The Bronfman fellows and their counterparts in the Israeli Bronfman program spent today in Tel Aviv. In the morning we attended a dance class from a member of the Batsheva Dance Company, then had a conversation with Israeli author Etgar Karet. From there we walked to Rothschild Boulevard, where we had been two weeks ago. It has since been covered in a tent city of thousands, who were at the heart of a 20,000+ strong demonstration yesterday. The stated purpose of the demonstrators is to advocate for more affordable housing in city centers, though the tent city is also attracting and generating more generalized rage against the machine types. (And love–there was a giant teepee at the corner of Rothschild and Sheinkin with signs saying things like “the love tent” and the like. As the saying goes, it takes a village to make a protest.)

I had Jonah with me today. (I’d like to say it was intentional, but the truth is that he was really not looking forward to camp for some reason, and so I offered to have him come along, provided he didn’t whine. It worked–more or less.) I told him that this was an historic event: tens of thousands of Israelis gathered to demonstrate for issues of civil society–not for Israeli-Palestinian issues or for a political party demonstration, but coming together to respond to a social problem. (I did have to bribe him–30 minutes of talking to the protesters in exchange for a popsicle. He bargained me up to ice cream.)

Though the tent city was instructive on a Biblical level (“Jonah, do you think this is a little like what the camp of the Israelites in the desert was like?”), it was a letdown as far as history and politics were concerned. The protesters are disorganized. They don’t have a platform. Worse, they don’t seem to have the basics down: if you’re going to protest about expensive housing prices, then you need to have a political idea of how to solve the problem. Yet, after a 20,000-strong march yesterday, the best they could muster was that one of the organizers went to the Knesset this morning and threw plastic cups at the finance committee.

They have embraced the notion that they are “apolitical.” Asked by my colleague Andy Bachman if they had read Dror Etkes’s provocative and insightful piece in Haaretz that pointed out the obscene disparity between funding for housing within Israel proper and for Judea and Samaria, the same organizer clammed up and said, “We don’t talk about that here.” Well guys, good luck.

There’s an episode of the West Wing (okay, I happened to watch it last night; it’s not like I’ve got these things memorized) where Jed Bartlett is debating his challenger for re-election. Asked to sum up his economic philosophy, the Republican says, “I believe in lower taxes, because lower taxes will stimulate growth.” At this point Bartlett responds, “That’s a great ten-word soundbite. But we don’t govern in ten-word soundbites. So let me ask you, Governor, what are the next ten words? Where would you cut taxes? What programs would you eliminate? This is a complex world that demands complex responses, which are a lot more than ten words.” Or something to that effect.

I can’t help but think, as I watch this melange of the Israeli left up-close, and as I gaze at the American right from afar, and as I look around at the Arab Spring and the Tea Party and Greek protestors, that we are seeing versions of a pattern: individuals that become masses without any ability to do the real work of organizing and making decisions in a polity. The people who could and should be leading these movements–who have sharp minds and good organizing skills–are busy as social entrepreneurs, frequently for profit. Many of the best and brightest in Israel and the U.S. would never get into politics, because it’s a cesspool. Why do they need the aggravation?

Well folks–we need you. We need good people to step up and lead. We need people who can think in paragraphs, not sentences. And we need you in the public square, not in an office building. We need you to be willing to take personal, professional and financial risks. Because if this is the best we’ve got, my kids won’t even be interested in it for an ice cream cone.

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