The first time I visited Occupy Wall Street, back in the Halcyon days of Zuccotti Park, I had a strong sense of déjà vu: The movement was brand new, but the feeling was familiar.
More than a decade ago, on the morning of my 21st birthday, I had a quick coffee at the espresso bar across the street from my apartment in the north of Tel Aviv and then rushed to catch a ride to Jerusalem. In my bag, I had a book, a scarf, and a few changes of underwear. I wouldn’t need much else where I was headed, a filthy patch of concrete across the street from the prime minister’s mansion, where I intended to spend the next week or so on a hunger strike.
The cause mattered much to me back then. It matters less now. It had to do with tuitions and how impossibly pricey they had become, and how a tiny nation dependent on the ingenuity of its people couldn’t afford for its college graduation rates to drop below 50 percent, and how a growing segment of the population, the ultra-Orthodox, paid nothing for their schooling and nothing in taxes and nothing by way of military service. We started off raising these concerns in classrooms, which soon led to daylong strikes. Nothing happened. We took to the streets, and so did the police. It didn’t take much more than a billy club to the shin for many of us to get radicalized. This was in August; by November, we had a plan.
The plan involved starving ourselves in front of Benjamin Netanyahu’s home, demanding an audience. Once granted, we’d present him with our plan for reforming higher education and allowing more of Israel’s disenfranchised to attend college. We had drawn up a detailed proposal, with spreadsheets and hard numbers. It made sense, and so we huddled on the small Jerusalem plaza—settlers and ex-Communists and former officers in elite army units and new immigrants, the well-off and the less-so, all young and optimistic—to change our reality.
We failed. And when we did, I knew I had to leave.
It was hard for me, at the time, to explain why. It’s hard for me still. But reading Clancy Sigal’s 1961 novel, Going Away, I felt again as I did that winter morning when, from my hospital bed—I had eventually collapsed after nearly two weeks without sustenance—I heard that the strike had ended and that our encampment was disbanding and that no gains have been made at all.
To the extent that its plot matters, the largely autobiographical novel—subtitled “A Report, A Memoir”—chronicles the cross-country journey of its narrator, a former radical left-wing activist. The year is 1956, and all across America everyone is voting for Eisenhower. The only thing a former Communist could do, then, is head out to the nearest boat and decamp for Europe. En route, he visits with the comrades of old: the radical poet of West Virginia, the Indian who rages at his ancestors’ policies of appeasement toward the white man, the brilliant youthful thinker turned into a broken tool of the crumbling Communist Party, each of them writhing under the weight of shattered expectations.
Like Saul Silverman. A former union firebrand, he was, by ’56, a rich and fat insurance salesman. “He was grimly determined to hold on to what he had,” Sigal writes, “and not to sacrifice much of it in the name of the death rattles of a moribund movement. Saul had discovered home, children, and family.”
It’s that last sentence that keeps the sentiment from belonging in the dustbin of historical clichés. Saul Silverman is not just the archetypal sobered radical, bitter and caustic; he has a family now, a meaningful life, a happiness that is personal and private. Sigal recognizes this, and the book’s immense appeal lies in its intimate portraits of people drained of their sense of purpose but not of their vitality.
It’s a familiar feeling, I think, for anyone who has ever belonged to a movement, namely that life goes on long after hope had died. And yet, Going Away is, oddly, not a hopeless book. When he finally boards the ship that takes him away to foreign shores, the novel’s narrator, his mind reeling with memory after memory of soured friendships and lost causes, says a sweet farewell to the land that he loves.
“And yet,” he declares, “I loved America. Although I could point to few or none of its parts as justification, I felt ineradicably convinced of the direction of America, of the uncertain majesty of its momentum and yes, even that most dangerous of words, destiny. I was part of that direction, beneficiary, critic. The relationship was too complicated. I had to leave. I had outlived my time, had lived too faithfully according to the code of my generation. A new way of life was appearing in America I was no longer equipped to understand, new qualities I was not equipped to see.”
Call it Sigal’s Law of Movements: Each movement is destined to fail, and yet each movement is destined, in its roaring descent, to provide just enough of a thrust for the next movement to rise.
I didn’t get that at 21. I was too angry, and too hungry, to understand how movements worked. Perhaps I still don’t. But looking at Occupy Wall Street, I feel, alongside my trepidations—at their lack of interest in electoral politics, at their distrust of Democrats and unions and other potential partners for change, at their infatuation with process and rejection of organizational hierarchies—also a wild sense of hope.
Before reading Sigal, I was more inclined to ignore or suppress this strange and uplifting feeling. But the narrator’s stream of consciousness put me in touch with my own, filled as it is with recollections of a few precious political achievements floating in a dark sea of disappointment. Which led to the following realization: By any measurable yardstick, Occupy Wall Street is likely to fail. Most likely, the movement’s aversion to grown-up politics would lead it to clash with both Republicans and Democrats come convention time. It’s not impossible to see Barack Obama pressed by his opponents and his natural inclination toward the center to distance himself from the growingly radical movement and the movement, in turn, robbing the president of support he badly needs to secure his re-election. It’s not unlikely that Occupy’s immense life force will be spent in an endless cycle of internal meetings and inward-facing resolutions, driving it further away from the 99 percent of Americans it purports to represent.
And yet, Occupy’s virtue is merely in its existence. Like physical energy, political energy, too, is always conserved; when one movement fails, the next inherits its vitality and moves on. Occupy’s failure, then, will become the launching pad for some other movement some other time, and the general assembly and its human microphone may become just as much an inspirational icon as Woodstock and its guitars.
Going Away was an underground hit with the activists of the 1960s, and the activists of the 1960s were an underground hit with us in the 1990s. The young hopefuls who camped in tents in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel this summer, demanding change, sometimes cited us as a precedent. Each generation tries. Each generation fails. But there is, to quote an old radical Lubavitcher concept, no fear and no despair with true believers. We carry on. Eventually, we’re certain, we’ll succeed.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.