Text size

A balagoleh, a wagon driver, shuffles into the town inn, crestfallen. "What's the matter?," the innkeeper asks, pouring him a drink.

"I was so close. So close," the balagoleh replies. "My plan ... I could feel it was going to work. Every single day, I gave my horse a little less to eat. Training him. Everything was going great. But wouldn't you know it, just when he'd learned to eat nothing, just then, he falls down and dies."

It's all you need to know, this one shopworn Yiddish joke. The one that explains the whole of this inexplicable Israel at this New Year. We all know who the balagolehs are. The foreign minister who doesn't believe in diplomacy, the finance minister who doesn't believe in economic opportunity, the health minister who doesn't believe in doctors, the immigrant absorption minister who extols an Israeli ad campaign for America that directly offends U.S. Jews.

Day by day this Israel teaches the horse to starve when it demands more and more of its non-Haredi young people and gives them less and less: in return for less education, higher tuition fees; in return for more inequitable army duty and taxation, less affordable housing.

Day by day the prime minister, in callous insult or in condescension, out of domestic political calculations or out of personal need, teaches the horse to starve when he reduces Israel's support abroad, alienating traditional allies and the Jewish world. Pledging to work for two states, and then ensuring that state number two will be the People's Republic of Judea.

Up until this year the rule of balagolism proved itself. The balagolehs taught the horse to starve and, holding all the power, gave the horse no option but to obey. The balagolehs were - are - pleased as punch with themselves. And when it all collapses around them they always have the horse to blame.

Up until this year, we never suspected that we, the horse, could learn to speak. And the moment the horse learns to speak the balagoleh may think twice about the ultimate wisdom of lessons in starvation.

In our weakness we failed to see that not only can the balagoleh's horse learn to speak, but so can its cousin, the Messiah's Donkey. This is the true equine alter ego of the ordinary Israeli, the beast of burden that a small, radical, hard-right and Orthodox-driven hierarchy believes it can scorn and exploit and abuse and disregard and lash, and then, all of this notwithstanding, still ride into permanent power.

What we did not suspect was that finding a voice can stop balagolism in its tracks. Like other forms of bullying, balagolism is fundamentally weaker than it appears. In the past few days alone, popular outcry has taken the reins from a range of balagolehs. Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau of Yisrael Beiteinu, a party that came to power promising to represent the interests of secular voters, proposes a bill that reads as though the broomhandle-straight Landau composed it with the aid of mescaline. The "Kosher Electricity Law" would have effectively put control of power production in the hands of state rabbinic authorities. But an online petition and an in-the-flesh protest this weekend quashed the bill. A courageous woman's refusal to sit at the back of a "mehadrin" (ultra-kosher ) public bus has galvanized a wider campaign against radical rabbinic edicts meant to muzzle, disenfranchise and disappear women from the public sphere.

The Jewish National Fund, meanwhile, has been shaken by protests at home and abroad against the organization's role in evicting East Jerusalem Palestinians from their homes so that Jewish settlers could move in. Recently a member of the JNF's Washington D.C. board resigned in protest over a scheduled eviction, which the organization has now put on hold.

Finally, unprecedented public outrage over attacks by settler extremists against the Israel Defense Forces - the culmination of the children's crusade that has desecrated mosques on both sides of the Green Line - has lead to the shelving a bill that would have retroactively legalized blatantly illegal settlement outposts. The law, a polite masterpiece of disguised sedition, would have blocked any government control over outposts, barring their evacuation, and, most significantly, undermining the primacy of Supreme Court directives.

In the end, what does the balagoleh story come to teach us? Not only that in 2012, as never before, our choice will be either to learn to speak or to starve. The other lesson is that if a country is run like a joke for long enough there's no telling who will have the last laugh.