An elderly man, his beard graying, swathed in a wool scarf, sat sunken into an armchair in the Knesset foyer, an Israeli flag on either side of him. An usher had brought him tea in a paper cup, and he cast a melancholy look around. Some of the people walking by recognized him: It was Prof. Shevach Weiss, the 11th speaker of the Knesset. There have been five speakers since, and this week he sat in a visitor's chair, sadly lamenting his loneliness as a widower, as well as the fate of the country.
I was at the Knesset 10 months ago, when the new government was sworn in, and then, too, there was fairly little promise in the air. This week, nothing remains even from that non-promise. The ministers, the deputy ministers, the MKs - what have they done since then? Little, if anything, aside from ensuring their own survival and sitting back in their easy chairs, exuding an air of hedonism and more authority than they deserve.
Ehud Barak, who strutted around the plenum chamber wearing a little earpiece, which made him look like an alien - what defense minister wears this nonsensical gadget? - and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who was wearing dark sunglasses because of an eye infection, only added a grotesque dimension. They've been here a year already, in the 18th Knesset. Actually, they've been here for years, and it feels like they'll be here forever.
There's nothing quite like a Knesset birthday to illustrate just how easily fame passes, or at least the fame in this place. It's old home week for the seniors: One ex-MK now has a shock of gray hair, another can barely walk, others have been entirely forgotten. They come once a year - pensioners reminiscing about their old workplace, reliving the good old days. Here is Yehuda Hashai; there's Aharon Yadlin and also Gideon Ben-Yisrael, Yosef Ba-Gad and Ra'anan Cohen, who don't miss a single event. Moshe Shahal, and the legendary Shulamit Aloni, have been "formers" for quite a while already. Only the most veteran MK of them all, Shimon Peres, with 48 consecutive years in this building, still has his majestic bearing, is still on the president's dais, even if his eyes are switched off at times.
It was actually a very young birthday, with dozens of high-school students playing MK. The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Education Committee held a special debate on the phenomenon of refusal to serve in the army; the Committee on Drug Abuse, chaired by MK Mohammed Barakeh, held a debate on drugs. Both issues are being discussed in the Knesset, that font of youth. Yes, it sounds bad, somewhat upsetting, maybe a bit stale - but nevertheless, the event, initiated by the speaker, Reuven Rivlin, was actually less dull than it sounds. Rivlin should be praised for his initiative.
Visiting the Knesset were, theoretically, the Benjamin Netanyahus of tomorrow, the Tzipi Livnis of the day after. Dressed in uniform - white shirts - they had a uniform manner of speaking - "Mr. Speaker" and "Most esteemed Knesset" - like persons much older than themselves, with heaps of flowery phrase, a harbinger of bad things to come.
Nevertheless, voices rose from the plenum that ought to be listened to. Peres and Netanyahu ostensibly conferred on these young people the authority of responsible adults, while seemingly taking pleasure in calling them the "generation of the future" and saying we would "do anything for our children" and all the other requisite blah blah. Every boy and girl came to the lectern with a mentor MK, who presented them like proud parents at a bar or bat mitzvah.
But one doubts if our politicians were listening to the subtext of what the students were saying. They were shouting in distress. Many of them were "others." Each of them, with his own background and ideology, implored to be accepted by Israeli society; each knew the door was closed to him, despite all of the Knesset's kitschy gestures on its special day. The disabled girl in her wheelchair, the immigrant from Russia who began her speech with the words, "I am not a prostitute," the immigrant from Ethiopia, the Druze boy, the girl from Sderot who called for shuttering all of southern Israel's towns due to their poverty, the ultra-Orthodox girl who said raising a family is the true career, the teen who spoke in favor of conscientious objection, the religious high school student who called for extending Israeli law to all of the settlements, and the Chabad yeshiva kid in the black Borsalino fedora who spoke about the redemption - none of them belong to the majority, the silent homogeneous majority whose gates are shut to anyone who is different.
One doubts if the organizers planned it this way, but the plenum was filled with anguish. From her wheelchair, Maayan begged: "Don't reject me, I want to be part of the state"; the Druze boy also said he wants to be part of the State of Israel, but cannot be; Haya Bishara, who attends a Baptist school, said: "For me, equality is still in the realm of a longed-for dream"; another student said: "Our lives are meaningless. I look at my friends and it's all empty. This is our distress"; Daniel Kolasky of Haifa's Leo Baeck High School spoke of the blind obedience of Abraham at the binding of Isaac, and Colonel Eli Geva's refusal to serve in the first Lebanon war.
"What is preferable, our patriarch Abraham or Eli Geva?" the teenager asked, and his clever and profound question remained hanging in the air of the plenum, the same chamber that had heard Israel's president telling the youth a few minutes earlier: "The fact that the Iranians chose us as an enemy is a big compliment to us. Nothing defies their evilness and folly more than Israel. Here we don't shoot unarmed demonstrators."
Rubbish. Perhaps that is why in his own concluding remarks, the prime minister said: "I haven't enjoyed a Knesset debate this much for some time now."
Great going, Peres. Great going, Bibi. Who knows, perhaps change will come nevertheless, from some of these kids.
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