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The Pain of Those Who Are About to Die

uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman
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President Reuven Rivlin at the funeral of former Supreme Court chief justice Meir Shamgar, October 22, 2019.
President Reuven Rivlin at the funeral of former Supreme Court chief justice Meir Shamgar, October 22, 2019. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman

When former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak described the character of his predecessor (“Our older brother,” in his own words), Meir Shamgar, this week, he mentioned the anguish he suffered in his final years in the face of the deteriorating status of the Supreme Court and the demise of putting the nation’s interests before political and personal interests.

Shamgar was not the only one who experienced frustration in his final days over the dismemberment of his life’s work. He shared this angst with an entire generation of elderly Israelis who contributed – each one in their own way – to making Israel a country where it was good to live and respectable to be one of its residents. These involved Israelis, whose remaining time is limited, now live in serious discomfort because of the change in direction their country has been taking.

In the year that preceded his death, Haim Gouri described Israel as a country that was going through a “bad” period. Uri Avnery, supposedly the ultimate optimist, characterized the Israeli experience in his final months as “ugly.” Yossi Sarid, who was 15 years younger than them, died of a broken heart (according to his family) because of the deterioration of the state of Israeli society. Amos Oz spoke in his last lecture about the “restoration disease,” the fanatical messianism that threatens to become the center of the Israeli experience.

The disappointment and frustration are not exclusively the property of well-known leftists; nor do they derive from the general experience of aging, which tends to engender feelings of isolation, complaining and bitterness. Tens of thousands of Israel’s elderly are now spending their final years in a sense of despair, which reinforces from day to day their feeling that the world they are living in is shattering. This is neither about sobering up from a daydream nor about rejecting an unrealistic vision. Rather, it is a brutal, unexpected blow of reality for Israel’s elders – who for most of their lives experienced a different Israel.

Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule, these Israelis have despaired of hoping for change. There is nothing they can do but cry over the fact that they have been sentenced to carry their sense of frustration, pain and fury to their graves over those who ruined and destroyed the country. They are still cautious about speaking about the “destruction of the Third Temple,” and like Sarid, Gouri, Oz and Avnery, they choose to use more restrained terms to describe the problem they perceive. However, all of them are experiencing the same feeling that their life’s work is being destroyed before their very eyes.

This generation perceives a break in the circle of life, which no longer has a predictable ending. The present generation of elderly Israelis (mostly from the center and to its left, but also from the moderate right, too) is going through a catastrophe. The world of ideas that it grew up on, the lifestyle it nurtured and the language it was conducted in – have all been mangled to the point of being unrecognizable. They are living in a reality that is foreign to them, which threatens them and disrupts the consensus they have been used to.

Those over the age of 70 are experiencing extreme discomfort in their old age over the ever uglier face of the country: the unfettered political corruption, the assault on the legal system, the chutzpah of ignoring the rules of the game, the contempt for parliamentary norms that evolved over the years, the crude use of lies while running the country, the verbal violence in the political discourse and the unrestrained incitement when addressing the public.

The grief of the members of Shamgar’s generation and his disciples is not just a bunch of retirees reminiscing about the old times, colored retrospectively in a flattering light, nor is it just an optical illusion that ignores the flaws of those times – and doesn’t recognize the fact that every society matures and changes. Their sorrow is the grief of those who feel helpless in the face of the destructive forces that are shattering the foundations upon which Israeli society was built and conducted life, and are smashing its hopes to see its rehabilitation.

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