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Fighting for democracy while facing my dayenu

Mark Baker
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Published: 4 April 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Facing death, MARK BAKER contemplates the place of Zionism in his life and the values he wants to leave to his baby daughter.

We all know in our heads that one day we will die. Naively, we believe that such knowledge somehow prepares us for the dreaded moment when we learn that the end is closer. Or at least I did. Rather foolishly, I fantasised that I would set up a tent in the Judean desert, go on a hunger strike and wait until a final peace accord would be signed between Israelis and Palestinians. I knew it was a piece of shticky melodrama, but I actually believed that my one last vainglorious tilt at living would be an act of megaphone martyrdom.

Was it the circumstances in which I imagined facing my own death - witnessing the deaths of my first wife Kerryn and my brother Johnny  - that explains my lack of insight? In awe of their dignity did I somehow believe that it would be my political convictions that would define me as inspiring to the end?

Naively (again) I did not imagine I would get to test myself so soon. I quickly learned that what is important to me narrowed into a series of concentric circles at whose core lies my family, followed by close friends. Almost all my thoughts and actions are for my wife Michelle, children, mother and grandchildren, and the pain of witnessing their grief and carrying mine.

Grand political acts and small ones exist outside my orbit. In my new inner world of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, nurses, and oncologists, I have become oblivious to everything I once cared about passionately – the political state of the world, ideological debates, the doomsday news cycle fed to me by the second on social media.

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to live without a potential future. All that matters is staring into the sum-total of my life and reconciling myself to its blessings and flaws. Now is not the time to belatedly try and fit in all the things I always wanted to do, as if in the 11th hour one can define who you are and the life you have lived.

I realised that by shutting these political events out of my inner world I was failing to be my full self and in doing so failing at being a father.

Yet these past weeks, I felt the mirror crack reading about the constitutional coup in Israel. The attack on Israel’s Basic Laws, the sacrifice of the judiciary as a trade-off for building a protective dome around corrupt politicians, the routinisation of violence against Palestinians with a legal stick, served as a siren for those who care deeply about democratic institutions in Israel. In response, the inspirational mass protests against Israel’s neo-fascist Prime Minister and the bribe of a private police force of "brownshirts" for a racist demagogue, penetrated my medicated smokescreen and compelled me to turn on the Apple screen. The dire and spiralling collapse of a country’s core principles I have for so long believed in and fought for, the assault on an idea as vital and ancient as democracy, coupled with the stirring response of so many of its citizens who showed that there are limits (yesh gvul) to what can be done in their name, awoke a sense of collective shame (busha) in me.

It's part of who I am; the ideological baggage of Zionism that has always defined me and sticks to me from my childhood, despite the urgent need for new paradigms to navigate what it means to fulfil the dream of a state for Jews. I felt drawn into the old battles where taboos the Left broke have come home to roost. While Israelis from all quarters were inspired by the instinctive struggle to draw a line in the sand and say ENOUGH, a part of me felt drawn to, and proud of this, yet at the same time my political cynicism resurfaced and reminded me of the other border lines that have been erased for Palestinians. That erasure threatens democracy in Israel as long as the occupation deepens its foundations upon a two-tiered structure of citizenship.

Among the despair and buoyed somewhat by the power of the people, I also managed to laugh at myself. I won’t be flying out and moving into a tent in the desert. I was so far from a hunger strike, I couldn’t even make it to the weekly diaspora protests ten minutes from my house that the old me, the Mark Baker pre-getting-cancer-me, would have participated in energetically.

More importantly, I realised that by shutting these political events out of my inner world, shutting out the things that have inspired, enraged and motivated me, I was failing to be my full self and in doing so failing at being a father - to my three adult children, and to my 19-month-old daughter Melila and her nephews and niece, my grandchildren.

As I stare into the wilderness of knowing and not knowing my future in the home that Michelle and Melila have made for me, my focus is on injecting as much of "me" as I can into the people I love. But this weekend, between a doctor’s appointment and a shluf, I made it to my local diaspora protest with Michelle and Melila. I wanted to show my baby daughter what is important to us and what it means to be a citizen of the world who can stand up for what you believe in.

Here are some pictures of Melila at the protest with her favourite teddy bears, RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), who is a pair with Aharon Barak, (Israel’s most distinguished judge who Michelle clerked for). She calls each of the treasured toys that she sleeps with every night by names that Michelle and I chose for them, or rather for her.

 There’s also Hannah Arendt so that she knows about the banality of evil and radical responsibility, and JPS the frog, otherwise known as Jean-Paul Sartre, who teaches her a dose of existentialist philosophy. And she’s learned to pronounce the name of her bunny, Yeshayahu Leibovitz, who understood that because of the imperative of a homeland for Jews, we have to be vigilant against turning the state, nation and army into idolatrous instruments. Their worldviews, we hope, will seep into part of the value system we will try and instil in her and the next generation of my family clan.

All the rest is a journey I won’t witness but will in some fashion accompany them in unpredictable ways through serendipitous encounters, books, friends, animated conversation, and memory. And that will be Dayenu (enough for us).

About the author

Mark Baker

Mark Baker is an academic and author of The Fiftieth Gate and Thirty Days (Text Publishing). He has recently completed a novel and memoir about living with cancer.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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