By Udi Bernstein
I’ve made a new friend over the last few years – a canopy of fruit-filled grapevines. During the dry season, when the vine is empty and happy, I try to clean the dry branches. When the vine begins to awaken, I am exhilarated. Its vivid green color against the blue sky of early spring uplifts my soul. Then, as the leaves begin to spread and expand, the time comes to start picking, cleaning, soaking – and before we know it, we are stuffing the rolled grape leaves with rice, garlic, lemon, and caramelized onion.
Throughout the picking season, one is faced with a small but determined enemy – the tendrils. A thin, winding stalk whose job is to reinforce the grapevines. The tendrils emerge from the base of the vines and curl around everything, strengthening the vine as it grows. When anyone tries to remove a piece of this vine, for example, when I, myself, am craving stuffed grape leaves, the tendrils put up a fight. The tendrils hold strong.
A few weeks ago, there was an important article in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, about leading activists who left Israel because, as the headline stated, they felt unwanted. Admittedly, the article strikes a chord with me and my unresolved issues with belonging, wandering, courage and commitment, and it stayed with me long after I finished reading. The article left me with a sense of discomfort, which I tried to dissect and understand.
The people interviewed were all ideological individuals. I typically shy away from sweeping ideologies and broad categorizations that attempt to group together all activist efforts in our society. I am equally averse to overblown predictions that aim to bring about action. I don’t share the activist drive of the article’s subjects, but it was precisely for this reason that I decided to dive in and analyze my discomfort.
Despite the apologetic undertones in the article which tried to show that the decision to leave Israel came with a certain level of comfort – that is, the economic means and professional versatility that allowed them to leave and maintain a certain lifestyle – I still believe it is not a question of convenience. In my opinion, comfort is important, something to be appreciated, not apologized for. Perhaps the reservations they expressed were merely an attempt to differentiate themselves from those Israelis who live so comfortably around the world. They seem to want to grant themselves a kind of uniqueness and add a sense of “political exile” to their decision to move (although they also disapprove of the word “exile”, and rightly so).
I am not ideologically connected to most of the individuals who appear in the article, and as I said, I’m a bit of a critic when it comes to steadfast ideological stances in general, but precisely because these people are so seriously committed to their ideologies, I wonder if there is something I am missing. Perhaps this is because I feel a sense of closeness to these individuals, or perhaps it is because of my appreciation for people who choose to try to actively fix the problems they see in the world. The majority of them are doers, and even if you disagree with their perspective or methodology, there is no question that they are acting with pure intentions. Who are we to criticize? But despite my reservations, something still disturbed me.
The people in the article have a proactive and even revolutionary way of thinking. They are people who are genuinely disturbed by the injustices they see in the world and are actively concerned with how they can make things better. Despite my aversion to taking extreme measures, I appreciate the power this can have, especially when that power is utilized for righting wrongs. And this is precisely why their decision to leave Israel is so strange to me.
I would like to believe that their commitment to activism is genuine and not just an excuse for self-adulating or narcissistic discourse. There is an inherent contradiction between being committed to doing good in the world and choosing to lay down your arms when the world is in trouble. And this is when I am reminded of the tendrils.
He who truly belongs to a place – fights. Without a deep sense of belonging, there can be no commitment to the cause. And there can be no commitment when there is no deep connection to the physical place or to the principles for which you are fighting. If I become overly infatuated with the idea of Tikkun Olam, I may find myself forgetting to take action in the real world. A person who does not protect his own backyard will not know how to protect anyone else’s. He who does not feel that something is truly “his”, or that he truly belongs, will have little motivation to effect positive change and will ultimately leave.
I would be remiss not to recall another ideological group in the Israeli public sphere – those who experienced the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Though they lost their fight, these people did not disengage from their desire to effect change. Instead, they amplified their efforts and made sure to position themselves deep within the power centers of Israeli society.
When we apply this thinking to Israel as a whole, one must ask – Is a strong ideology the only thing that can engender commitment? Does one need to believe in a utopia or a messiah? Or, in other words – are the only ones who fight those who have God and the commandments on their side?
Perhaps we were too quick to take narcissism off the table? Not narcissism in the exhibitionist sense, but rather narcissism that perceives the world as an object. Maybe we are dealing with a type of activist who sees the world as merely a platform for his own self-expression, and when things don’t go his way, he simply disengages.
I once participated in a group discussion that included one of the most aggressive personalities in Israeli discourse today – A stubborn and ascetic ideologue, a grim and outspoken fundamentalist. This particular conversation took place after he had made yet another repugnant statement about a particular group. As he spewed venom, I had a realization. I recognized this anger. It’s the same anger young children demonstrate when one of their toys stops working. As long as the toy fulfills its purpose in the child’s world, as long it keeps his hands occupied, the child is happy. But the moment it breaks and stops adhering to the child’s will, no matter how hard the child tries, he cannot make the toy to work again in the way he desires. And with this comes rage; some would call it narcissistic rage. “You were supposed to fill a specific role, my dear toy, but you refuse”. And now, this indignant man full of rigid ideology, looked to me like an angry child, furious that reality refused to comply with his grand plans. I have found that this conflict between the desire to fix what is wrong and the need to bring one’s own plans for society to fruition (even at the risk of doing irreparable damage to that same society), is particularly common amongst people who consider themselves to be ethical.
One of the interviewees in the article said that he felt that in Israel, he had become a side note. In America, people listened to him, he didn’t feel like an alien. The indignant man I mentioned earlier has no problem being written off as crazy. He is enraged. But I did not identify rage amongst the people in the article, nor melancholy. Mostly detachment, which is not characteristic of an activist. If we accept the ideological stances of the people who were interviewed, then detachment is just another form of indifference. And activism is the lifeblood of people who hold these beliefs!
It is not, however, just a question of belonging to a place. It is legitimate to feel that you don’t belong here. It’s a feeling I have at least twice a day, whether while waiting in line at the supermarket, listening to the news on the radio or watching a tribal council on “Survivor”. Perhaps this feeling is universal.
What is more intriguing to me is the very commitment human beings make to the values they define for themselves. Those whose worldviews are influenced by proactivity, revolutionary thought, the pursuit of morality and goodness, and repairing the world, are those who stick around to help effect change. A deep commitment to a value demands action when that value is violated. Otherwise, it’s just shameless nihilism. You identified an injustice? Put up a fight. You took a beating? Keep fighting. Because the story is not about you; it is about iniquity that must be prevented post-haste, and you are, so you claim, a moral person.
I cannot genuinely define myself as someone who commits fully to a cause as I tend to detach myself from a situation when things get complicated. The subjects of the article are earnest people. They acted and spoke out against what they identified as wrongdoing and injustice. For some, this was their primary sphere of activity. And then, something broke down and it all came to a halt.
There is a beautiful poem written by Avot Yeshurun, short and precise – “It is good that the world is big, and I can go”. How much freedom and how many paths in a single sentence. Not one person could read that sentence without fantasizing about riding across South America on a motorcycle. But while the knowledge that you can always leave is great on the existential level, it is not quite as beneficial when you are fighting against injustice. The understanding that “if worse comes to worst, if things get bad or if taxes go up, I can always leave” is devoid of the resoluteness required to effect real change. “Worst case, we’ll leave”. A person who has this idea in the back of his mind has limited his ability to fully commit to a cause. And when he finds himself opposing people without that same limitation, he will inevitably end up on the outside, unable to muster the strength to continue his fight against injustice.
One of the interviewees, a man whose academic writings dealt mainly with the concept of evil, said: “The Zionist enterprise is a small speck in the universe of injustice”. Even if this is true, this means he’s already given up on one injustice. How will he have the strength to fight against even greater injustices? I think about what these individuals will do when they see injustice where they now live – yes, it’s already there – in the U.S., Australia, or wherever they may be. When injustice is revealed, can these people be counted on to fight? I’m not so sure. A person who left once will keep leaving. Because the world is big, and he can go.
The tendrils put up a fight. They cling to the vine, working as a group. But they also have their seasons. The tendrils fight and when the season ends, they dry up, happily, satisfied with their efforts. To quote a famous Hebrew song – “The ducks fly away when the lake freezes over”. “But then summer arrives, and something happens”. And then winter comes, and new tendrils begin to grow.