Beersheba Protest 311.
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
The pattern is much the same everywhere – because the cause and effect is the
same everywhere. It’s probably true that the new communication technologies are
catalyzing the process, but that process existed in ancient and medieval times
too, so only the externals have changed, not the substance.
I’m referring to is the backlash on the part of the poor against the predatory
rich. In medieval times, peasants’ revolts were commonplace; not surprising,
given the miserable lot of the villeins and serfs.
But it’s worth noting
that then, as now and as ever, it was the participation and usually the
leadership of the middle class that was essential to give the peasant mob a
fighting chance against the rich – then the nobility – who controlled all the
resources and ran the show.
The growth of the middle class in the modern
period was supposed to have made the idea of peasant revolts passé, and for a
time it really seemed that way. Nowhere was this more true than in America,
where the essence of the American dream was that the class and status you were
born into did not determine your fate, lot and life story at birth.
in class-bound Britain and Europe, the rise of universal and largely free
education drove and justified a move away from aristocracy and toward
The odds were still stacked in favor of the haves, but the
chances of a have-not joining them were vastly improved.
This was not the
case in the un- and less-developed world, and nowhere was this clearer than in
the Arab countries. Thus, when the “Arab Spring” erupted almost a year ago, the
reaction in much of the developed world was one of patronizing support for the
demonstrators – who, for their part, followed the classic pattern of
middle-class leadership of an urban mob, with the rural (and mostly
conservative) population largely sidelined.
However, during the course of
2011, the pattern has extended not merely across the Arab world but also into
the developed world, from Europe’s Mediterranean South across the continent –
Britain providing an especially horrific example of mob violence. In Israel, of
course, we have had a powerful dose of protest.
Belatedly, the expression
of open, widespread and so far largely peaceful protest has spread to the US,
where it began fittingly enough in Wall Street. But it is now rapidly going
The rationale for reviewing this now is not because it is
finished. On the contrary, it is a safe bet that we will see much more of this
pattern of protest in the coming year – and that it will be more intense, more
bitter and encompass more countries. But now is the time for Jews, at least, to
relate to the forces driving the protest/backlash/revolt that is taking place
across the world and which, everywhere, is the result of a culture of greed and
excess in which a tiny elite appropriated the bulk of a country’s or a society’s
wealth, impoverishing the majority or, in more fortunate cases, leaving it a
steadily shrinking share.
Why now? Because the main theme of Yom Kippur,
and of the High Holy Days as a whole, is to ask what’s it all about – at the
individual and societal level. The passage from Isaiah read in the morning is
rightly viewed as a seminal text for social justice, and the quotation in the
title is one key component of that manifesto.
But the second half of that
verse – “and bring the desperate poor into thy house” – is interpreted in the
Talmud not as a moral exhortation but as sound advice: If you don’t share your
bread with the hungry, don’t be surprised if the desperate poor come knocking –
not necessarily very politely – on your door.
There are people, even in
America, who understand this simple equation. Jeffery Hollender was here this
week, talking about the social, moral and ethical issues that underlie the
economic and financial crisis (Google him and read some of his stuff; it’s worth
it, and it’s not written in academese). But the monied class, which is now centered on the financial elite and which has effectively bought control of the
government and its agencies, is blind and deaf not merely to moral suasion but
to the common-sense version of Isaiah’s prophecy.
They, like all their
predecessors and their contemporaries around the world, are doomed, and they
will be swept away in the rising tide of protest and revolt. But it is still
possible for “Main Street” America to wrest back control of the country and
society from the Wall Street elite and its self-serving but ultimately
Fortunately, Israel’s society – as well as its economy
and financial system – are in better shape or, more correctly, are less far gone
in terms of the extent of the moral rot characterizing them. That’s a good
starting point for what is sure to be a tough year.[email protected]