Monday, May 18, 2009

On Activism--part #5--A Personal Memoir

The following comes from an article that was published in the Touro College newspaper back in 2007. I had made a complaint to the then Editor in Chief that the paper wasn't covering serious issues. I further complained that activism on the part of the college's students was non existent. She told me that if I was serious about my complaint to write an article in support of activism. It's a personal remembrance of what it meant to be an activist and to be involved.

Activism: Aerobics for the Soul

Activism. That is what the other person does. You know, the other person who does not lead your busy life. It’s not that you wouldn’t like to be an activist, but when could you possibly fit it in? You work, you go to school, you have obligations to family and friends. Besides, activism was around in your parents’ and grandparents’ days: what real relevance does it have today? And what is there possibly left to protest about? And what good does protesting do anyway?

I could tell you all the reasons why activism is still necessary and still important, but instead, I would like you to take a trip down memory lane with me. For my sins, I was on college campuses in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the glory years of student empowerment and student activism; in fact, all kinds of activism. Those were heady years, filled with idealism, with a sense of purpose, with a heightened sense of being a part of a community.

Imagine that Israel is at war with its Arab neighbors--not so hard to do. Imagine that it is June, 1967. Imagine that Jewish voices are raised in protest. Imagine that Jewish bodies pack the UN Plaza for a rally in defense of Israel. Now imagine that even when the main rally is over large groups of volunteers man tents up the block from the UN to monitor what is going on, and to show that the rally is not just a one-time show of support. Imagine that while you are in the tents you are learning how to roll bandages and then rolling them for shipment to Israel. Imagine that news is relayed at midnight that Abba Eban will be coming to address the UN that day. Imagine that a dozen volunteers man the tents, write up lists, plan strategy and at 7:00am the next morning begin calling every Jewish school, synagogue and organization in the New York City metropolitan area, along with every news media outlet. Imagine doing all this calling using public phone booths. Imagine having to persuade people that they need to come out to show support the day after they have already done so.

Imagine that when Abba Eban arrives to the UN on June 20, 1967 he is greeted by thousands upon thousands of people waving Israeli flags, waving banners of support and singing Hatikvah. Imagine that you have been honored to hold the Israeli flag and that Abba Eban alights from his car to salute his flag before going in to address the delegates. Imagine that you have gone 37 hours without sleep and without too much by the way of food. Imagine that you haven't changed clothes nor had a chance to wash up. And then try to imagine the joy of purpose that was felt by all of us there, the sense of rightness.

“Stand up and be counted” was not just a slogan but a way of life. “There is strength in numbers” was our rallying cry, and the truth of the statement was seen in the thousands of bodies that filled television screens and the front pages of newspapers across the nation. Yes, we were encouraged to become strong individuals, but far more, we were encouraged to use that individualism in pursuit of a greater good: selflessness, not selfishness, was admired.

Ah, but that was then. The world was in turmoil. What do students today have to protest about? My generation--a despised military draft and an unpopular war. Today--talks of re-instating the draft and a very unpopular war. My generation--civil rights, equality of opportunity, equality of access. Today--civil rights, equality of opportunity, equality of access. My generation--who is an American? Today--who is an American? My generation--access to the marvels of medical science and technology. Today--access to the marvels of medical science and technology. My generation--taxes. Today--taxes. My generation--the actions of government, covert and open. Today--the actions of government, covert and open. My generation--what to do about teenagers. Today--what to do about teenagers. My generation (and before)--what to do about the scourges of polio and tuberculosis and measles and mumps. Today--start with AIDS and pick your poison. My generation--the inability of the university system to respond to the legitimate needs and concerns of students. Today--the inability of the university system to respond to the legitimate needs and concerns of students. My generation--Israel and its unfair treatment by its neighbors and by the world body. Today--Israel and its unfair treatment by its neighbors and by the world body. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Modern technology, particularly the Internet, has created a new definition of community. For my generation, community required a physical presence; today, thanks to the Internet, members of a community may be dispersed across the world. This modern phenomenon is sometimes cited as the reason why activism among college students seems to be dead. Why? The Internet is a powerful tool—why is it not being used as a medium for public protest? You are online anyway for hours a day. How hard is it to send an email to the mayor, to the governor, to your senator, to the president? How hard is it to send an email to the president of a corporation whose policies you disagree with? How hard is it to send an email to the president of a company stating that you will not shop in a store that carries products made by virtual slave labor? How hard is it to email everyone you know and to ask them to email everyone they know, united in protest?

It does not matter what you choose to protest about, what you choose as your method of activism; there is plenty to choose from. What does matter is that you find something to care about with a passion, something that will take you out of the mundane and into the sublime. It is not which car to buy or which designer outfit that lends beauty and purpose to our lives. It is not which new electronic doodad we can flash in front of our friends that gives meaning to our lives. Filling our closets and our dresser drawers is not the same thing as fulfilling our lives.

My generation is getting older, not younger. Who will safeguard your rights when the activists are all in Florida? I have a baton that I would like to pass on. You are all capable of taking that baton from me—now all you have to be is willing to do so.


Shorty said...

I went through my activist phase in the late 90's. Animal rights. I even had a radio show. Loved it. Set up booths with a friend. It felt so often that i was yelling into a void. Maybe like most people, i gave up, and grew a bit discouraged.

I am an activist through and through. Maybe not in the hold up signs and shout out kind of way.
Now i work in the area of addiction treatment. Its not activism exactly, but it is working for a good cause.

Thanks for this series its great!

Trudy said...

Oh man, those were the days! Only problem with the post is that people reading about the activism can't really catch the enthusiasm, the energy that was there just by reading about it. It has to be experienced and then you understand. But first a whole lot of people have to stop being afraid to try, stop being afraid of all the what ifs that might happen.

Thanks for a trip back in time. It's nice to know that someone else remembers those days.

Tuvi said...

One reason why there isn't general activism today? You'd have to get rid of asking the questions like 'Is it going to be separate standing?''Will there be a mechitza?' 'Singing? What about kol isha?''What's being done to safeguard tsnius?' And I somehow don't see sex segregated activism as sending the right message.

Anonymous said...

I see your nostalgia for the past as very real and legitimate. To you and your generation. But the youth of today expresses its activism differently. Your generation are all but "reformed" parents of mainly intermaried children (not all,but by and large). My generation are Baalei Teshuvas who are moving in droves to Israel and settling the land. I think its much easier waving flags once in while when Israeli digitary visits. But it is not as easy bulding and re-bulding a life in a new country with often small children, no knowledge of Hebrew and facing an increasing military threat from arabs not to mention anti-settler military and government of Israel. So if you put aside the glass of nostalgia and see the world as it is today, you will see that the activists of today may seem fewer but are much more committed then in days gone by. By Sara Israel