Though this comes from the Israeli national anthem, Ha’Tikvah, The Hope, one of the most graphic uses of the line in a political context was when someone on Ehud Barak’s staff held it up, handwritten, as a TV camera panned across the scene of dissolution at his campaign HQ, the night he lost to Ariel Sharon in 2001.
It is a line that speaks to the heart of yearning for a homeland, for the end of Diaspora, for the fulfilment of the Zionist dream, to put into practise the best that the Jewish people learned in our centuries of exclusion and to learn the lessons from the worst that we suffered. There are those who say that as with every ideology, especially one to be realised in national aspiration, little of the former, the best, lasts, whilst much of the worst survives.
In an astonishingly prescient 1937 commentary on the “You shall not wrong a stranger, nor shall you oppress him…” Exodus 22-19, the Hertz Chumash says: “The reason for this constantly repeated exhortation is that those who have been downtrodden repeatedly, frequently prove to be the worst oppressors when they acquire power over anyone.”
You can take ‘anyone’ to be either the Palestinians, or we the Jews of Israel. Power corrupts. And what has happened since we dreamed our dreams and hoped our hopes is that we have become the worst oppressors, mostly of ourselves. And in that process we have lost sight of the values that buttressed our national aspirations. Our Zionism, to be the best, has become corrupted. The result is that we are not ‘like all the others’ – if that was ultimately to be the outcome of being a ‘normal nation’ -but a little less than them. And we weep for our beloved Israel.
As the housing protests have gathered momentum, a slew of band-wagoners have materialised. The Im Tirzu crew and friends turned up to oppose deposing the Prime Minister and to support solving the housing crisis. Amongst them was the odious extreme religious nationalist and ex-con Baruch Marzel of Hebron, who declared that on social issues he was more Left than the Left, denigrating the protestors who reflect a non-partisan cross-section of Israeli society. On his heels came the so-called ‘hilltop youth’, the self-appointed new true Zionists.
And what moved them? They wanted to counter-demonstrate, taking up the cudgels of the coterie of 46 right wing Knesset members who declared that the best way to solve the housing crisis is to build new housing in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. The hilltop youth descended from their illegally occupied hilltops into the centres of tent city housing protests, setting up their own tent camps and repeating the demand of the 46 lawmakers.
Something smells bad here. It isn’t just the smell of tyres on the vehicle of protest, squealing to avoid hitting the Prime Minister caught in the headlights, or the waft of panic to stop the Knesset being called into special session to debate the housing crisis and thus prove that it symbolises parliamentary accountability, or the odour of sweat as the Prime Minister’s office scrambles to get a quick-fix bill passed that ultimately benefits wealthy land-owners. No, it’s the scent of cynicism, a hint of which we had when the Prime Minister dismissed the protestors as ‘populists’. The hilltop youth have been dropped in to confront and divide those suffering from a lack of housing. They will surely try to goad the original protestors into confrontation.
They are the right wing’s street fighting men, and they want a fight, so that the shaken Prime Minister can point a finger and say ‘See. As we thought. Just a bunch of opportunists, ready to cause civil disorder,’ and then order a police crack-down.
There is an indelible link between the housing crisis, the doctors’ strikes and the real inequities and iniquities of the Israeli economy on the one hand and the constant pumping of tax revenues into the settlements on the other. Those who now demonstrate for social equality and welfare, and accountable government, reflect, at last, the real values on which Israel was founded and that seemed to have been eroded in a welter of material acquisition and political corruption.
What many have called Israel’s ‘piggish capitalism’, Bibi Netanyahu defends as free market economics. What he really means is good old-fashioned self-interest, that of his wealthy wheeler-dealer supporters. The result is complacent and weak leadership, good at obfuscation and prevarication, all designed to maintain the status quo, and Netanyahu as Prime Minister, for one more minute, day, or month.
Inadvertently the housing protests have been a gift for Netanyahu, always looking for ways to deflect focus on substantive issues like ending the occupation and negotiating with the Palestinians for peace. Any canard will do. One of his favourites since his sessions with President Obama is the 1967 lines controversy, another unintended distraction. It’s worth spending 90 seconds watching Yaakov Peri, former head of the Shin Bet on this – gratis Yachad – http://vimeo.com/27142965
It’s easy for the genuine ‘populists’, that volatile mix of one party, one state and one G-d advocates to plug their discriminatory and chauvinistic slogans into the vacuum of political leadership Israel currently suffers under Netanyahu. As if the raft of anti-democratic legislation wasn’t enough, we now have a new idea from the authors of the malodorous Boycott Bill – to make democratic rule subservient to their idea of the state’s definition as ‘ the national home for the Jewish people.’ And along the way they seek to downgrade Arabic as a recognised language. The true flavour of the Netanyahu regime has even attracted support from the embarrassing remnants of Israel’s Labour party who support this proposal.
In the parlous state of democracy into which Israel has been driven, there is an ugly truth to be confronted. ‘To be a free people in our land’ is another line from Ha’Tikvah, and underpinning that is the need to be responsible citizens, recognising that that is part of the price for our freedom. Perhaps until we are true to those responsibilities and maintain a viable democracy, we cannot properly point fingers at the Palestinians and criticise their attempts to be free of us and build their own institutions and deny them a role as our partners in peace. We need to clean house in order to be their partners.
We should not lose our hope, rekindled by those using democratic means to raise their voices. We should not let that hope be extinguished by others who pretend to care about a safe and secure future for Israel but in fact fuel their leadership by spreading paranoia and division.
We must not lose our hope, because without it we lose ourselves.