The beach in the Israeli coastal city of Rishon Lezion was crowded as always on a summer day. But there were more cell phones than usual, and a somber crowd gathering at the snack bar, listening to the first calls dispatched from the scene of yesterday’s attack on the bus heading to Israel’s southernmost city, Eilat. And later, a larger crowd surrounding the television as the driver of the bus recounted the ordeal: “I thought they were soldiers repairing the fence; I slowed a bit, and then I caught a hail of bullets.” On the beach my younger sons waived wildly at passing Navy helicopters, likely part of a military operation surveying the coastline, with Gaza less than forty miles away. At times like this, Israel seems a very small country, not only because of the geo-political reality, but the feeling of unity in the face of tragedy.
This summer, however, a different kind of unity has seemed ready to take shape, not based upon common fears of an external enemy, but the development of a conversation about the future of a new Israel. Staring earlier this month with a tent-city erected in Jerusalem and then a much larger one on Tel Aviv’s fashionable Rothschild Boulevard, Israelis gathered to protest the astronomical price of housing. The protests spread, and two weeks ago, 350,000 people came out in cities across the country, campaigning not only against high housing costs, but under the banner of ‘social justice,’ the price of health care, gas (try about eight dollars a gallon), automobiles - just about everything. Israelis like to protest - a boycott of cottage cheese made the news earlier this summer - but what makes the current protests different are the demographics. Alongside the homeless and taxi-drivers are doctors and programmers with Graco strollers. But more than rich and poor rallying together, the current protests have broken down the usual divisions of Israeli culture, with those on the political left and right, secular and religious, and even Arab and Jew, joining together, in the process trying to create a conversation about the priorities of Israeli society. For the first time in Israel, a public debate has been emerging, based not on special interests, nor revolving around Israeli foreign policy, but on the dynamics of an inclusive and responsible civic society. There have been less polemical proclamations about the outward face of Israeli nationhood, and more public debate about the needs of the Israeli nation.
But now in the dog-days of August, the Arab spring begins to push off the Israeli summer. In the television reports that followed yesterday’s events, reporters emphasized that attacks by cells of militants, now operating freely in the Sinai, and infiltrating from Egypt, had occurred under ‘the noses’ of the Egyptian military and police. Egypt may have been a partner in a cold peace with Israel, but Mubarak was a strong guarantor of that peace. In the vacuum created by the Egyptian revolution of this past spring, and the ouster of Mubarak, the virtual absence of police and military on the Egypt-Israel border has led to increases in smuggling and violence, and now the latest attacks. Whatever the salutary effects the Arab spring has had for Egypt, the consequences have now been dire for Israelis this summer.
In the wake of the attacks in the Sinai and Israel Defense Force retribution in Gaza, Israelis in three cities woke up Friday morning to rocket attacks. The ‘social justice’ protests scheduled for Saturday evening have been postponed out of respect for the eight victims of the attacks. But with violence escalating and casualties mounting, the Israel summer may be postponed for a long time, even as the temperatures threaten to get hotter. For it is hard to stay focused on ‘social justice,’ the promise of a vibrant and inclusive civic society, when the nation busies itself protecting its borders, burying its dead.
William Kolbrener is author of Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum, 2011)