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Summer Heat

The protests in Israel these last two months were nothing short of a revolution. But can the political hope continue through the fall chill?

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Protesters in Tel Aviv, July 29, 2011. (Francesca Butnick)

My son, Lev, recently came home from the first day in his new kindergarten with an assignment: He had to make a list of three things he learned this summer. That evening, after we brushed our teeth together, Lev dictated his list to me. It seems that this summer, he learned that goldfish living alone in a fishbowl can die of loneliness; that if he turns on the tears, Grandma Orna will bring him chocolate milk after he’s gone to bed even though Mom doesn’t allow it; and that the people demand social justice. One of the older kids in his summer camp taught my son the catchy slogan of the town-square social protest rallies: “Haam Doresh Tzedek Hevrati,” which translates to, “the people demand social justice.”

It isn’t only my son who learned something these last two months. I, along with hundreds of thousands of other Israelis also learned a thing or two, the most important being that if the people who gathered in this land want to continue living as one nation, they have to work at it. During the last decade, Israeli society has become radically polarized. Many talk about the Tel Aviv bubble, but it’s not just Tel Aviv that has cut itself off from the rest of the country. The religious are continuing to move away from the secular, and the Israeli Arabs, who always had a hard time identifying with the Zionist country, find it even harder under a hostile right-wing government.

In retrospect, the fact that almost all of the various groups in this divided society could stand shoulder to shoulder and shout the same slogans is nothing short of a miracle. In the not very distant past, those same groups had occupied the same space only to clash and hurl insults at each other. For the political establishment, facing a divided, despairing public has always been very convenient. But this summer, this despair turned into hope. And hope, it seems, is one of the greatest enemies of politics in our region. It’s easy to understand the hysteria of all those lazy politicians who have been trying for years to make us believe that their only job is to slow down the inevitable downhill slide.

Something else I learned this summer is that democratic responsibility does not end with casting a ballot every four years; democratic responsibility also requires the public to take to the streets in order to remind its elected officials to be attentive to the will and needs of the voters throughout their terms and not only when they need their votes. For years, we were taught that every demonstration or protest undermines the country and sends a message of weakness to our enemies, but this summer we learned that that was indoctrination by a system that wanted us quiet and obedient so it could continue doing whatever it wanted.

Looking back, it’s clear that this summer was nothing short of a civics lesson that an entire nation taught itself, and that we won’t be able to understand and sum up its many implications for quite a few years to come.

This summer’s revolution was neither political nor pragmatic; it was a consciousness revolution, and as with a stone that has been thrown into a lake, the extent of the ripples it creates cannot be predicted. The people who make up the core of this struggle are in their mid-20s, and in the past, many in that group, disgusted and despairing, wouldn’t exercise their right to vote. Quite a few of this new cohort are students, future doctors, economists, engineers, and lawyers. Have the self-centered, get-rich-quick dreams that some of them conjured up been transformed into something else? Will the process they have been part of, which proved that change is possible, give birth to thousands of new social, political, and economic initiatives? I will be very disappointed if it doesn’t. And this summer was a time when the word “disappointment,” one of the most popular words in the geopolitical region in which I live, simply vanished from our vocabulary.

Soon the autumn chill will be upon us, and winter rains will follow. But even they will not be able to wash away the new hope and the shared knowledge of all those who marched together these last two months: that this summer can be repeated, and that if it isn’t and the town squares remain empty forever, we have only ourselves to blame. Because the final thing I learned this humid and amazing summer is that those who refuse to take to the streets and dream alongside their neighbors are taking the risk that their dreams, just like my son’s goldfish, will die of loneliness.

Translated by Sondra Silverston

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Summer Heat

The protests in Israel these last two months were nothing short of a revolution. But can the political hope continue through the fall chill?

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