SEPTEMBER 6, 2018, JERUSALEM – “Hachaim Shelanu Tutim” – “Our Life Is Strawberries.” That is what one of the most popular songs in Israel says.
It’s tempting to think so. The song essentially gives instructions on how to make living in Israel a paradise, where everything smells sweet. All a person has to do is close their eyes to reality, and think only about how their life is good:
“Hours in the queue at the Post Office (it’s hard!)
Fuel is expensive (it’s hard!)
Corruption every two weeks (it’s hard!)
Terrorist attacks every couple of days (it’s hard!)
But we have no right to complain
Because our life is strawberries.”
But I can’t follow these instructions. I can’t shut my eyes to the world around me, and doing so is not the Jewish way. The Talmud teaches that we should always pray in a room with open windows. A fundamental part of being Jewish is to always look outside, actively seeing all those who inhabit the same world as us: the widow, the orphan, and the other. Jews are not meant to become absorbed in themselves and ignore what is happening around them.
There is a lot going on outside our window, and much of it disturbs me. Women are being excluded from the public sphere. There is racism against Ethiopians, the Druze, and Arabs. Progressive Judaism is delegitimized. I believe that when you see something, you have an obligation to say something. But saying something is becoming more of a challenge.
When I take the value of tikkun olam seriously and try to do something about these issues, I am branded as a bleeding-heart liberal, and what I have to say is at best dismissed, at worst attacked. I am not the only one. The Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, is demonizing his political opponents, branding them as traitors and enemies of the state. Israelis and others who disagree with the government’s increasingly right-wing policies are finding themselves stopped at the border and interrogated.
I have never considered myself to be a shrinking violet, but even I have started to notice a small, fearful voice popping up within me, telling me to be careful each time I want to tell Israel what it needs to hear. This is the most insidious part of the campaign of demonization waged by Bibi and his government: the small, quiet ways in which it causes the opposition to hold back, and the way it intimidates and silences those who love Israel and want to help it reach its full potential.
It is easy to see why many Israelis have given up, and why the song “Our Life Is Strawberries” has become so popular. With the system stacked against dissent, and the alternative is to stop struggling and take the path of indifference and apathy, focusing only on how one’s life is strawberries, why bother fighting? I suspect that Jews in America are beginning to feel the same way, and that the headlines about Israel increasingly inspire indigestion and avoidance, rather than pride.
Because these are dark times that require strength, we must refuse to retreat into a bunker, where there are no windows to the outside. But we can’t do it alone. If Israelis ever needed to hear the voices of our brothers and sisters abroad, it is now, when it is so difficult.
The song states “We have no right to complain.” But the song is wrong. We must insist on this right to complain, because this type of protest and criticism is a patriotic act. We are partners in this project of creating a Jewish State, one that is founded on the highest Jewish and democratic values. As Margaret Mead famously wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Together, we can create an Israel that consistently demonstrates the values of pluralism, tolerance, and equality.
As we stand on the cusp of this New Year, I wish us the courage of the prophets, who spoke truth to power. I wish us the strength of the 12 tribes, who held together in the desert to become a people even when politics, infighting, and oppression threatened to tear them apart. And I wish for us to experience the vision laid out in Israel’s Declaration of Independence; of a Jewish State that “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” If we can live up to our own vision, we will enjoy strawberry fields forever.
By Anat Hoffman
Anat Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.
Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in the First Person column are those of the writers and not the Jewish Journal. Have an essay or an opinion piece you’d like to publish? Please submit to email@example.com, with the subject head “First Person.” Submissions should be 800 words or less.