This Israel, Wandering Naked at 67

Something happened to my faith this week. It was restored. Let 8 million narratives bloom. 12 million.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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An Israeli apartment getting ready for Independence Day.
An Israeli apartment getting ready for Independence Day.Credit: Tess Scheflan
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

"Zionism is not a narrative. There is one version of the events of how this country was established - the truth."

- Israel Hayom newspaper columnist Emily Amrousi, responding to former Education Minister Shay Piron's proposal that the Nakba be taught in all Israeli public schools.

Countries, like people, age in very different ways. There are those who age with grace, who have learned from the pocked and poorly marked road of experience, and continue to grow and reinvent and adapt and thrive in appropriate ways.

Then there are others who insist in still walking around half naked, the bloated, sagging belly hanging out for all to see - either because they couldn't care less anymore what other people think, or because they see themselves as being just as attractive to the world as they once actually were, or because their family lets them. Or all three.

Israel once seemed headed for the first fate. But over the last several years, something – perhaps someone – has pointed it with skill and efficiency, directly toward the second.

Just as some people seem overnight to turn from forever young to abruptly old, Israel, not at all an aged nation by world standards, feels these days to have had much of the vitality and hope drained out of it. A country whose people sense that cruel fate cannot be changed, or the fear that any attempt to change it may make things even worse. And who can blame them, this year of all years?

Last summer, a horrific war. A war that left Israelis with the impression that the next war, perhaps an even more horrific war, is just a matter of time - and, if the feeling proves accurate, not much time.

A war which promised only more war, followed by an election campaign which seemed to promise little more than yet another early election. A campaign which unleashed long-simmering racism and which dwelt on grudges born decades and generations ago. In all, a country growing bitter, inflexible, vindictive, unable or unwilling to listen to unfamiliar voices, to other narratives, a country exhausted, dragged down in resentment and regret.

A country growing old.

Tuesday night, just as I found myself wondering how a country like this could put itself through one more Memorial Day for the fallen in war and the victims of terrorism, or bring itself back to celebrate, without a break, one more Independence Day, the answer came from one of the last places I might have imagined to look.

It was at the memorial ceremony conducted by students at Bialik-Rogozin, the Tel Aviv school whose students are largely children of asylum seekers and other migrants. Their roots in an astonishing range of distant lands, diverse religions, disparate languages – they are somehow united in a shared new culture – a deep love of something that is, in the best of senses, Israeliness: a profound, passionate bond of home, family, friendship, and coming together to help one another in time of need.

An Israel stripped down to its essentials, for all to see.

I was floored. In their voices, their words, their respect for one another, their fiery and serious faith in a better future, there was a feeling in the air that I remembered from an Israel before this Israel. A belief in the actual possibility of a triumph of peace and love – yes, that – over hatred and war.

Against all odds or reason, a belief in the actual possibility of rights and freedom for all people. There was an electricity in the air, something I hadn't felt in so long, nor expected to feel again. The electricity of hope.

These are young Israelis who love what is at heart the best about Israel and Israelis, despite their being the target of much of what has become the worst about Israel and Israelis.

Just this month, on the eve of the Passover festival of freedom and redemption, government officials promised to begin deporting asylum seekers soon after the holiday season was over. This is the season in which Israelis delve into the lessons of the Holocaust, of the dangers of world indifference to refugees at risk, of the importance of recognizing those who fervently contribute to making Israel a better society.

Next Saturday night, May 2, people are planning to gather in Tel Aviv to protest the planned expulsions. The people who come are patriots. So are the people who are threatened with expulsion.

This was what I took away from an evening at Bialik-Rogozin. Pretty simple, really: All people deserve rights. All people have a narrative. All people deserve to be heard.

Consider the narratives of two of those honored with lighting torches on the eve of Independence Day. This year, the honorees included musician and composer Avihu Medina, who in a recent newspaper interview spoke out against the professional and cultural apartheid – he used the word – which Israeli Ashkenazim long practiced against Mizrahi Jews.

Honoree Lucy Aharish – whose candidacy as a torch-lighter racist Kahanists condemned and sought to quash – survived a terror attack as a small child, to become Israel’s first Arab anchor on prime-time television, and a powerful voice for equal rights and coexistence.

In this, the 67th year of Israel's independence, may eight million narratives bloom. Twelve million, including the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

That Tuesday memorial evening, at the Western Wall, President Reuven Rivlin, in speaking of those Israelis who fell defending their home, said that their deaths "force us to deepen our commitment to building that home, as a more just home, as a more compassionate home, as a home where not only those who have fallen, but all those within it, are equal. This is our debt to their heroic deeds, and their lives which were lost."

My father, of blessed memory, was a physician who knew quite a bit about what aging is and does. And, in the end, how youth is meant to support it and, over time, triumph over it. When I was small and found myself angry or disappointed, which was often, he used to say in a Yiddish that was also Hebrew, "Gam Zei Yavehr." This, too, will pass.

Something happened to my faith this week. It was restored by school kids. I again appreciate how right my dad was. Yes, this Israel of premature and ugly aging will take too long to pass. But pass it will.

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