Israel: Old or Young?

Israel's 62nd birthday passed recently. As a kid, 62 seemed pretty old. But my 97 year-old grandmother seems very young to me (and to anyone who knows her). So what is Israel at 62 -- young or old?

Reading the morning paper tells everything that is old about Israel. The conflict with the Palestinians drags on miserably, Gaza festers, and Israel insists it cannot stop construction in East Jerusalem, where most Jews never go.

Old tribalism persists at home. Beit Yaacov, a Haredi girls' school is in contempt of court for refusing to implement a High Court ruling to end discrimination based on ethnicity; mothers state that they would rather sit in jail than allow Mizrahi children to study with their children. Brown versus the Board of Education was more than a half-century ago, but the old Israel still hasn't heard of it.

A woman lecturer at a religious college "Orot Yisrael" believes she has been fired for her feminist views. While the case is being appealed, the fact is that for many Israelis, "feminism" is a bad word -- sadly, I've seen this attitude myself. That's beyond old -- it's primitive.

The old Israel is festering in its narrative of weakness and fear that warps its priorities and elevates security far above democracy. Consider two dangerously anti-democratic bills recently proposed in the Knesset.

The first, proposed by Kadima, would declare any civil society organization to be illegal, that passes information to foreign bodies or in any way aid the prosecution of IDF figures for war crimes. That means that if a civil society organization should post critical observations about Israel's activities on a website that could be read abroad, it could be silenced. In that case, why bother having a civil society at all? The bill's initiators have determined that any information damaging to Israel's image, must be "incorrect and lies." This is anathema to basic democratic principles, but in the old Israel, free thought as well as free speech are dispensable. Old Israel is the 50% in a recent Tel Aviv University/Tami Steinmetz Center survey who said there is too much freedom of expression, and the 57% who think human rights organizations should not be allowed to expose Israel's immoral acts.

Meanwhile, Lieberman's Israel Beitenu proposes stripping citizens of the right to vote if they have been convicted of terror, the murder of innocents, or -- get this -- "harming the democratic foundations of the state." (So do Israel Beitenu members -- and Kadima -- thus lose their own right to vote?) Never mind that democracy is about equal and inalienable rights which are not conditional. In the old Israel, everything was hastily improvised, buildings were patched together with shoddy materials and things were one step away from falling apart. So it seems, was Israel's democracy.

But there is a new Israel too, capable of seeing beyond our horizons to the rest of the world. And out there, things are happening: Jews abroad are standing up for peace in this land as the truest expression of their commitment to Israel. J Street in the US faces down tremendous pressure to make this simple statement. The passion for peace has caught on. Now more than 3000 European Jews -- elites, brilliant minds, and people who are devoted to Israel, have generated a new initiative called J-Call (which in Hebrew conveniently sounds like "J-Kol" -- or "J-Voice"). They seek a peaceful two-state solution, and they urge the international community to press both sides to achieve it.

Young Israel lauds the political inspiration -- not just charity -- we can draw from our Jewish communities abroad. Cracking the armor of a hegemonic, monolithic narrative that "Israel is always right even when it's wrong" is pluralistic thinking and genuine leadership. Young Israel should learn from this if we can't learn it here. The world is moving on -- and young Israel should refuse to be left behind.

Young Israel is vibrant, creative, emotional and optimistic. It was on full display last week at the TedX Conference in Tel Aviv, a franchise of the popular Ted Conference. It is Karen Tal, the principle of the Bialik-Rogozin School which has become a home for children from Israel and from 48 other countries - from Sudan, Philippines, Ethiopia and places far less fortunate than Israel. Young Israel is the children from that school's choir who sang in perfect Hebrew about togetherness and diversity at the conference, and it is the audience that exploded with standing ovations, and (at least in this observer's case) tears.

Young Israel is the development of bio-pesticides to replace chemicals, by the indomitable entomologist Shimon Steinberg. It is independent music belted out by Asaf Avidan and the brilliant modern dance company Vertigo, all present at TedX Tel Aviv. It is Na-La'ga'at (Please Do Touch) where the conference was held; an unprecedented concept of a theater and restaurant run entirely by blind-deaf people who act, interact, and bring people into their world in an astounding reversal of roles. Young Israel is beyond letting the existential fears triumph -- it is creativity, social-mindedness, energy and persistence that waits for no one.

Guess which Israel I immigrated for?

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