Opinion

Lighting Up a Joint as Step Toward Solving Israeli Society's Ills

Go ahead, call us escapist Tel Avivians, but the decriminalization of marijuana is a great accomplishment. And to all those moralizing sermonizers: Yes, we know there is an occupation, we aren’t that high.

A woman smokes marijuana at Denver's Club 64, a marijuana-specific social club, Dec. 31, 2012.
Brennan Linsley, AP

Throughout the depressing Israeli national anthem, the unremitting requiem, the sad song that won’t end – suddenly a happy and optimistic tune breaks through: decriminalization. La la la la la la. Yallah, everyone sing together now. Wave those joints in the air, light ‘em up, draw a good deep toke into your lungs, exhale the sweet smoke into the faces of impassive cops and the stupid law.

What could happen? You’ll get a fine? There are worse things. In fact, it’s worth it. Decriminalization of marijuana is an accomplishment that cannot be underestimated: The quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people is about to be drastically upgraded. They will no longer need to live in fear, or have to constantly look over their shoulder. They will be able to enjoy life and park their worries in neutral – at least for a few minutes or hours. Under the patronage of grass and hashish, life in Israel will become easier, more tolerable. The news will no longer be so terrible. Bibi will turn into a pink cloud that will break up somewhere over the horizon. Want to democratically replace the regime? Take a drag.

But, here they come, the voices of dissent are already being heard: Decriminalization is not so important. It is way down on the list; as struggles go, it is a mere trifle.

This is a recurrent failure of the liberal camp here, which has once again chosen to focus on the wrong thing. This is what passes for a problem in you life? What about the cost of living, automobile accidents, and corruption and domestic violence. And let's not forget the Occupation. How can it be that we haven’t talked about the Occupation yet? They’ll always, but always, remind you that there’s the Occupation, and will then explain that marijuana is not about values or ethics or the struggle for social justice. Marijuana is a privilege of the middle class. There are poor folks who can't even afford to smoke a single joint. And what about people with asthma?

A joint being rolled.
Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

And then they start on decadent, strung-out, escapist, bubble-centric Tel Aviv and its fixation on petty nonsense. Again, those Tel Avivians who care only about themselves? (Hey, if you have an opportunity to sling mud at them, why miss it?) Nothing is ever enough for the preachers and sermonizers; they will always bring up examples of something that’s more critical, substantive and meaningful. Not because they themselves are doing anything to alter reality, but because they happen to be in a most comfortable position: They are seemingly enlisted in achieving the supreme objective. But it’s only pretend. Because the supreme objective lies far beyond their reach. The supreme objective demands the significant forfeiture of privileges and self-sacrifice, and that is not something that features in their plans. Not right now, at least. So in the meantime, they are asking others for something that they won’t even ask of themselves. Big heroes.

The crisis of liberalism is not post-modernism. Nor is it problems of the first world, which is incapable of distinguishing between what is serious and real, and what is pampering and luxurious. Between the death of a Syrian refugee and an overcooked hamburger. The problem is that there are increasingly more people who realize that there are infinite crimes and injustices, and who feel powerless in the face of this reality. They do not know what to do, their impotence is humiliating to them and therefore they withdraw into a puritanical worldview, so they won’t have to contend with the collective neglect that characterizes the Western world. This is their standard alibi: the liberalism of armchair theoreticians, self-appointed saints who rely on higher authorities. Nothing is important enough for them. Only what they decide is important. Only what suits their rigid ideological agenda. They will explain to you that you are focusing on the wrong things. And what do they focus on? On explaining that to you.

Over the years, there have been those in Israel who have wished to crush the yearning for normalcy, only because there is always something more urgent. Right-wingers will tell you it’s the security situation, the terror attacks, the redemption of the Land of Israel. Left-wingers will hurl in your face the Palestinian problem and the economy. Both sides will ask you, How can you be partying at a time when what’s going on here is going on? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? It is a coalition of professional hypocrites. They’ve grown addicted to the masochistic pleasure of catastrophe and hardship, while they themselves are hanging around in cafes like all the rest of us, sitting and clucking their tongues.

I wouldn’t dare tell someone to sacrifice or endanger himself, but if you’re going to be annoying, like most of us, at least don’t get in the way of the little struggles that are always going on, or the little successes. Yeah, “little.” And decriminalization is a success that can be credited to Israeli liberalism. Yes, it isn’t the most significant thing around, but what does that mean? What are we supposed to do while the Occupation isn’t ending – just wait around? Put our life in perpetual wait mode? That is a demagogic demand, mere lip service. It ain’t worth nothin’. Because we wake up in the morning and have to deal with irritating and frustrating trifles.

Illustration by Sharon Fadida.

There’s no need to pretend that we are focused solely on the big-ticket issues as we brush our teeth in the morning. Few of us are engaged in real acts of benevolence and in seeing justice done; thank God, people like that do exist. But we deal with what we can. Not with what could be. This is an admission of our nothingness but also of our strength. People still have the ability to win the games played in the lower-level leagues.

True, the Occupation will not end in the foreseeable future, and terrible and awful things will still happen, but what differentiates the moral individual from the moralistic individual is the possibility to think and act on several levels. Some people rescue cats from freezing in the winter; how is that they are not concerned about the people suffering in hospital hallways? Well, then, the cat is important, the human being is important, marijuana is important. Each of us has his or her concerns. For one guy, a leaky faucet in the yard is a catastrophe. How is it that he isn’t devoting his attention to first solving the water crisis in the Gaza Strip?

There’s no end to it. It’s become a competition of who is the bigger victim, who is the poorer wretch. But the real victims and wretches do not measure themselves against others. They just suffer. Only those who are engaged in empty empathy feel a fundamental need to rank injustices and wrongs. They’ll keep on waiting for a total repair of the world, but you can be certain that if were all up to them, nothing would happen, ever.

We have learned to live in a damaged world. To feel our way through the darkness. Because there is no other choice. We must continue to live and to feel our way through. Life in Israel is an unending series of small victories. It's a cause for despair, but it is what it is. You have to light up, do whatever you can, and look ahead.

Maybe someday it will all work out.