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Hope, If Not Optimism for Israel's Future

Some see all in very rose-colored light
That isn’t good, says everyone, even very bad
Some see all in gloomy darkness
It’s the same disease in a different form.

Don’t put on glasses
Neither gloomy nor happy
Look with your own eyes
With eyes wide open.

Don’t say that we are just a minority ba’aretz
Here, of all places, optimism is justified.
Don’t say Zion burst into song and dance
When here a little feeling of pessimism is justified.

Don’t put on glasses.

Get news and commentary from the paper
But from us get a shot of contentment.
Evil should be seen in order to fight against it
Good should be preserved to find comfort in it.

Don’t put on glasses.

THERE IS NO WORD FOR "optimism" in Hebrew. Anyone wanting to express this feeling must use the anglicized optimiut. I confirmed this fact with a linguist friend, who said that you can find in written Hebrew the rare use of the phrase "roeh veradot," "sees rose" (and its opposite, "roeh shehorot," "sees black") — but the phrase connotes naïveté. Optimism, it seems, is simply not a Jewish or, at least, Israeli, trait. Centuries of being raised on the mother’s milk of suffering and guilt — and guilt over our suffering and suffering from our guilt — has prevented that sensibility from entering the Hebrew lexicon.


Photo by Zoe Griss-Bush.
In the United States and Canada, countries of wide-open spaces and opportunity (you might detect my pining for the mighty sequoias and the vast prairie skies), this flaw of Jewish character may be mellowed by other cultural influences. In Israel, with its claustrophobically close quarters, Mediterranean temperament, and Jewish majority, the lack of optimism is stark. Nonetheless, if the father of Modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, were alive today, he might look around him and be encouraged to coin a Hebrew word for optimism. Barring that, we can speak about hope.

Hope is my neighborhood stationer deciding, after 42 years, to quit smoking. He has lasted a week so far and says, this time, that he will succeed. He was influenced by advertisements about the dangers of smoking to health. At some point, he says, you can’t ignore them. Yes, here in Israel (which borders tobacco-crazy Turkey), there are ads saying that smoking is dangerous.

Hope is feminism, alive and kicking and cracking jokes through Orna Banai, one of Israel’s leading comediennes and my latest heroine. Currently, there is a television ad for Careline Deodorant for women that features "Mr. Big" from Sex and the City. "You women," Big says, "you do it all, successful career, kids, yada yada, and you deserve to smell nice at the end of the day." Heaven forbid that you should break a sweat after tangling with your male-dominated board of directors or duking it out with your two-year-old who insists on wearing the socks he has worn for the past two days. Better use Careline, or hubby might not want to touch you when he comes home to eat the dinner you just slaved over. "Oh yeah?" said Banai on a new comedy show, "Ayfo Ata Hai?" (Where do You Live?), during a sketch featuring her most famous character, Limor. "I went out with Mr. Big but dumped him because his deodorant stinks."

Hope is taking the #18 bus to enjoy a cappuccino in Café Hillel on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem. Hope is realizing later that you didn’t think about being bombed, not once on the whole trip.

Hope is the growing number of wheelchair-equipped restrooms. Previously, they were only to be found in the American Embassy in Tel-Aviv. Hope is seeing a growing number of people with disabilities gainfully employed.

Hope is the increasing number of empowerment projects that are restoring the dignity of battered women and training single mothers to turn their talents into marketable skills.

Hope is witnessing cultural creativity involving the multiple ethnicities and races that make up the Jewish people. Mizrahi music is popular with many sectors of society. New plays are being staged, dances choreographed, art exhibited, with a distinct Israeli flavor that comes from the confluence of Mideastern, European and Western influences — not to mention Jewish influences (yes, including guilt).

Hope is Israel successfully exporting her culture and receiving a coveted award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Hope is a chance for Olympic medals in judo, sailing, windsurfing, swimming, pole vault, fencing and other sports that don’t make prime time North American television. Hope is Maccabi Tel- Aviv and Hapoel Yerushalayim winning their respective European basketball tournaments this year and the Israeli national basketball “future team” (for players up to age 20, no foreign players allowed) making the European finals.

Hope is knowing that before the crash of hightech, Israel had more start-up companies than any other country in the world. Hope is one new startup that relocated to the economically depressed town of Sderot in order to provide jobs for local residents and boost the local economy.

Hope is the amazing JerusalemPride 2004 and the Love Without Borders: Jerusalem WorldPride 2005 — the second international gay pride event ever to be held, in the city that is home to the world’s monotheistic religions and some of their most fundamentalist representatives.

Hope is Israel’s freedom of the press and its ongoing public debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the growing income gap, youth in distress and violence against women. Hope is the growing number of secondary schools implementing programs that teach democracy and human rights.

Hope is, admittedly, much more difficult in the area of economic justice, given that Israel’s income gap is second only to that of the United States. There is hope, however, in the growing public realization that current economic policies are callous, and in the call by Bank of Israel Director David Klein for reduced military spending and increased funding for the eradication of poverty. The Bank of Israel poverty reduction program calls for adherence to fiscal discipline while using strategies such as a negative income tax, pay equity for foreign workers (which would reduce their numbers and restore jobs to Israelis), subsidized day care and transportation to work, professional training for job seekers and more. Hope, however slim, is the 70,000 jobs created in the past year.

Hope is knowing that numerous non-profit organizations are working for social change in all areas of social and civil rights. Hope is eavesdropping on a conversation between the representative of a major non-profit encouraging a young woman planning aliyah to work in the non-profit world: “The conditions are horrible and there is no money, but the energy is phenomenal and the achievements make it all worthwhile.”

Hope is former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Bakshei Doron saying recently that the time has come to allow civil marriage in Israel. Hope is the increasing number of secular Israeli Jews studying Jewish texts and reconstructing holiday celebrations. Hope is 500 Israeli Reform summer campers — the vast majority native-born and 40% coming from secular families outside of the movement.

Hope of the “rose-colored” variety is standing outside the caravans of the Gush Katif settlement, Shirat Hayam (Song of the Sea), situated only a few yards from the shoreline. Turn 180 degrees away from the ocean and I “see black” — in the form of a wall separating the settlement from its Palestinian neighbors. I had joined members of my brother-in-law Yochay’s reserve unit to dialogue with Gush Katif settlers. These reservists feel they have a particular right to present their views in favor of disengagement from Gaza since they have served there twice during the current Intifada. Hope is realizing that the settlers are acknowledging, for the first time, that evacuation is inevitable.

Hope is the Israeli Supreme Court decision ordering that the separation barrier be moved much closer to the Green Line, which should result in a tremendous reduction in infringement on the human rights of the Palestinians living in the affected areas.


Photo by Zoe Griss-Bush.
Hope is seeing the work of co-existence done by Givat Haviva, with its projects linking Jewish and Palestinian youth. Hope is the Arab soccer team Bnai Sachnin winning the Israel cup, and the coach claiming that the team, with its Arab and Jewish fans, exemplifies co-existence. Jerusalem resident Amir Aviv agreed and traveled to Sachnin to donate 7,000 shekalim to Bnai Sachnin. Team spokesperson Mohamed Kena’an said that the appropriate word is “existence,” not “coexistence,” since Arabs and Jews simply live together in the area of Sachnin. Kena’an hopes that Bnai Sachnin’s achievement as an Arab team in a Jewish league will produce more than a moment of escape from 30% unemployment, real poverty and lack of municipal services. He seeks change in the consciousness of Arab youth who see the state as existing for Jews only; he wants to help them take the initiative to advance in the areas of culture, science and economics as well as athletics.

Hope is hearing my niece speaking Arabic, which she is learning in her Jewish-Arab, bilingual- bicultural elementary school in Jerusalem. Hope is the announcement of the creation of a Jewish-Arab joint industrial and trading zone in the Wadi Ara area, with partnership among the towns of Umm al-Fahm, Menashe, Kfar Kara and Katzir-Harish. Shuli Dichter, co-director of the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel (Sikkuy), describes the four elected officials who are pushing the proposal as “swimming against the stream, against their own communities, against the government and against a 60-year trend” (Ha’aretz, June 6, 2004).

Hope is knowing that Israel is a leader in scientific research. Hope is watching the Russian aliyah of one million new citizens raise educational achievements and push the Israeli educational system to hire better teachers, raise standards and provide better education for all socioeconomic layers in society.

Hope is seeing Israel continue to absorb Jewish immigrants from around the world. Hope is envisioning the new colors of Jews that will be created as a result of “intermarriage” between Ashkenazi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Sephardi Jews . . .

Shortly after my arrival in Israel in 1997, I received a notice to pick up registered mail. My Israeli identity card had arrived. My official registration as an Israeli citizen came at the end of a week that witnessed not one but two terrorist bombings in Mehane Yehuda, and the firewall disaster in Lebanon that claimed the lives of an Israeli Navy Seal unit. On July 24 this year, I quietly celebrated seven years of aliyah, sharing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with Gonen. I am officially no longer a “new immigrant” — which should explain my recent lapses of optimism.

Over the next seven years, what would give me more hope than the examples cited above? To see thousands of Reconstructionist and other progressive Jews develop meaningful connections to the land and people of Israel. What would turn me into an oxymoronically optimistic Jew? To see thousands of Reconstructionist and other progressive Jews making aliyah to Israel. It only takes 17,000 votes to win a seat

In the meantime, I am still here: not smoking, dutifully recycling bottles, going to peace demonstrations, officiating at an occasional progressive wedding or bnai mitzvah ceremony, giving tzedakah to Jews and Palestinians in need, and doing a few other things in my own small effort to move from hope to optimism.

Shana tovah from Yerushalayim.

Rabbi Amy Klein, RRC '96


Type: RT Article

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