The Song of the Youth – Song of Our Future
By Pua Hershlag | 16/12/2010
(from an old Zionist anthem)
On August 3, 2009, the Knesset passed an essential change to the Israel Land Law, whose implication is complete privatization, i.e. sale, of the nation's lands. In one hundred days, the government relinquished the greatest collective property of the Zionist movement and the Jewish people, though lightening-fast legislation that completely quashed the public's right to know and understand the main elements of the move and its implications. It appears, however, that this privatization of lands has infused the Israeli immune system with young and positive energy. It is spurring individuals and organizations that for decades have been on opposing sides of the political map, to create an ideological covenant. This joint struggle shows that values are still a powerful undercurrent. Pua Hershlag profiles the petitioners against the Israel Lands Law
The Dror Israel multi-generational social movement, three youth movements (HaNoar HaOved Vehalomed, Hamahanot Haolim, Hashomer Hatzair), Professors for a Strong Israel, Teva Ivri (promoting Jewish environmental responsibility), "Ha-Mateh Hashitufi" – an association within the kibbutz movement committed to collectivity in the face of privatization, MK Sheli Yachimovitch (Labor), MK Arieh Eldad (National Union), and MK Nachman Shai (Kadima).
A glance at the list of petitioners appealing to Israel's High Court of Justice to rescind the Israel Lands Law reveals a fascinating mosaic: the youth movements "Hashomer Hatzair," "Hamahanot Haolim," "Hanoar Ha-oved Vehalomed" and its parallel organization of movement graduates, "Dror Israel", MK Sheli Yachimovitch (Labor), Nachman Shai (Kadima), Arieh Eldad (National Union Party), "Professors for a Strong Israel," and the "Teva Ivri" organization for Jewish environmental responsibility. The fact that the petitioners clash on many issues, with bitter debates between them, gives their partnership tremendous power.
The headquarters of the struggle are led by the three socialist movements, originally for youth only. Today, these movements operate in three spheres: youth movements, youth movement graduates, and kibbutz communities – and have adapted the original Zionist spirit of 'hagshama' (self-realization through commitment to collective ideals), to present needs in Israeli society. The members are working to build a more egalitarian society, including establishing urban kibbutz communities that reach out to new target groups, among them young working people and at-risk youth. Pesach Housfater is the General Secretary of "Dror Israel," and head of the struggle against the Lands Law. "How does such a collapse occur?" he says, clearly pained. "How is it possible that within such a short period, less than a hundred years, national land – the most basic component of the Zionist idea – has been turned into a commodity for sale?"
Elisha Haas, representing "Professors for a Strong Israel," speaks in different terms: "There must be a spiritual direction, which is external to economics and biology. The revelation at Sinai requires that every Jew overcome biology and economics, in order to act according to interests that run counter to nature. Violating this spiritual principle will necessarily lead to disintegration."
It appears that the privatization of lands has infused Israel's immune system with young and positive energy. It is spurring people and organizations that for decades have been on opposing sides of the political map, to reconsider their priorities. To paraphrase the words of environmental activist Paul Hawken, author of the book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, one could say that "this country came with a user manual, but it appears that we've misplaced it." This joint struggle shows that values are still a powerful undercurrent, while real estate, for all of its influence on the ground, is still not the only force at play. Democracy, after all, depends on an optimistic view of human nature. It's easy to entrust the property into clumsy hands and to remain immobile vis-à-vis strong economic and political forces, but such laxness overlooks life's truths, not to mention that it is very dangerous.
From the moment that the Knesset Finance Committee began holding discussions about land privatization, representatives of the movements began attending its meetings. As the vote approached, thousands of faxes and SMS messages were sent to Knesset members in an attempt to persuade, apply pressure, and remind them what is essentially hiding within the endless pages of the tiresome proposed legislation.
In July 2009, during the week prior to the first vote on the privatization program, dozens of members of the movements set out to mingle in Knesset hallways and concession stands. Knesset members, including those with vast experience in confrontations, found themselves trapped in embarrassing conversations. In the case of some, the words penetrated their hearts, but many quickly found a way to excuse themselves from the situation.
On the day of the vote, MK Sheli Yachimovitch's room was transformed into mission headquarters by movement members, members of the labor movement, and representatives of various organizations. The assembly room was overflowing with some three hundred young people clothed in the traditional blue youth-movement shirts. It was important for them to make clear to the members of parliament that this was an historic decision and that the eyes of the next generation were scrutinizing them during the vote.
These young people were positioning themselves vis-à-vis a well-oiled and long-running system. They quickly learned that their struggle was perceived as esoteric and did not interest the media. But they did not give up, and went on to write a position paper, hold discussions, call, send e-mails and SMS messages, and conduct protest demonstrations with the message "don't vote against your conscience." Positioned across from the Jewish National Fund offices, they dressed up as Herzl and read selections from Altneuland, led a march encircling the Knesset, lit torches, and more.
A rare thing happened at that vote: ideology triumphed, if even for a fleeting parliamentary moment. Binyamin Netanyahu saw that he did not have a majority for the vote, and he retracted the proposed legislation. Something happened, even if a few days the necessary pressure had already been applied, and the bill passed on August 3. The coalition had been momentarily caught off guard. It hadn't taken into consideration the forgotten but powerful component: a commitment to values. In the tiny aperture that was forced open, a victory was registered for ideals.
Members of the youth movements are raised on the faith in an individual's ability to bring about change, and education is the pulsing heart of their activity. But in the history of the state, youth movement members were those who "fulfilled themselves through commitment to collective ideals" – not those who petitioned the High Court of Justice against a law that passed in the Knesset.
What change led the youth movements to suddenly become involved in politics?
Uri Metuki, a member of the "Dror Israel" movement who lives on Kibbutz Eshbal is headquarters spokesman for the struggle against land privatization: "There is most definitely a change in perspective regarding the question as to what missions are necessary today in Israel. And as Herzl said, Zionism is an infinite ideal. James Grant Rosenhead, a counselor in Habonim Dror's graduate's movement, and – together with other movement leaders – a member of Kibbutz Mishol, one of a handful of what are known as "educators' kibbutzim": "This is a struggle of principle, which relates to every person in our society. Fundamental matters pertaining to values and vision are coming up, questions about the image of the State and the society we live in. Not every people has a vision, but, what can we do – we're not 'every people.'"
Anat Mor, member of another "educators' kibbutz" founded by Habonim Dror in Acre: "Today, there are almost no such quests emanating from kibbutzim for the fulfillment of ideals, due to the state of the kibbutz movement. Israeli society does not need us there [on kibbutz]. Today, young folks come and make a covenant with the people; they settle in underprivileged neighborhoods and say 'We and you are living here, together.' That's also a political statement. In any case, it's the complete reverse of the so very common trend whereby 'a person looks after his own needs.'"
In your daily lives you promote ideas that many have already abandoned. How are your ideals accepted by the public?
Ziv Rosenberg, a member of Hashomer Hatzair, lives on Kibbutz Kfar Menahem: "Usually we encounter mockery. Even members of kibbutzim that have undergone privatization are astounded by us: 'How can it be that you still live communally? What planet do you come from?' It's actually from the young people where we encounter a different spark. There's some kind of attraction. Curiosity. There are very important words that simply lost their power. We need to change the discourse in Israel that wears down words and wears down meanings."
What is it about the Lands Law that shocked you to the extent that you decided to pursue a political and public struggle?
Ziv: "They blur the fact that the Zionist movement sprouted up not only in order to provide shelter for the Jewish people, but also to build a just society." James says that they pursued a political struggle simply because no one else was doing it: "I ask: where is the Zionist leadership? Where are all the Zionist institutions? What about the Jewish National Fund and its historic role? And the kibbutz movement? There's a sense that everyone thinks that the national quest is over."
How did you feel after the land reform passed in the Knesset?
Uri: "One of the good things that I take from the struggle is that it became clear to us and to others that there is still a place for a discourse based on values. All of the newspapers eulogized us. They said: 'That's it. It's over.' But it's not over at all."
Eran Vider, aged 19 from Bnei Akiva, a religious youth movement: "It was a formative moment in Israeli history. An astounding moment. We sat together in the Knesset assembly room after we saw that the entire struggle was headed towards defeat. We were partners in misfortune. We cried together. That encounter built something new between us and gave us strength, even though we didn't succeed."
Uri: "I have no doubt that we are at the edge of the abyss. But we must not give in to despair, or to set up an 'out' for ourselves in case 'the business doesn't last.' We have to invest every effort here, in this place, in the proper direction. Because in the long term, nothing is lost. You come like a combat medic, do two rounds of mouth-to-mouth, and suddenly, the person is moving, There's a sign of life. He's with you after all. That, too, we saw during the struggle, and it arouses hope."
Ziv: "First and foremost, it's important to say: I am not cutting myself off from society, not heading home, to my own matters – even if I have to admit that it's not necessarily easy…"
With their healthy sensibilities, members of the movement demand that the community wake up from the slumber into which it has sunk, and respond to the ideological disintegration. And these are not some abstract ideas. An arbitrary change that is detrimental to the interconnections in society brings about its devaluation and subsequent collapse. The economy cannot be treated as if it is cut off from community life. In order not to whisk the rug out from beneath the feet of society, one must cultivate among people a sense of belonging and identity, and staunchly defend the ideological engine, which is the essence of society.
The Breakdown of Spiritual Principle
The organization "Professors for a Strong Israel" was established in the 1980s by academics who sought to raise their voices and express a fear for the future of the Zionist enterprise. Members of the organization, which is typically right-wing, are willing to consider any partner, and seek to bring about as many intellectual encounters and confrontations as possible.
One of the members of the group is the biophysicist Elisha Haas, who grew up on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. Haas's main interest is researching the second genetic code, synthesizing biological structures according to plans encoded in the genome, and today, he is a professor at the Faculty of the Life Sciences at Bar Ilan University. He defines himself first of all as a Jew, and secondly, as a Zionist. The challenge, in his view, is to maintain an independent Jewish society in the homeland inhabited by our forefathers, and to create a society in the spirit of the halacha – Jewish law. The privatization of land, in his view, constitutes the shattering of a spiritual principle: “The entire purpose of Torah is human freedom and acting according to values. The values themselves lack any economic or biological basis – they are not a means to an end – yet only for a value are people willing to a pay a price and to make certain biological and financial concessions.” Zionism, too, he says, is a union based on an idea that is contrary to the laws of nature and to historic progression. “And therefore, the Zionist enterprise has also been sentenced to fight for its existence forever, because there is no way that the world will accept Jewish sovereignty.”
Haas is not interested in the socialist mission. And he, he believes that in the State of Israel, it is impossible to have a pure market economy. He takes his examples from the realm of his research: “If you take a live cell, and remove its genome, it will continue functioning because it has a life-sustaining mechanism, but it will have no offspring. So it is with red blood cells, which are infertile, because in the process of ripening, they lose their nucleus. The kibbutz collapsed because it was structured on an ideational basis. The moment this basis is erased, the moment that the mutual responsibility was removed, the DNA was extracted and the structure collapsed.”
The idea of privatization, Haas continues, arose from the illusion of the free market. “The energy of the free market can be utilized,” he says, "but there is no avoiding the setting of boundaries. If we release the lands from ownership by the people into private hands, the natural processes will take control of us. The Zionist entity, which is an unnatural creature, will disappear. Because an alteration in the book of life means death.” Haas does not conceal his scathing criticism of Zionism: “Political Zionism erased the Jewish 'Book of Life,' and therefore, its second generation is infertile. In today's reality, the Zionist enterprise has failed. We have become a persecuted community that deals in finance, precisely like our forefathers in the Diaspora.” The younger generation, in contrast, is his big hope: “All of the big changes always happen when one generation replaces another. Maybe some of the young people will get up and leave, but some of them will seek the real thing, ask bold questions, and return to the path of Judaism.”
This riddle, in the eyes of Pesach Housfater, head of the struggle and a member of Kibbutz Ravid, is how the kibbutz movement, which is the hard core of the Zionist enterprise, collaborated with processes that will return us to an old Diaspora pattern. How does it come about that people are so quick to sell their souls?
Pesach also identifies as deception the way the disengagement from Gush Katif was carried out. “The young crowd in the national-religious population, with which I entirely disagree, experienced a terrible crisis. I might agree with Ariel Sharon's move, but he lied to them - he used them like a pawn and betrayed them. He didn't come to people and say ‘I'm sorry. I had no choice.' It's deception, and such things have far-reaching significance.”
Pesach is furious at the cynical perspective so pervasive today, and sees it a short-sighted and foolish. “Buber said that there are two kinds of motivation – one is motivation stemming from an interest, and the other is autonomous motivation that arises from what is ‘proper.' Shattering such faith, such intention, is a most dangerous thing. To think that no one in the world does anything except from his own egotistical interest signals the end of society. It's as if the government is coming to us and saying: “Bygones are bygones. The rules of the game have changed. What is national land? Why is it remotely important? Collectivism is passé. Equality and social justice are passé. There's one god, and it's money.” Pesach is shocked at the public's apathy. “However,” he adds, “we have already seen nations head towards their doom with wide-open eyes.”
The revival of the youth movements is actually a result of the cynicism and materialism. Housfater: “There was some kind of Archimedean point in the middle of the 1980s, when we understood that everything was being swept towards a place that was no good – the kibbutz movement, the Labor movement, the Histadrut. We sized up the reality and we said, ‘If we don't save our movement, it will cease to exist.' The processes of privatization had already spread throughout the kibbutz movement, and there was no role there for forming groups to settling on [established] kibbutzim. So we founded the graduates' movement that runs the youth movement and a community of non-privatized kibbutzim. Our movement is 86 years old. We weren't born yesterday. We're simply passing on the torch. As the saying goes, ‘It is not upon you to complete the task…' We are part of the chain of the Jewish people and the movement. There is something larger than us and we are part of it and take responsibility for it. The same is so regarding the idea that 'the Land shall not be sold irreversibly' (Levit. 25:23). We didn't invent it. It's deposited in our hands. Today, the young people are positioned at a very difficult juncture, and the opportunities reside in their patience. How many people in Israel say to themselves: ‘We will be measured by the attributes, character and image of Israeli society?'” And he adds: “Individualism? It's all very well and good, but can anyone here exist for a single second without society? The contribution to the other is ultimately a contribution to oneself, because doing for others is what makes one human. This, in my view, is the very essence of the fact of being human.”
Independent Actors on the Ground
Eran Vider and Noam Levanon, both 19 years old, are members of the national-religious Bnei Akiva youth movement, and are now doing a year of pre-military social service with a “Nahshon” group. “Nahshon” members study Torah, with a strong emphasis on activism. Their motto is social sensitivity. Eran wrote to Sheli Yachimovitch regarding the Lands Law and expressed his desire to help. When members of Yachimovitzch's headquarters integrated Eran into their activities, he learned from them that the Bnei Akiva movement had rejected an offer to join the court petition. Eran did not accept his movement's decision: “How can it be that we are not partners in such a struggle? It's not a struggle over some small niche. It's a struggle over the essence. Something that belongs to the entire public.”
With determined faith, Eran set himself to the task of convincing others. At first, he disseminated an informational email and sent e-mail messages to Knesset members. Afterwards, he decided that he wanted a petition by rabbis, “because I saw that as a way of getting the public on board.” The rabbis signed. “After I organized a petition by the rabbis, I began involving members of the pre-army groups. I spoke with their coordinators and told them to send group members to the Knesset. At first, only a few came, and then one day 50-60 arrived. Those guys simply saw what was going on there – that everything was crawling with youth movements. And then they started talking about it in all of the pre-army groups [of Bnei Akiva] in Israel, and the sense of urgency penetrated the top, to the heads of the movement. Finally, things began heating up.”
Noam: “Zionism has a clear statement about the land, and the Torah adds another layer: after every six years there is a ‘shmitta' year [when the land must lie fallow]. Know that there's something beyond you, broader and larger than you. And what do you want to achieve with this privatization? For the entire country to be just physicality? Just material? If you remove the soul, why have a physical body?”
Noam: “Even though the law passed – and at the time I came out of it with a horrible feeling – ultimately, the intensity is in the trans-societal, trans-ideological connection. That's what created the sense of internal strength and hope.”
Abandoning shared values
Arieh Eldad was the Chief IDF Medical Officer before he turned to politics. Since 2003, he has been a Knesset member on behalf of the National Union party, and among other things, he has headed the Knesset Ethics Committee, and the Lobby Against Public Corruption. Eldad is the son of Israel Eldad (Scheib) – a Lehi commanders and prominent right-wing ideologue in Israel – and grew up as a minority who suffered from misappropriation of governmental power: “The first petition submitted to the High Court in which a citizen prevailed against a prime minister was the petition submitted by my father against Ben Gurion,” he relates. The prime minister had issued orders to fire Scheib from his high school teaching position on the pretext that he had preached revolution in the newspaper. While Scheib won the petition, “in Israel of the early 1950s, there wasn't a high school principal to be found who would hire a person with whom Ben Gurion was dissatisfied.”
The topic of lands, in his view, is a quagmire of corruption, and this takes expression mainly in the local authorities: “We're talking about a lot of money. A tremendous amount of interests. The land reform and the reform in the Planning and Building Law are disempowering to the regional committees, over whom the public still has some sort of oversight, and is a fertile field for various corrupt elements to do as they please with public lands. Our lobby worked on damage control, to protect those who exposed corruption… and while we were working on small things, someone came and knocked down the entire wall with bulldozers.”
But he's joining the High Court petition not only because he fears corruption: “It's a matter of principle concerning the future image of the nation in Israel.” According to Eldad, most Knesset members preferred not to argue with the prime minister over the law, which was considered his “baby.” “Principles and values are at work only one third of the time at the Knesset,” he says. “Those who suffer from an abundance of values and principles move ahead very slowly in the Knesset, or they don't exist at all. On the way to the top, they're forced to sacrifice a large portion of their ideologies.”
Eldad's opposition to privatization is not total. “There is tremendous importance to private initiative and to setting the wheels of the market in motion, and I am in favor of shortening procedures and simplification, but state lands cannot be profiteered. I am prepared to go along to some extent with Netanyahu's obsession with passing reforms, but I am certain that there are better ways than shutting down the entire Lands Administration.”
Eldad does not identify with the goals of the “green” organizations (which joined the struggle but are not parties to the petition.) In his opinion, they are politically biased and not committed solely and exclusively to the environmental bandwagon. In contrast, he is very pleased to work with the youth movements. “I'm also worried that the State is losing its values. The unbearable lightness of being has become a more important value than existence itself. Therefore, the youth movements must be ignited,” he says. Values are a potent engine that leads to great achievements.” And yet, Eldad does not entertain hopes that such connections will build bridges of understanding “It's nothing more than ad-hoc partnership.”
MK Nachman Shai (Kadima) is "blown away" by the conglomeration of petitioners and views it as an extraordinary event. He himself is a party to the petition, mainly due to his fear that the process of privatization will lead to the transfer of lands to foreign hands. “You want efficiency? There are other ways. Let the lands be. Let them be rented out for a hundred years, but the land should remain in the hands of Israeli citizens.”
And yet, he is not excited about the petition itself: “The Knesset is, after all, the sovereign, and not everything can be contested in a petition to the HCJ. These are the rules of the democratic game, and if you're not satisfied, you need to live with it. But here, something too important came up, and there's simply nothing to lose. Or, more accurately, there's so much to lose.” And if we're talking about democratic procedure, according to Shai, the reform was passed in the Knesset with discussions, hastily, as if it was being smuggled. He finds this incomprehensible: “This is a special country. We had to purchase, liberate, redeem the lands here. Everything here is built differently. We are not a normal country. Our narrative is too warped for someone to want to complicate it even more. There are abandoned lands here that the Arabs left behind in 1948, and it's such a sensitive topic. How can we now sell them to a private individual?”
MK Sheli Yachimovitch (Labor) deals considerably in social issues and in working against the large capitalists. In this struggle, too, she was forced to go against her party and her colleagues: “It's clear to me that the Labor party is panoramic,” Yachimovitch says, “but in my worst nightmares I didn't think that I'd place myself in opposition to the party that founded the State, redeemed its lands and settled them… we've lost the battle, but we have greatly embarrassed the government. We toned down the privatization and made it a bit more moderate, and now it will be more difficult to carry out.” For all her media experience, she, too, did not succeed at first in getting the issue into the news. “This law is embalmed deeply within a thick manual full of technical details. Only economic reporters dealt with it, and they are subordinated to the narrative of the Finance Ministry.” But beyond that, what excites her most is the story of the youth movements. “Even if we fail in achieving the goal, this very alliance is a drama in its own right,” referring to the hope generated by the union that crossed lines dividing tribes and sectors – proper collaboration around a formative ethos.
According to Yachimovitch, our obsessive involvement in the political topic caused the abandonment of our shared values that have nothing to do with the occupation. “We will not remain viable if we continue to exacerbate our polarization,” she says. “There are values-based topics around which we can cohere, and they are no less important than the issue of peace, which is certainly a longed-for goal. It is impossible to concentrate the discussion of our values only on this, because meanwhile, society is becoming profit-hungry and rotten.”
Pua Hershlag is an author and poet.