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We must still be dreamers

Poll after poll shows Israelis believe in pluralism, mutual respect, and the ability of humanity to defy oppression, protest inequity and pursue justice
Illustrative. People walk by a homeless man sleeping on the street, near cafes in the center of Jerusalem. November 10, 2013. (Nati Shohat/ FLASH90)
Illustrative. People walk by a homeless man sleeping on the street, near cafes in the center of Jerusalem. November 10, 2013. (Nati Shohat/ FLASH90)

Has Israel, a country built on hope, lost its dreamers? Is it so enmeshed in the (often sordid) details of its enmities, squabbles and daily struggles that it has forsaken the capacity to mold its own future? Can the reality it will wake up to 10 days from now determine its trajectory for the next 10 years? Or will its citizens have the good sense to identify the changemakers in their midst and give them the boost needed to carve out a better reality? These, in a nutshell, are not only the basic issues that have guided this election season, they are the ones which confront each and every Israeli in these tumultuous times.

One thing is certain: the underlying assumption (in the words of Ecclesiastes, chapter 1) that “what has been is what will be, and that what has been done is what will be done, and that there is nothing new under the sun” has never held water in Israel. Throughout the country’s history, nothing has been more ephemeral than the notion of — and the yearning for — what is an ill-defined status quo. Virtually every aspect of Israeli life has altered almost beyond recognition since its inception — and perhaps even more so during the past decade. So, the question of what is and what should be, what roots of change exist and what kinds one wants to nourish, is more pertinent than ever.

The rhythm of constant, value-based, improvement is a central theme in modern universal and Jewish history. Nobody has expressed this much better than Shaul Tchernichovsky in his canonical poem, “I Believe,” written in 1892, which is as apt today in its inspiring clarity of vision as it is in its belief in the human capacity to better reality even under the most adversarial circumstances.

Rejoice, rejoice now in the dreams
I the dreamer who speaks
Rejoice, for I have faith in humankind
For I still believe in you.

Israel, indeed, has been constructed on its heterogeneous Jewish and non-Jewish moorings. As the country’s population has grown and diversified, despite intense efforts to undermine some of its component parts, it has also become more interdependent. This mutual reliance encompasses all sectors of Israeli society, based on the foundational principal of equality for all citizens as definitively ensconced in its proclamation of independence. Poll after poll demonstrates that a majority is still bound to this belief, the Nation-State Bill and efforts of its ilk notwithstanding.

The ongoing relevance of this commitment to pluralism and mutual respect is apparent, first, on the individual level, in the ability of the human spirit to defy oppression, to protest inequities and to pursue justice.

For my soul still yearns for freedom
I’ve not sold it to a calf of gold
For I shall yet have faith in humankind
In its spirit great and bold.

Israelis — not only Arab citizens, but lately anyone who dares criticize the present government (loosely dubbed as “The Left”) — have experienced a variety of attempts to constrain their individual civil and their collective human rights in recent years. Through a series of legislative instruments, policy initiatives, and public diatribes, they have been branded as untrustworthy and efforts have been made to limit their freedom of expression, association, and protest. Yet civil society organizations have taken the lead in protesting these illiberal moves: the work of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Adalah, the Human Rights Defenders Fund, and Breaking the Silence are cases in point.

The same holds true for the ongoing effort to maintain the social and economic rights of a variety of groups suffering from repeated bigotry and discrimination. These range from the poor and the marginalized (including gays) to the mentally and physically handicapped. The number of Israelis not only clamoring for — but continuously acting to ensure — socioeconomic equality and dignity is impressive.

That will cast off binding chains
Raise us up, hold high our heads
Workers will not die of hunger
For souls — release, for poor folk — bread.

An array of parties and movements are working towards this goal. It is sufficient to recall the (admittedly still unsatisfactory) progress in the field of higher education, with the substantial rise in the number of heretofore disadvantaged Jews (including veterans from Arabic-speaking countries and new immigrants from Ethiopia) and Arabs (a doubling of graduates in the past decade) to highlight this point. The quest for even more equitable distribution of educational benefits continues through the concerted action of a variety of organizations (Sikkuy, Hand in Hand, The Abraham Fund Initiatives, Mossawa). The fight against gender inequality, always a sure sign of discrimination in action, is being spearheaded by women’s organizations, including — among many others — the Israel Women’s Network, Itach-Ma’aki, Women Against Violence, Kolech, Isha l’Isha and the battered-women centers scattered throughout the country.

Some progress is being recorded in other areas as well. The sustainability of key public services now depends on the full inclusion of Arabs. This no longer relates only to menial positions in sanitation, transportation, construction, agriculture, or tourism. It also extends to health, and increasingly to education, social welfare, and trade. Indeed, just last week the Bank of Israel reiterated that the growth of the Israeli economy in the coming years will be a function of its capacity to incorporate the country’s ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities into its ranks. This cannot be done without greater recognition of differences and respect for the other.

Rejoice for I have faith in friendship
I’ll find a heart — in this I’ve faith —
A heart that shares in all my hopes,
A heart that feels both joy and pain.

Shaul Tchernichovsky linked his vision of freedom and justice for individuals to a set of well-fined collective goals. The most cherished, universal, and sadly elusive is peace.

And I shall keep faith in the future,
Though the day be yet unseen
Surely it will happen as peace will come

Carrying its blessing from nation to nation.

The quest for peace, a concept supposedly attracting a dwindling number in Israel today, is nevertheless being promoted by a new generation of Israelis who have jointed veteran peace initiatives (Neve Shalom, Givat Haviva, and Peace Now in civil society; several parties on the political level). Of special note are Standing Together and Women Wage Peace, two grassroots organizations that rally a variety of Israelis to keep the hope of negotiated settlement alive. While the political establishment systematically stymies any initiative in this direction, others are designing detailed plans for workable agreements between Israel and its neighbors.

They, like many of their predecessors, are aware that this is the bedrock of Israel’s self-determination in the past and the mainstay of its independence down the line.

Then my people too will flourish
And a generation shall arise
In the land, shake off its chains
And see light in every eye.

It shall live, love, accomplish, labor
In the land it is alive
Not in the future, not in heaven –
And its spirit shall henceforth thrive.

Next Tuesday, inspired by the very vital humane spaces being carved out in this profoundly democratic spirit by so many initiatives geared to giving life to the values articulated by the dreamer-realist poet, I will cast my vote for those dedicated to a progressive, forward-looking, decent Israel and against those who are denying its soul.

Then a poet shall sing a new song,
Heart aware of beauty sublime
For them, the youngsters above my tomb,
Blossoms in a wreath shall surely be twined.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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