Temple Israel of Hollywood Leadership Mission before meeting with Members of the Kenesset
Ever since the 2011 Social Justice Protests in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities and towns that drew hundreds of thousands of Israelis from many socio-economic and religious backgrounds to protest the escalating rise in the cost of housing, food, health, and education, I have been particularly interested in what impact these protests have had upon the younger millennial generation of Israelis.
On our recent sojourn in Israel, I wanted my synagogue leadership to meet with young Israeli activists to find out, and so we invited five young women and men to join us for dinner in a downtown Jerusalem restaurant to talk.
The five are progressive activists ranging in age from their mid-20s to late 30s. The oldest of the group is Mikhael Manekin, a modern orthodox man who heads up a new initiative called “Israel Tomorrow.” He was a founding member of “Breaking the Silence.” Itai Gutler is a member of the Jerusalem City Council. Maya Peretz is the chief organizer of a labor organization called “Koach La-ovdim” and is an assistant to Zionist Union Knesset Member Michal Biran. Uri Keidar is a Jerusalem organizer on behalf of the American pro-Israel pro-peace group J Street. And Bar Gissim is a volunteer activist with the left-wing Zionist Meretz Party.
I asked each to introduce him/herself and explain what they do and why they do it.
The all inspired us. They are smart, well-spoken, sophisticated, politically savvy, and committed to the state of Israel not just as the nation-state of the Jewish people, but as a pluralistic, just, and free democracy serving equally all its citizens (Jew and non-Jew) and inhabitants. They are all political progressives, yet their concerns mirror those of Israeli society as a whole.
They spoke briefly about “hamatzav” (the “situation”) referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though all advocates for a two-states for two peoples resolution of the conflict, they are not hopeful an agreement will come about soon under the leadership of Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who each are either incapable of leading their respective populations forward, or unwilling to do what it takes to do so.
As a founder of “Breaking the Silence,” an NGO of Israeli army veterans that has collected more than a thousand testimonies of soldiers describing their experiences in the occupied West Bank beyond the Green Line, I asked Mikhail what motivated him and those in that organization to speak out as they have (Note: “Breaking the Silence” has been targeted as an anti-Israel organization by many right-wing Members of the Knesset, though in truth these young women and men soldiers love Israel and want it to live up to the highest of moral standards and cease to be an occupying power over 1.7 million Palestinians living in the West Bank).
He said that his group believes that Israelis must confess and face the truth about IDF soldiers’ abuse of Palestinians in the territories, that this abuse defies the high moral standards set by the IDF and that such abuse compromises the moral character of the state and sullies the soul of Israel.
I asked Jerusalem city councilman Itai Gulter (a young man in his early 30s whose wife had just given birth the prior week to their second child, a daughter – he was very tired!), what he thought were the greatest challenges facing him as a Jerusalem City Councilman.
Many of Jerusalem’s challenges are similar to those in any American city (e.g. providing equal city services, transportation, housing, employment, and filling potholes, etc.), but he noted that additionally, the religious character of the city that is home to a very large and poor Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population and a very large and poor Arab population are among the most pressing.
I asked Bar Gissim, a young graduate student and left-wing Meretz activist why she believed that Meretz has lost so many mandates in the polls (it once had 11 Knesset seats – it has 6 now). She acknowledged that the country has moved to the right politically, that the key issue on most Israeli’s minds is security and that the people crave a “strong man” as Prime Minister. I asked about the Jewish orientation of Meretz and whether its leadership may be losing a lot of Israelis because though most are not Orthodox, Israelis do identify with Jewish tradition in one way or another and that a complete lack of attention to its party as based in liberal Jewish moral values may lose many Israelis who might otherwise identify with Meretz’s political agenda. This is a criticism of Meretz I have heard for many years. Bar herself had not considered this.
Both Bar (a secular Jew) and Mikhail (an orthodox Jew), reflecting (I believe) the group as a whole, said that they do not act out of “Jewish moral values” per se, but rather out of democratic universal moral values.
I asked the group about the rising cost of living and how they themselves and young Israelis make ends meet. Though all of them live on their own and not with their families, they said that for them and middle-class Israelis, making ends meet requires most people to work more than one job and to depend upon multiple family incomes. At times, they confessed, their parents have helped subsidize them.
Our conversation continued for hours. The takeaway for us as American Reform Jews was that these young Israelis take seriously the obligations of citizenship and consider political activism and advocacy their civic and national duty. As such, they represent the best of and the hope of Israel.
We were heartened, as well, that these millennial Israelis were happy to meet with us who were so obviously interested in them, in their work, their values, their lives, what that think, believe and hope for Israel.
They are truly bright Israeli lights about which we American Jews can feel inspired and proud.