It’s no secret that Israel has a number of pressing internal problems, from the declining economy and religious-secular tensions to bureaucratic bloat and political cynicism. But many Israelis, engaged for two full years now in a war imposed by the Palestinians and suffering from reports of fatal casualties on an almost daily basis, believe the social and political troubles must take a back seat to the military effort. Defeat the terrorists and get the peace process back on track, they say, and then we’ll attend to our own issues.
Big mistake, counters Avishay Braverman, president of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, Israel’s fastest growing university.
“It’s a recipe for self-destruction” to postpone internal conflicts for future discussion, he said during an interview here last week. There may never be a time of sufficient calm, Braverman said, and besides, “we have serious issues that must be dealt with even if the Arabs disappeared tomorrow.”
“It’s no excuse to say we’re at war,” he said. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We are demanding more from our young people, they have to fight, and they deserve a society based on efficiency, decency and values.”
Braverman says he fears Israel may lose its best and brightest if the situation continues unaddressed.
Boaz Nol agrees. A 26-year-old Israeli law student, he told me the other day that he and a few friends, bemoaning the fact that their generation feels increasingly alienated from and cynical about Israeli society, decided to do something about it. Six months ago they formed a group, Yisrael Acheret (loosely translated as the different, or other Israel), hoping to affect an “apolitical political revolution” — reforming the political system by installing non-politicians in office and addressing social issues.
Today the group — formed by university students and professionals, all army veterans and representing a wide range of religious and political views — has more than 7,000 signed-on members, a number of major financial backers, a long list of grassroots projects in place, increasing attention in the media and a goal of winning a significant number of seats in the next Knesset.
Sivan Harari, 25, a law student at Ben-Gurion and activist with Yisrael Acheret, says Braverman is among their leading supporters.
“He ‘gets’ it,” she said. “He understands that this kind of movement can make people feel hope again.”
Braverman and the young people were on separate visits to New York last week, seeking funding and other forms of support for their causes. But the fact that one of Israel’s leading educators and a fast-growing group of young activists are hammering home the same message — that Israel cannot afford to postpone its domestic problems — serves as a wakeup call for American Jews focused, understandably, on rallying behind Jerusalem in its struggle with the Palestinians.
Not surprisingly, it is Israelis who are sounding the alarm about their internal concerns, warning us that we do them no good by suggesting it is somehow untoward to call attention to these matters while war is raging.
Braverman worries that Israel’s political leaders — plagued by a mentality that relies on cleverness and last-minute strategies to avert crises rather than thoughtful, long-term planning — may be outsmarting themselves. “We do not function as a modern state should,” he said.
“We are headed in a dangerous direction now,” Braverman warned, “and we can’t rely on Entebbes” — quick, bold strikes — “but must rebuild brick by brick.”
Braverman, 54, a large man with a facile tongue and burning sense of energy and impatience, ticks off a long list of examples of immediate problems: a government out of control, with 44 ministers and deputies in a deadlocked coalition incapable of effecting much-needed reforms; the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, putting an increased burden on the heavily taxed middle class; rampant corruption; politicians caring only about their ever-narrower constituencies; society losing its sense of values and hope in the future; and on and on.
He insists on a “Jewish transformation,” socially, ethically and politically, going back to the basics of investing in the long term and the next generation rather than focusing, he says, “on the myopia of me, me, me.”
His most specific and immediate concern is the neglected Negev, which comprises 60 percent of Israel but accounts for only 8 percent of its population. Braverman has a detailed, ambitious plan for making the area a major metropolis of 3 million people, with his university in Beersheba the center of high-tech scientific advances, easily approached by fast-trains from Tel Aviv.
He is no idle dreamer. In his 12-year tenure, Braverman has more than tripled the population of Ben-Gurion to more than 16,000 students, improved its academic rating and raised more than $250 million. He has expanded the campus and convinced major donors that the key to Israeli survival, on a number of levels, is saving and developing the Negev, with its slum towns, large Bedouin population and serious water concerns.
“The next few years will be critical to our destiny,” Braverman said. “If we don’t settle the Negev, it will disappear.”
Boaz Nol says Israel’s future is already disappearing. “Of the 10 of us who were best friends from childhood, only two are left,” he said. “Two were killed in the army and the others left for the U.S. or Australia.”
Worse than the war or economy, he asserted, is the feeling of helplessness. “People have lost hope,” Nol said, “they have no idea where Israel is heading, with no leadership, no Zionist vision. So we decided it’s time for us to take responsibility.”
The “we” is now an energized, active organization, seen as naive by some but a breath of fresh air to others. Yisrael Acheret seeks to change Israel from the bottom up, encouraging people to get involved in grassroots educational and social projects. Among its top agenda items are having all citizens — including the fervently Orthodox and Israeli Arabs — serve in the army or alternate national services, and bringing in professionals in their fields to head government ministries for up to four years so that an economics expert would be finance minister, an educator would be minister of education, etc., instead of career politicians.
“We know we’re naive,” said Nol, “but we are the new generation that will give Israel hope.”
Jeannie Gerzon, the executive director of the Tel Aviv Foundation who has worked closely with Israelis for years, is a believer.
“There is no other movement in Israel like it,” she said of Yisrael Acheret. “They are energetic, serious and well managed, and they are really about altruism, not about an issue.”
Some officials worry that emphasizing internal problems now may chip away at the increasingly unified Israeli society and distract people from the effort to defeat terrorism. But Ido Aharoni, the consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate here, noted that “national security is comprised of many components, including social and economic pillars, not just the military.” He said that national resolve is strengthened when “the economic and social infrastructure is sound.”
For now, Israelis are more unified than at any time in recent memory, determined to overcome the Palestinian assault. Yet they are also increasingly dissatisfied and worried about the future. Call it contradictory or call it normal Israeli life, it is the condition of the Jewish state that finds itself stronger and more vulnerable than it has been in decades.
And while some young people are booking one-way tickets abroad, it is comforting to know that many of their peers, and a top university president, are rolling up their sleeves to take responsibility — for themselves and for the future.