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Political Class

Activists—from the youth protesting steep rents in Tel Aviv to those dejected by their failure to reform Washington—should listen to Moses, reject magical thinking, and learn how to play politics

Liel Leibovitz
August 05, 2011
Student protesters at the Knesset this week.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Student protesters at the Knesset this week.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Attentive readers may find this week’s parasha somewhat odd. In it, Moses, moved by his own impending departure, sits the Israelites down for a brief history lesson and retells them the story of the Exodus.

It’s a peculiar moment. The listeners huddled at Moses’ feet, after all, are of the generation born in the desert; it is highly unlikely that they have forgotten the events being recalled, most of which happened during their own lifetimes. We reading at home feel the same way. Haven’t we just read about these things just a few weeks ago? Why the repetition?

But the dying leader’s amble down memory lane is more than just sentimental. It is a lesson in history and in politics as well as a blueprint for nation-building offered to a people about to inherit the Promised Land.

I reflected on Moses’ words this week while closely following the news from the very same land, where massive demonstrations are currently drawing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets in support of affordable housing, better terms for overworked and underpaid doctors, reduced public school class sizes, and a host of other measures designed to restore Israel to its storied past as a compassionate and equitable society that protects its citizens from the talons of the free market.

At first, news of the protests—they grow stronger every week and have now spread to every city in Israel—thrilled me to no end. Having spent much of my youth and early adulthood fighting for these very causes, it was touching to see my generation finally emerge from what had appeared to be a perpetual slumber and demand basic staples of dignity and justice. Perhaps, I thought, this awakening would even someday lead the same demonstrators to demand the long overdue end of the occupation. I was optimistic.

Then, however, I took a cue from Moses and indulged in remembrance of things past. I felt for him: Few things are as searing, as draining, and as humbling as looking back at one’s own past actions critically and honestly, with neither guilt nor pity.

My own recollection led me to some of the very same public squares now occupied by my fellow Israelis. Slightly more than a decade ago, on the eve of my 22nd birthday, I joined a surging movement of students bent on reform and, much as is happening today, took to the streets in protest. Our demands were simple: Israel, we argued, had no natural resource greater than the genius of its people and needed to invest more seriously in education. Since barely more than 40 percent of Israelis held a bachelor’s degree, and with only 1.8 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product spent on higher education (as opposed to 3.1 percent in the United States, say, and 2.4 percent in South Korea), the government, we felt, was far from committed to making a college education an affordable reality for the majority of Israelis. In consultation with education experts and economists, we proposed a simple plan: Each student in need of financial aid would volunteer a portion of his or her time tutoring underprivileged children and receive in return a government loan, interest-free for the first five years following graduation. We also asked for a few hundred additional dormitory beds in each major university—Tel Aviv University, for example, currently offers fewer than 1,000 beds for more than 25,000 students, forcing the rest to find and finance costly apartments close to campus, with monthly rents hovering around $900 for a room—as well as several other reasonable benefits we argued would help boost higher education. Each of our plans came with clear bottom lines; if the government truly thought education was a priority, we argued, it could start by channeling funds away from yeshivas—the students of which generally neither serve in the army nor pay taxes—and toward the rest of the population.

Armed with our modest proposal, we camped out in front of the prime minister’s residence. Its occupant, then as now, was Benjamin Netanyahu. Then as now, he refused any notion of a meeting. We went on a hunger strike: For 13 days, we lingered on the sidewalk, drumming up support, talking to the press, promoting our plan. It ended with a whimper. One by one, we collapsed. I was among the last ones standing; one evening, amid an impromptu demonstration, my body gave out. I was still in the hospital the next morning when Netanyahu finally gave in and invited us to his living room. His wife ordered a few trays of pizza, and he promised to form an investigatory committee to examine our proposal in depth.

Nothing ever came of it. The students marching in front of Netanyahu’s house these days are making the same demands we had once made. At first, I thought that maybe they would succeed where we’d failed; after all, they are part of a larger movement fighting for a larger reform, the sort of powerful political bloc that can’t be silenced by a few slices of pizza. And then I listened to what they had to say.

Speaking with a reporter for The Marker, a prominent Israeli business magazine, Daphne Leef, the movement’s organizer and de facto leader, was blunt. “I don’t understand anything about economics,” she said. “Whatever the people decide, that’s what will happen.”

Leef’s self-admitted poor grasp of all things numeric is, apparently, commonplace among her fellow activists. After weeks of refusing to release any concrete policy proposals, the movement’s representatives finally went beyond sloganeering this week and delivered their list of demands. It contained few surprises: Leef and her friends called on Netanyahu to implement progressive taxation, increase the minimum wage, reform the educational system, and strictly regulate the housing market. What was surprising, however, was the math. After running the plan by economists and other experts, The Marker reported that the activists’ calculations were off by tens of billions of shekels.

Which brings me back to Moses. Recounting his errand through the wilderness, he lingers on one point in particular. “So, I took the heads of your tribes,” he recalls, “men wise and well known, and I made them heads over you, leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens, and officers, over your tribes.”

It’s telling that of all the wonders of the Israelites’ long, strange trip to Canaan, Moses chooses to hark back to the establishment of the wandering tribes’ political system. Speaking of the miracles—the parting sea! The manna from heaven!—might have made for a more inspiring and riveting tale, but not one the Israelites could use. In Canaan, Moses knows, there will be no miracles; once they inherit their homeland, the Israelites would have no choice but to redeem themselves, and no other means of doing it than through a committed class of civil servants. It’s a surprisingly down-to-earth legacy for a leader who’d spent much of his time atop a mountain, conversing with God.

If only Israel’s current activists heeded Moses’ call, they might have bothered to compose a coherent list of proposals prior to commandeering much of the media’s attention, or replaced their moving convocations with the mundane yet meaningful language of politics. But politics, to the young and the disgruntled marching in Tel Aviv and Haifa and Be’er Sheva, is a dirty word; theirs, they insist, is not a political movement.

It’s the same righteous bel canto that reverberated in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the days leading up to Mubarak’s ouster, or in New York and Washington and Chicago in the weeks following Barack Obama’s election as president. It’s the song of the young and the pure, for whom nothing short of a transformative moment, a blazing miracle, would do. We’ve heard this tune before; usually, it ends with the Muslim Brotherhood taking over the square and demanding an Islamist state, or the Tea Party taking over Congress and ushering in an economic disaster. In both cases, the beautiful souls who believed in change are left to choose between outrage and apathy, forever asking how hope could’ve curdled so soon.

Moses has the answer. In this week’s parasha, the man who produced water out of a boulder is telling us to reject thaumaturgy and instead appoint capable people and pay close attention to their processes of governing. He knows it’s not exactly the sort of stuff that made Cecil B. DeMille giddy, but it’s just what his people need as they’re about the establish their own republic. If young activists—in Tel Aviv, in Cairo, or in D.C.—want to save theirs, they better listen to Moses.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.