The Jewish celebration of Passover and Israel’s sixtieth anniversary coincided this year, and seemed to be a good time to reflect upon, and perhaps explain, my passionate commitment to Israel. No doubt having been born and raised in Israel makes me feel most at home there. My family and friends live in Israel. I like the smells and the tastes, and I am not surprised or taken aback by the forthrightness, the occasional arrogance or the cynical humor that characterizes many Israelis. My familiarity with the culture helps me identify and understand the nuances of social interactions. Yet this particular intimacy, which comes from recognizing and grasping the “rules of the game,” is in no way unique to me or to Israel, and I imagine many people feel the same way about their country of origin.
Israel is, however, special for and to me in several other ways that I do believe are unique. My concern for it does not originate from the materiality of the place, if one means by this the country’s landscape and architectural edifices. The Wailing Wall simply does not do it for me. Indeed, I have often criticized the tendency to idolize the land, showing how such reverence has contributed to the cycle of violence in the region. Rather, my feelings derive from what one might call the country’s soul, by which I mean its history, people and cultural idiosyncrasies.
I have a friend, a French woman, who as a teenager visited Israel with her father. It was the 1950s, and they toured the country for several days with a group of French diplomats. Toward the end of the visit the diplomats were taken to meet Israel’s president. My friend recounts how the group was shown into the small auditorium where the president receives guests, and how the bus driver, who had driven them across the country, followed suit as if it were only natural that he too should join the meeting. This moment, which may seem inconsequential, had a great impact on my friend. She was astounded by the lack of rigid social boundaries and at that very moment decided she would one day immigrate to Israel.
Israel has, to be sure, changed a great deal since the 1950s, and today it is unlikely that a bus driver would follow foreign diplomats to meet the president. Nonetheless, in Israel social space continues to be divided very differently than in other countries, and ordinary citizens have greater access to the public arena.
A few years ago I directed a high school program that attempted to teach teenagers how to struggle for social change. Within less than a year, 15- and 16-year-olds were talking regularly to Knesset members, high-ranking civil servants and well-known journalists about such topics as the trafficking of women and the violation of environmental regulations. How many teenagers in the United States can pick up the phone and speak directly to a senator (and not an aide)? This kind of access does not mean that the Israeli teenagers managed to bring about social change; indeed, mostly they failed to do so. But it does mean that their voice was heard in the public sphere.
The relative ease with which citizens can access sites of power has to do with Israel’s particular cultural norms and the country’s small size. In contrast to the standard six degrees of separation, in Israel people claim that the degree of separation is, on average, a person and a half. This in itself facilitates access to power, which produces, in turn, a sense that one can make a difference. While this sense is often misleading, it is nonetheless very important. It helps ensure that ordinary citizens, people like you and me, are not reduced to mere spectators who merely observe the political processes that affect our lives (a feeling one often has in countries like the United States). Rather, this sense helps Israelis conceive of themselves as active participants who have an opportunity to influence local political processes.