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Young Israelis Rock the Vote

Jeffrey S. Helmreich grew up in Jerusalem. An editor at the Long Island Jewish World, he is completing a book on the new Israel

As the dust settles over Israel’s new political landscape, observers are scrutinizing the Cabinet lineup for clues about where the peace process is headed. Unfortunately, they are looking in the wrong place.

The key to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies and the fate of the peace process lies not in Bibi’s payback appointments but in his target constituency for 2000: Israel’s youth. The 18-to-25 age group has enormous clout as the nation’s largest and most volatile swing vote, with the fewest ties to pre-state political factions. For the narrowly elected premier, the Gen-X vote spells political life or death in the next election, when he can no longer blame his opponents for suicide bombs.

The problem for Bibi and his party is that the young Sabras (the Israeli-born), the ones I grew up with, are extremely difficult to peg. These are, after all, children of an altogether new reality, molded during Israel’s stormy romance with the West Bank and Gaza.

Yet these Israelis are already recognizable. They are the soldier girls who shrieked at a Michael Jackson concert with Uzis bouncing from their hips, and the Sephardic soccer buffs of Bat Yam, and the boy scouts who hiked the Judean desert in under three days.

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Unlike their parents, they have neither the luxury nor the burden of framing their lives as an existential struggle for Jewish survival. Their “wars,” the intifada and the occupation of southern Lebanon, are brutally devoid of legends, heroes, winners and losers.

Yet the new warfare of ambush and suicide bombs is, in some ways, more sinister than the full-scale battles of yesterday. For the new Israelis, tragedy strikes on the edge of innocence.

With “L.A. Law” on TV, McDonald’s down the block and malls playing elevator music, today’s Israel almost seems like a Hebrew-speaking California town. Until a suicide bomb blasts back the reality.

Indeed, realism may be the defining legacy of Israel’s new adult generation. The older Israelis, like Shimon Peres, believed in doing the impossible, that every problem had a solution. But the new Sabras have known only the vexing dilemma of the occupied territories. Their individual ambitions are pitted early on against the rigid, impersonal Bagrut, the all-encompassing achievement test that unalterably sets their career paths.

If the older generation thrived on dreams and nightmares, Israel’s young have introduced two new mind-sets: fatalism and escapism.

The fatalists are the tough kids, those who have accepted and even embraced the reality of occupation. As teenagers they cut class to lift weights, jog and prepare themselves mentally for the army. Many become officers.

The escapists are Israel’s party animals. If circumstance forces them to be soldiers in a tribal drama, they are determined to spend their free time forgetting it. They party hard, almost as catharsis; they introduced slam dancing to Tel Aviv. They hope, but do not quite believe, that Israel can become like any part of Mediterranean Europe.

These two world views are embroiled in a full-scale cultural war for the heart and soul of Israel, a war the previous generation never had time to fight. Yet politically, they have something in common. Having come of age during the occupation, a problem that seemed to have no solution, the new Sabras are less inclined to accept grandiose visions. That includes the left’s Utopian view of a new order and the right’s obsession with a larger-than-life struggle for national survival. Netanyahu will therefore try to appear levelheaded and not ideological, alternately open-minded and skeptical.

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But he should take something else to heart. The young Israelis are starved for new symbols to replace the old ones. They have rejected the sin of the previous generation: imposing a prepackaged, historical meaning on an unfamiliar reality. They hope, instead. for a leader who would dare to use the complex, bittersweet drama of real life to forge a new sense of national meaning.


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