looking to overthrow the government, but were looking for “real change” claiming to speak for the silent majority who seek a just society. We were there, they said, to take responsibility for our future society. In Israel, which is so communal and whose people and connected in a way that I think it is hard for most Americans to understand, capitalism and individualism following the American model has started to become dominant. With that, the gap of rich and poor has widened as have the services they receive. These demonstrations want to change that path so that individuals are not alone in their struggle for survival, so that as a people, we take responsibility for each other. This includes being responsible for Gilad Shalit who has spent over 1900 days in the captivity of Hamas as well as being responsible for the child who sits in a classroom with 40 students and is not getting the education he deserves. Any of us could have a son in captivity. Most of us have children in overpopulated schools. Everyone knows young couples who can not afford to buy an apartment.
As one speaker put it, we more than any other people can not divide people into higher humans and lower humans, into an upper class and a lower class. We are one and our society needs to reflect that.
As I sang Hatikva among my fellow Jerusalemites, young and old, religious and secular, natives and immigrants, I felt that I was playing a part in history. There was no need for me to read the newspaper the next morning. I had been there.