Everyone who has been to Israel has memories of this unique place. I have recollections of the country from different trips there, but probably the most meaningful are those of my visit in the early 1980s as development and public information director of Philadelphia’s Singing City Choir.
The 100 members of the community choir had sung with the Israel Philharmonic years before and were excited to be back in Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium (named for Philadelphia philanthropist Fredric R. Mann.)
The only non-singer in the group, I worked with local media to promote our concerts — while hanging out at rehearsal with the orchestra, the choir and maestro Zubin Mehta. It was fascinating to see how Mehta handled the often-querulous orchestra members, many refugees from war-torn countries, with remarkable humor and aplomb.
Beyond the concert hall, we had a fine time in Israel, traveling through the country and meeting its citizens, Israeli and Palestinian. One special experience was singing at the community Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace), whose choir of Israeli and Palestinian members sang music celebrating both cultures. The setting was simple, with both choirs standing on bales of hay to simulate risers — but the music was as professionally sung as if at the Mann Auditorium. At a reception later, the American, Israeli and Palestinian singers mingled, toasting our get-together and hoping for more concerts.
I do not know if Neve Shalom is still viable, or if its choir has continued to perform throughout Israel. But with the current disunity in the country, one wonders if Israelis and Palestinians are coming together for cultural activities at all. Or might they instead be joining in street demonstrations, demanding repeal of the Knesset law revoking judicial oversight … or other anti-democratic measures, from the removal of women’s rights to the expansion of West Bank settlements. And could they be aligning with Israeli military reservists, doctors, business leaders and ordinary citizens in a show of massive resistance?
During my other stays in Israel, there were safety and other problems— difficult moments during the Intifadas come to mind. In 2001, when my husband and I were happy to celebrate the wedding of close friends’ son to a Sabra, the country was nearly devoid of visitors. This was disturbing, so that when a taxi driver near a museum cried out happily, “The tourists are back!” he became our designated driver for this group of travelers for the rest of our trip to mark the happy nuptial occasion.
But even during these times of trouble, from bombings to battles, one sensed the citizens coming together.
Not always happy with the government, they nonetheless worked to make their homeland viable. Israel’s rapid economic growth in so many areas over the years has been of great interest internationally and a source of pride for American Jews.
And now? With many Israeli business leaders horrified by the demands of the far-right government and their efforts to destroy the Supreme Court, what will happen to Israel’s remarkable growth in technology — and in the broader economy? What about the military reservists who see nothing but hardship with the expanding settlements? And what of the many secular and moderately religious Israelis who see the extreme religious coalition creating the kind of authoritarian regime that has taken over too many countries?
I know it is chutzpah for people from one nation to complain loudly about another country’s politics, demanding change. I was angry when a friend told me her Israeli cousins, unhappy with President Obama, had told their American relatives not to vote for his re-election. After some research, I was able to give my friend clear information why her Israeli cousins were wrong — and about why Obama was, in fact, “good for the Jews.”
But Americans speaking out now about current conditions in Israel is quite different. To watch tens of thousands of citizens demonstrating about the most right-wing, religiously conservative, nationalistic government in the nation’s 75 years is reason for speaking out — as groups like J Street, with its pro-Israel, pro-peace message clearly do.
It is difficult to know what will happen next.
A general strike when the Knesset returns? A military coup by Israeli generals? Or — terribly frightening for the future of Israel — a mass departure of citizens who could never before imagine leaving the homeland promised to them.
As we move into 5784, we must pray for a better new year for Israel and for those who care about the Jewish state. It would be only reasonable to hope for a resolution that is good for Israel — and the world.
Margot Horwitz is a writer and activist based in Bryn Mawr. She last wrote for The Jewish Exponent about her experience being locked up with Elie Wiesel and journalists at a Holocaust survivors’ event.