Recent events have cast a dark pall over Israel. The total collapse of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) has led the latter to pursue the course of unilateral action, as reflected in the drive for United Nations affirmation of Palestinian statehood in September. Meanwhile, a wave of parliamentary activity, instigated by Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, threatens to undermine key foundations of Israel’s democratic tradition by seeking to stifle dissent and free expression.
And yet, on a visit in late July, I discovered that there are persistent and rather unlikely signs of vitality in Israel — and Palestine as well — that allow for a measure of hope. What is distinctive about these signs is that they eschew the kind of sweeping, top-down political solutions that have been the source of so much expectation and accompanying disappointment. Quite to the contrary, they emerge from the bottom up, from grass-roots efforts that seek not a grand resolution to the simmering conflict, but a measure of justice and dignity for individuals.
The first sign of this kind is the remarkable social ferment that has gripped Israel for the past several weeks. On the night of July 30, 150,000 people took to the streets to protest the unaffordable prices and insufficient stock that make housing a desperate concern for many Israelis. Protesters across the country began to dwell in tents in streets in dozens of cities and town to express their opposition to the unrestrained free market that has priced out most Israelis from purchasing or even renting apartments. The protesters are students, parents, religious, secular, individuals, families, Jew and Arab.
Until recently, this curious collection of Israelis would have said that efforts at large-scale change in their society would lead nowhere. They were shaken out of this belief by the unlikeliest of catalysts — a lightning response, fomented by Facebook, opposing an overnight 100 percent increase in a basic Israeli staple, cottage cheese. The “cottage cheese boycott” of mid-June not only forced a rollback of the extortionist price increase, but also encouraged young Israelis to take to the streets to express their dismay at the fraying social compact in Israel. It is not clear where the protests will lead — whether, for example, they bear the potential to force serious reforms to Israel’s economic privatization strategy (which widens the gap between rich and poor by the day). But it has been an exhilarating example of social enfranchisement for many — a sort of Tahrir Square for Israelis, 87 percent of whom indicated support for the tent protesters in a recent poll.
On a far smaller scale, and without the overwhelming support accorded the tent protesters, rays of hope can be found in the work of small and dedicated groups of activists who fight every day to make Israel live up to the ideals of its own Proclamation of Independence. I spent time with one of these activists, a co-founder of the Israeli group Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence). This group has the mission of collecting testimonies from Israeli soldiers about aberrant practices they observed during Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operations in which they participated. Breaking the Silence also conducts regular tours to the Jewish quarter in Hebron with the mission of exposing the ugliest face of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
Hebron was the site of the brutal uprooting of the ancient Jewish community in 1929, in which 67 Jews were massacred. Bent on restoring a presence in Hebron, groups of extremist settlers forced their way back into the city after the Six-Day War in 1967. In order to secure the safety of this small group of settlers, the IDF, along with the police and border patrol, have created a virtual ghost town in the once-teeming marketplace of Hebron — this to assure that hundreds of Jews have free movement while thousands of Palestinians are restricted in gaining access to their homes, cars and businesses. It is a haunting, Orwellian maze of streets and checkpoints that costs millions of dollars a year to maintain and yields blatant discrimination based on race and religion. (One wonders how Israel’s housing crisis would look if the massive government investment in the settlement project were reversed.)
The work that Breaking the Silence does in calling attention to the unconscionable situation in Hebron brings down upon it much criticism. Its activists are labeled traitors, anti-Zionists and even “terrorists,” according to the delusional rhetoric of a recent Knesset proposal. They are anything but. The guide who took me on a site visit to Hebron is a proud Israeli and observant Jew who is motivated by what he regards as the best of Jewish and Zionist values. He seeks not the dismantling of the State of Israel, but the realization of its fullest potential. He does not hold his breath for a breakthrough in high-level negotiations, but rather than sit on his hands, he works from the bottom up to effect justice at the local, individual level. He has hope, because he refuses to succumb to the alternative.
I encountered a similar sentiment while giving a lecture at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian students were attentive, curious and engaged. As we sat together in the university cafeteria, they told me that they, too, harbored little hope of a negotiated settlement. All the talk of a two-state solution that attended the Oslo peace process had brought a Palestinian state no closer to fruition. Later, they gave voice to the view that the average Israeli, in their experience, is a violent, gun-toting soldier.
Hearing them talk this way was disheartening, an indication of the deep chasm between the two proximate societies. And yet, quite remarkably, many of the students, just minutes after describing their fear of Israelis, expressed the strong desire to meet their contemporaries across the Green Line. Some had even organized surreptitious encounters between Israelis and Palestinians, social opportunities in which politics was set aside in order to order to get to know one another. The students had fought through their own fears, in extremely trying conditions, to recognize the innate and core humanity dwelling in their fiercest of rivals.
It is at such moments that glimmers of hope enter the dark chamber of despair. Israel is not bathed in hope at present. But it was important to be reminded, especially by the young people of the region, that we are not at liberty to surrender to despair.