Protest - Tal Cohen - August 6, 2011
Hundreds of thousands of protesters march in Tel Aviv over the high cost of living in Israel, August 6, 2011. Photo by Tal Cohen
Text size

"Show a little faith," a song keeps playing in my head. "There's magic in the night."

It was playing as I watched a young father, sweat-soaked and hoarse, slogging along with his wife and 200,000 other people in the heart of Tel Aviv, juggling a toddler daughter on his shoulders, the handle of a stroller in one hand, the handle of a placard in the other. The crayon on his sign read "Yisrael Noledet M'chadash" - Israel Is Being Reborn.

What if he's right? Despite everything we're trained to think, despite everything that disappointment has trained us to distrust, and despite the state religion of 21st Century Israel, the one religion everyone here can fully believe in and practice, which is cynicism.
What if this country is, in fact, being reborn? What if, despite everything we know, we could choose the Israel we would want Israel to become?

And, most unimaginable of all, what if this explosion of protest could spark a reconsideration of what it is to be an Israeli? What if it could spark different modes of thinking, even different modes of behavior, of how we act and how we react?
It already has.

If Israel were the same Israel that it was three weeks ago, if we were the same Israelis that we used to be, we would know what issues are serious and which are, well, unmanly.

There are subjects we see as worth fighting over – usually, to no effect - and there are those we leave alone, in shame over our own needs and our inability to address them.

If this Israel were the same Israel, we would know that no one would bother to hit the streets for education, which, while vital, is, let's face it, domestic, and can wait. We would know that no one would go out and demonstrate for health care, which, while crucial, seems to eke along in any case, and can wait. We would certainly know that no one would raise a collective call for housing, which, while essential, only gets built for people wealthy enough not to live in it, and can wait.

But what if that young family is right? What if, in choosing the Israel we want Israel to become, ordinary people decided they could no longer wait?

Three weeks into this, I'm betting they're right. What have I got to lose? Politicians who have nothing better to waste their time on than concocting laws to end all laws, democratic processes to end all democratic processes, Cherno-Bills worthy of the Supreme Soviet? Or, for dessert, a new bolus of legislation, all the parliamentary sewage flushed into one, a
bill so heinous it will make it impossible even for Israel's best friends to defend Israel as a democracy, so extreme it will remove every remaining moral obstruction to branding Israel outright apartheid.

I'm thinking, choose again. I choose the Israel that's on the street. I choose these Israelis.

You're thinking: sure you do, what do you know, you're not from here. But you don't know. I've had decades of re-education in the gulag of the now-aging neo-Zionist ideal: The New Hebrew Man'yak. In uniform and out, I can recite chapter and verse. M'kol Mlamdei Hiskalti Lo L'tzet Frierer. The man who cuts me off in traffic, the woman who cuts in the pharmacy line, the bank line, the clinic queue - they are all my teachers in the idea that I, we, are all alone in this place, and I, we've got to grab everything for ourselves before someone else gets to it. Nothing will ever change. If it does, it won't be for the better.

If, after the failure of socialism in Israel you still believe in people getting together to make a better life for ordinary people and their needs, goes the credo, you must be either effeminate, if you’re a man; unduly mannish, if you're a woman; or, in any case, that most contemptible and therefore invisible and trample-worthy of Israelis – the freier (sucker).

When I saw that young family in Tel Aviv, I remembered one day when my wife and I were new parents, and new Israelis, living in Beer Sheva. Shopping for Rosh Hashana in a mobbed supermarket, we waited forever in a check-out line, our infant daughter in our arms. As we neared the register, a checkstand opened alongside, and the checker motioned us over. A burly man who had just arrived, watching the scene, rammed his shopping cart into the line just ahead of ours. With a giddy look of consummate triumph on his face, he pronounced his coup de grace sentence, for the benefit of my education in Israeliness: "Kol Echad V' haMazal Shelo." "Everyone has his own personal brand of luck."
Looking back, I can only thank this man. He taught me a lesson much more valuable than he could possibly have suspected.

I used to think that the lesson of the supermarket story was that if that was this guy's brand of luck, he was welcome to it. I had a lovely family, and I wasn't about to trade.

But there was something else, which took me years to see. This week, walking with hundreds of thousands of people in Tel Aviv, I began to wonder, who are the real freiers now?

What if these ordinary, extra-ordinary people, at long last, could make their own luck? What if they could begin to trade the mindset that substitutes macho displays and disproportionate might and intensely selective blindness, for addressing the authentic problems of ordinary, no less heroic people?

Saturday night, a little boy near us marched with a sign reading "Mommy says we don't have enough money for a little brother."

It's time to choose the Israel we want Israel to become. The hell with my re-education as the New Privatized Hebrew, which is, at this point, as last century as you can get. I'm starting a new re-education program. To be myself again. As a human. The hell with macho. The hell with the hair on the chest and the taking pride in putting visiting diplomats into sawed-off chairs.

Let's hear it for little brothers and sisters.

It's time to show a little faith. Now that there's magic in the night.