I’ve been going to Israel every year, at least once a year for the past 20 years of my life. I lived there for a year in 2000 at the beginning of one of the most frightening stages of the second Palestinian intifada. I had my bar-mitzvah there for all my Israeli friends and family to be a part of. I took a gap year in Israel after high school with the Socialist-Zionist Youth Movement, Hashomer Hatzair, that I now lead in New York.
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The routine is usually the same. I get out of customs at the airport with a feeling of excitement to hug my grandparents once again and we go to their apartment in Holon and have a glass of tea that only my Persian safta can make. I have nocturnal tendencies because I am plagued by jet lag. I wake up and eat at Calabouni’s, perhaps the best hummus and example of Arab-Israeli coexistence through food in the world.
All this being said, my trip this year was a little bit different. Perhaps it was because I only had Calabouni on the morning of my departure. Or perhaps it was because Israel is in its most existentially troubling period since its foundation. Let’s go with the latter. I was “lucky” enough to be in Israel and actively engaged in all the hype of the pre-election atmosphere. For those who don’t know, Israelis tend to be the most politically outspoken people out there. During election times, it is the only thing that people are talking about. You hear it everywhere. On the bus, in coffee shops, in the bathroom, in commercials, simply all over. There is something very exciting about a nation that is so politically engaged where everyone must have an opinion. It is the beauty of a nation that is so small and so politically complex. Political engagement is the essence of democracy.
Now, depending on the results of this election and the actions that may follow, this may be the last time that I feel capable of calling Israel a democracy. And I am in good company with the likes of Amos Oz, David Grossman, and an overwhelming majority of Israeli scholars. Some may say I am already too late, but I’ll hold on to this statement for the time being.
I understand that not everyone is as passionate about democracy as I may be. So why care? In the wise words of a friend who made aliyah last year and is committed from head to toe and everything in between to elevating Israel to where it should be, “Israel is the biggest project of the Jewish people in history, and the occupation is the biggest problem facing Israel right now.” Quite a statement! In the past 5,773 years of Jewish life, the present is the most pressing? What about the Holocaust, or all those years in the desert, or that time when someone came up with the idea of circumcision?
Within Israeli society it does not quite seem that way. Israel is in the top three of nations with the largest gap between the rich and the poor and the gap is only increasing. The history of a socialist state has been long forgotten and there are bleak attempts to rebuild a social welfare state within the neo-liberal mold that has been carved in the past couple decades. As is natural in an ever increasing religious state, there is a growing divide amongst the religious and secular. The public is challenging the religious opt-out of the army and the apparent lack in divide between temple and state. Rent prices are sky-rocketing, the education system is paralyzed, and things don’t seem to be getting much better. Don’t forget that only a year ago there were the largest protests in the world in Israel with upwards of 500,000 people throughout the nation making way to the streets to demand a more just society.
Somehow though, neither in those protests nor in these elections are the citizens of Israel focused on the largest moral dilemma facing Israel. Many Israelis don’t seem to be recognizing the international condemnation of settlements. Many Israelis don’t seem to realize that which each new brick that is laid east of the green line we are one step further from a two-state solution and three steps closer to an apartheid state. Many Israelis don’t seem to understand how hard it is for left-leaning Jews to defend Israel from delegitimization and unfair criticism abroad. Many Israelis don’t seem to understand that by voting for Netanyahu they are signing democracy’s death certificate. Many Israelis don’t seem to understand that the outstanding amount of money spent on defense is draining the budget.
Many Israelis don’t seem to understand that in the Declaration of Independence Israel is to be a state of the Jews and all of its citizens. Many Israelis don’t seem to understand that the world is changing. Many Israelis don’t seem to understand that at the core of Zionism is the right of self-determination to all peoples, Palestinians not excluded. Many Israelis don’t seem to remember that there was once hope. Many Israelis don’t seem to understand that the whole world is watching. Many Israelis don’t seem to remember that peace is still a word in the dictionary.
I can say all this because I love Israel. I love the idea of it. I love the land. I love my family. I love the food and the music and the desert and the culture and all the potential that it has. I can say all this because I am passionate about democracy and identify as an Israeli-American Humanitarian. I can say all this because I have seen both sides. I have lived through suicide bombings and I have educated young Palestinians in the West Bank. My Saba fought in three wars and I help lead a program for Israeli Jewish-Arab coexistence. I can say this because I choose not to stereotype. I can say this because I care.
The solutions are not simple and the process will take time. It will take trust and solidarity. Non-violent protest must be elevated and democracy must prevail. We must stop thinking historically and look forward. All human progress has come about through forward thinking. We must deafen our ears to right-wing rhetoric and call people out on racism and hatred. I am not religious, but if there ever was a test from God, this is it. In dark times we must always take the moral high ground for that is the only road towards a just society.
Idan Sasson is currently a second year undergraduate student at New York University, studying Urban Political Ecology and Environmental Stewardship, and is the Maskir of Hashomer Hatzair North America, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.