יום ראשון, 19 בדצמבר 2010

Welcome to First Grade

Welcome to First Grade –What Kind of Israel is Sivan Growing Up In?

September first 2010. Sivan, our fourth and youngest child, is about to start first grade. The first day of first grade was always exciting with every one of our kids, but somehow, this time it's different.
For weeks leading up to this day, I wasn't able to contain myself, asking over and over, "Sivan, are you as excited as Daddy is?" And each time, with a shy smile, came the inevitable reply: "no". But as the big day drew closer, even Sivan couldn't conceal her anticipation.  Suddenly it was hard for her to fall asleep, and she could only doze off with her hand in mine.  Her guileless questions revealed fears over leaving behind the known world of no responsibilities, to enter a new realm of frameworks, rules and expectations.   "Daddy, what if the teacher tells us what to do and I don't understand?" she asks. And, "Daddy, what do babies do when they don't understand what the teacher says?"
All our excitement, we ended up diverting into the preparations – a colorful new school shirt, new schoolbag and taking inventory to confirm its contents – pencil case, notebooks, lunchbox. Like soldiers checking their equipment before setting off to battle.
Now, on this big day, I feel like a combination of kindergarten teacher, shepherd and Olympic trainer. After six years of loving care, ups and downs, leading and trying to keep up, instilling habits and values, hugs and kisses, today I am escorting her down a new road.…
In fact, this excitement we are feeling has much to do with our own experience as well – as parents who are now concluding a chapter in their child-rearing lives.  No more mornings walking into the kindergarten hand in hand, stealing a minute to assemble the pieces of a puzzle together before setting off to work. No more folding ourselves onto miniature chairs at Hannuka and Purim kindergarten parties. 
My thoughts wander beyond my own personal, family experience, to the surrounding spheres. There must be so many others, in Jerusalem, Afula, Ramallah, Nazareth, Ariel, Nahalal and Eilat, who are sharing a similar moment, and are as moved as I.   Escorting a small child to first grade, with a prayer in their hearts and on their lips, perhaps in different syllables or cadence, but essentially the same, to bless, keep and return these nestlings safely home. 
And I wonder if this unique day could somehow be enlisted to explore what we share in common – and combine our efforts to find ways to live together and ensure a more promising and secure future for these first graders, wherever they may be.
And now, the official ceremony opening the school year at the Hoshaya Elementary School. The orderly line of first graders proceeds into the auspices of the school, passing under an outstretched tallit, accompanied by cheerful music and the sniffling of the parents on the sidelines. With my heart aching with pride and joyful tears on my cheeks, I ponder what lies ahead for them – these first graders of 2010.  What kind of world will they struggle to understand and study in school? 
I start to do my own mental inventory. Trying to evaluate what kind of Israel will our Sivan be growing up in. A list of this and that, of one hand and the other.
The Environment – to Squander and to Preserve
As consciousness in the world has risen regarding protecting the environment, in 21st century Israel this subject is very much on the public agenda.  At this point there is broad consensus that the nation's dwindling water resources need to be preserved, and new initiatives are addressing the problem.  Educational programs explain the importance of environmental issues in the schools, and an entire spectrum of civic organizations have embraced environmental causes.  All these should be a cause for optimism.
On the other hand, it is hard to find in the Western world a country as dirty as Israel. On a family vacation this summer in Slovenia, I reveled in the green landscape, the abundant water, the pristine nature. At one point I mentioned to my wife how depressing it is to compare the cleanliness of Slovenia with Israel.  In Slovenia you don't see garbage on the streets, trash outside the cities or construction debris at the entrance to villages.
And here, I wonder what God thinks when he looks down on us from above, about the way that the Jewish people treat the land given them to work and protect…. One can barely walk down the street without seeing discarded bottles, plastic bags and garbage. Someone who never leaves Israel's borders might think that this is the normal and unavoidable state of affairs.  It used to be that, in the name of security, neglecting the environment could be excused. "What alternative do we have?" people said. "This isn't Scandinavia."
When my older daughter asked me what continent Israel is located on, a cynical thought crossed my mind that Israel would like to belong to Europe, is actually located in Asia, but behaves like it is in Africa…
Evaluating Israel's security situation in 2010 depends on which color glasses one wears. Through rose-colored glasses, the situation is excellent. A minimal number of recent terrorist attacks, relative quiet on the borders, an enduring peace with Egypt and Jordan, and an IDF that is better prepared than few years ago. 
But for those wearing dark glasses, the situation is awful and getting worse.  In fact, things have never been so dangerous: the extreme Islamic fronts are closing in on us, in the south (Gaza), the north (Hezbollah), and the east (Iran and maybe even Iraq). The IDF hasn't won a war for 43 years, a growing percentage of the population doesn't serve in the army, and worst of all, the terrifying day is approaching where an enemy country that has declared its intention to destroy Israel can press a button and dispatch a nuclear weapon.  And in that enemy country, the rational threat of deterrence, which says that if you attack us, we'll hit back harder, doesn't necessarily make an impression on its leaders.
Israel's Standing in the World
Today, Israel has already crossed the line from being a small nation with a lot of chutzpa, watched with admiring amazement by most of the world as it builds a nation with a robust economy and army, to a country that, despite its small size, is considered to be a military powerhouse - covered by the media without any proportion to its relative position in the world, and perceived as the neighborhood bully that crushes and oppresses its neighbors/citizens – the helpless Palestinians.
At a recent breakfast meeting I had with the Israeli ambassador to one of the Western European countries, he laid out for me Israel's declining status in that country, his difficulties presenting the Israeli perspective to increasingly antagonistic audiences, and the increasing costs to protect the security of the local Jewish community.
And on the other hand, there are still large and influential sectors in the world - in North and South America, Europe and Asia, who staunchly support Israel as a country that embodies the vision of the return of the Jewish people to the land of the Bible. The Evangelist Christian community is perhaps the most outstanding among them.  There are estimates that the number of Evangelical Christians supporting Israel for religious reasons is 300 Million!
And on the third hand, Israel has succeeded over the years to recruit friends from unlikely places. On my last visit to Stockholm I stopped for a cup of hot chocolate at a small local café. When I looked at the familiar face of the café owner, I asked him where he was from.  From Lebanon, he replied. I answered him (after a moment of hesitation whether it was better to respond after he prepared my drink) – "ahalan bik – ana min Israil – nekhna jhiran" (Arabic for "greetings – I'm from Israel – we are neighbors).  With a smile, he whispered that he is Christian, from Zakhlata, and that he admires Israel for helping the Christians of Lebanon. To top off his sentiment, he gave me a discount on the bill and added a glass of juice on the house.
All of Israel Brothers:
In the middle of the second hundred years of the Zionist enterprise, 100 years of settlement, and 62 years since the establishment of the country, it is still difficult to say that all of Israel are brothers.
On the one hand, the acute differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews and between immigrants from one country and another, are slowly being erased. This is mainly due to the passage of time and new generations of native born Israelis, for whom ethnic differences aren't so significant.
On the other hand, there is always someone who manages to emphasize the differences and create "us" and "them": good religious and bad religious, Ethiopians versus veteran Israelis, settlers opposite North Tel Avivians.  In a conversation with a nursing student from the Yezreel Valley College, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia at the age of 13, he shared with me a wound he was carrying in his heart. I asked him, "In the airplane on the way to Israel from Ethiopia, what did you dream of?"  His expression was troubled as he answered me: "In Ethiopia, we were persecuted because we are Jewish. On the plane, I dreamed of arriving to a country where I would be accepted as an equal among equals. But when I arrived, I understood that here too I'm different."
God Willing:
A friend from my community of Hoshaya told me once at the entrance to the synagogue, after he'd finished several exhausting years as a highly positioned public servant: "After I learned how our government works – I understood that there is definitely a God in heaven, otherwise, our fate would have long since been sealed."
On the other hand, it’s a little scary to think what God must think when he sees what is going on down here. Sometimes, during the Haftorah reading on Shabbat, listening to the words of the prophets denigrating the different sins of the people of Israel, and the punishments that were inflicted on the sinners, I think of the corruption, the wrong doings and the injustices that we live with day to day, and I tremble in fear.
Making Peace:
During the first three decades of the State of Israel, we were surrounded by enemies, a few against many. It was a scary picture, but in the background there was always the dream – that one day there would be peace.  The day will come and the next generation won't need to go to war. That was the ultimate promise of every Israeli parent. "My children won't have to fight."
It seems that this dream is receding into the distance. In Israel of 2010, it's hard to find parents who assure their children with promises of peace. Even among those who were considered "the peace camp", pessimism reigns. Most of the population (even though they might not want to say it out loud) believes that we will need to keep our swords at ready for a long time to come. Even worse, the answer to the question that was once considered taboo "Will Israel always be living in the neighborhood?" isn't obvious. Surrounded by enemies, losing support in the world, facing a scenario where an enemy dedicated to the country's extermination now has the nuclear ability to do so – the survival of Israel in the long-term faces a giant question mark.
Who is the Role Model?
During my childhood on the kibbutz, our national heroes were the pioneers, the farmers, the soldiers and the government ministers and Knesset members, and also, to a small degree, singers and actors.  These figures riveted our attention, and the cream of our youth aspired to be like them.
Today the pioneers belong to history, the farmers are Thai workers, being a high officer isn't such a big deal, and politicians are virtually synonymous with corruption.
On the other hand, a high tech entrepreneur, tycoon, and this or that celebrity have now become the new national role models. Ostensibly, this is all well and good. Finally we are like other nations, and we can focus on the good life.
But focusing on the good life is a privilege that a country surrounded by enemies from outside, and sometimes even from within – cannot afford.  Israel cannot survive if the best of its youth want above all to be rich and famous.
So what does all this leave us with – and to what Israel will Sivan and her classmates grow up in?  The short answer is: it's not clear. The longer answer is: it's not clear to me or to others either.
But What IS Clear?
First of all, I believe what every paratrooper learned in basic training: if we won't support one another – we'll hang one next to the other.  Solidarity, shared agenda and teamwork are critical for us Israelis.
And second of all, on the first of September 2010, Sivan and hundreds of thousands of other students entered Jewish and Israeli schools, in the free and democratic State of Israel, home to the Jewish people, with a Jewish army, Jewish universities, and Jewish industry and agriculture.  A country where (almost) every child has a roof over his or her head, clothes to wear and food on the table.  And that is definitely a reason to be optimistic.
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee.  He is Vice President for External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, and Head Instructor at the Hoshaya Karate Club. Melamed.sagi@gmail.com

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