A balagula, a wagon driver, shuffles into the town inn, crestfallen. "What's the matter?" the innkeeper asks, pouring him a drink.
"I was so close. So close," the balagula replies. "My plan... I could feel it was going to work. Every single day, I gave my horse a little less to eat. Training him. Everything was going great. But wouldn't you know it -- just when he'd learned to eat nothing -- just then, he falls down and dies."
It's all you need to know, this one shopworn Yiddish joke. The one that explains the whole of this inexplicable Israel at this New Year.
We all know who the balagulas are. The foreign minister who doesn't believe in diplomacy, the finance minister who doesn't believe in economic opportunity, the health minister who doesn't believe in doctors, the minister for fostering aliyah who extols an Israeli ad campaign for America which directly offends U.S. Jews.
Day by day at home, this Israel teaches the horse to starve when it demands more and more of the non-Haredi young and provides less and less: in return for less education, more fees, in return for more inequitable army duty and taxation, less affordable housing.
Day by day the prime minister, in callous insult or in condescension, in domestic calculation or out of personal need, teaches the horse to starve when he reduces Israel's support abroad, alienating traditional allies and the Jewish world. Pledging to work for two states, and then ensuring that state number two will be the People's Republic of Judea.
Until this year, the rule of balagulism proved itself. The balagulas taught the horse to starve, and, holding all the power, gave the horse no option but to obey. The balagulas were -- are -- pleased as punch with themselves. And when it all collapses around them, they will always have the horse to blame.
Until this year, what we did not suspect was that we, the horse, could learn to speak. And that the moment a horse learns to speak, the balagula may abruptly think twice about the ultimate wisdom of starvation lessons.
In our weakness, we failed to see that not only can the balagula's horse learn to speak, but also its cousin, the Donkey of the Messiah.
This is the true equine alter ego of the mainstream Israeli, the burdened pack animal which a small, radical, hard right and Orthodox-driven hierarchy believes it can scorn and exploit and abuse and disregard and lash, and then, all of it notwithstanding, still ride into permanent power.
What we did not suspect was that finding a voice can stop balagulism in its tracks. Like other forms of bullying behavior, balagulism is fundamentally weaker than it seems.
In the past few days alone, popular outcry has taken the reins from a range of balagulas.
Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau of Yisrael Beiteinu, a party which came to power promising to represent the interests of secular voters, proposes a bill which reads as though the broomhandle-straight Landau composed it with the aid of mescaline. The "Kosher Electricity Law" would have effectively put control of power production in the hands of state rabbinic authorities. But an online petition and an in the flesh protest at the weekend quashed the bill.
A courageous woman's refusal to sit at the back of a "Mehadrin" (ultra-Kosher) public bus has galvanized a wider campaign against radical rabbinic edicts meant to muzzle, disenfranchise, and disappear women from the public sphere.
The Jewish National Fund, meanwhile, has been shaken by protests at home and abroad against the JNF's role in evicting East Jerusalem Palestinians from their homes so that settlers could move in. Recently a member of the JNF's Washington, D.C. board resigned in protest over a scheduled eviction, which the organization has now put on hold.
Finally, unprecedented public outrage over radical settler attacks against the IDF, the culmination of the children's crusade that has desecrated mosques on both sides of the Green Line, has shelved a bill which would have retroactively legalized blatantly illegal outposts. The law, a polite masterpiece of disguised sedition, would have blocked any government control over outposts, barring their evacuation, and, most significantly, undermining the primacy of orders of the Supreme Court.
In the end, what does the balagula story have to teach us? Not only that as never before, in this coming year of 2012, our choice will be to learn to speak or to learn to starve. The lesson is also, that if a country is run like a joke long enough, there's no telling who will have the last laugh.
Originally published on Haaretz.com