In the account of the twelve spies, in Numbers 13-14, ten of the group give a despairing report, telling the people that the inhabitants of the land will be invincible; when they saw the inhabitants, they report, we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them. Two, Joshua and Caleb, exhort the people not lose heart, the Lord is with us; have no fear of them . [And] the whole community threatened to pelt them with stones The result, of course, was the sentence of forty years of wandering. And the leader who took over from Moses was Joshua.
A few years ago when I first visited South Africa, and came home all excited by the way that country had made such a radical yet peaceful transition from apartheid to a rainbow democracy, a friend said, Ah, so there may be hope for us here But when I went on to say that everyone I spoke to there said the secret was the leadership of Nelson Mandela, she said, Oh, so there is no hope for us here after all. The feeling of a leadership vacuum is a commonplace of Israeli discourse. Where are the giants, the charismatic idealists who created this country ex nihilo, when we need them? Do we really have the leaders we deserve? What did we do to deserve them? Is it the times? the system? the nature of Israeli society? an illusion? our own fault?
The other day I facilitated an encounter for a group of Israeli Jewish high school students with their peers in the Arab village of Dir el Assad. During our preparatory conversation, I asked how many of the kids had already participated in such a meeting. The answer was: zero. In other words, 21 teen leaders selected for their community involvement and leadership track record, have reached the age of 16 and no institution in the community or state has gotten around to creating a framework for them to have even a 45 minute conversation with their neighbors who constitute the 80% majority of the Galilee where they live. But thats for another Galilee Diary entry.
In the village, our meeting was at the clubhouse of the local [Arab] chapter of the national youth movement, Hanoar haoved vehalomed (working and studying youth), one of the mainstream left-wing kibbutz-oriented Zionist youth movements. The encounter with the teens went fine: they discovered they had a lot more in common than the Jewish kids had expected, and both sides found the meeting interesting and fun. For me, what was most interesting and even moving, was the chance to meet Lahfez, the director of the chapter. Late twenties, slight, hyperactive, clearly bright and charismatic. The clubhouse he has built from nothing is a showplace a rented apartment converted into meeting rooms and activity rooms, well equipped with electronics, a store room for all the equipment for the marching band, eight (!) local high school graduates doing a year of National Service as youth workers under his supervision, hundreds of kids participating in classes and clubs and summer programs. Here is what he said:
Look, of course I can blame the state for lots of things, for what we lack. But whats the point? Thats all the establishment leaders ever do, and what do they have to show for it? Look at this place all funded from foundation and Jewish Agency grants that I went out and got. Youve got to learn the rules, and play by them. You can cry that a village this large has no community center or you can rent an apartment and do it yourself. Youve got to take responsibility for your own community. We have plenty of problems and far too many of them are own fault. There is so much we have to and can do for ourselves; complaining is just a cop-out from responsibility.
It was refreshing to meet someone who rejects the rhetoric of victimhood and it was easy to see how he attracts both grants and kids. And it was nice to add one more to the list of amazing young leaders I have met in the past few years, who make it possible to say, Ah, so maybe there is hope for us here after all.