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.
Intricately tied to the citizens’ ability to participate in politics is the range of public debate in Israel, which is much broader than in most countries. This is most apparent with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People like Israel Harel on the right and Amira Hass on the left regularly contribute editorials to the daily Ha’aretz. Their views are beyond the pale of what respectable papers like the New York Times routinely print, and yet they are acceptable in Israel.
It is ironic but not surprising that my views are considered extreme only outside Israel. Over the years, for example, my university has received several complaints about my criticism of the Israeli government; without exception, these complaints have come from overseas. My students at Ben-Gurion University have never questioned my commitment to social justice, even though many strongly disagree with my views; my students are familiar with and have been exposed to views like mine and consider them part of the legitimate discourse. By contrast, American students have on occasion reported what I have said in class to different monitoring groups; apparently, in their minds I say the unsayable.
The relative openness of Israeli social space and the broad spectrum of public discourse as well as the country’s small size are all conducive to the formation of grassroots political communities. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to be a member of a number of groups that have tried to make a small dent in Israel’s history — groups like Ta’ayush (Arab-Jewish partnership) and, more recently, Hagar Association, the bilingual Jewish-Arab kindergarten and school in Beer-Sheva. I have found that in Israel it is often much easier than in other places to organize resistance to social oppression. Moreover, anyone even slightly acquainted with the history of struggle in Israel is aware that while many of the grassroots political movements have failed to achieve the objectives they have set out to accomplish, they have nonetheless created thousands of stories of resistance. On their own, the individual stories may not be significant, but their sheer number reveals something precious and beautiful about Israel: that it is a site of ongoing struggle for social justice.
I would like to think this characteristic can be traced back to the biblical tradition. After all, the prophets teach us time and again that criticism and social justice are two sides of the same coin and are part and parcel of a healthy society, particularly if the criticism is directed toward those who suppress and exploit the poor and the weak.
All of which brings me back to the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt–the liberation of an enslaved people from bondage. The message of freedom and liberation continued to be central to the teachings of Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah and Micah, as well as to all the other prophets. And this message was universal. As Leon Roth, who in 1927 established the philosophy department at Hebrew University, pointed out: “When the prophets wish to lay down our duty in this life, they say: ‘God hath told thee, O man, what is good.’ The prophets do not say: ‘O Englishman, O Frenchman, even O Jew; but O man.'” Even though Israel, as a state, has not followed the words of the prophets, it has, I believe, created a space where these words can potentially be followed. And that is no minor feat.