300,000 protestors call for social justice.
(photo credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters)
One month has passed since the onset of the middle-class uprising of summer 2011. One month from now, the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly will open in New York. At this mid-point, looking back and looking forward one thing is clear – the State of Israel is standing at the crossroads of its most important decision since June 1967.
For me and many others, the summer uprising has provided a great sense of hope. Apathy is gone, activism is in. People have taken to the streets to raise their voices in demands for change. All is not well in the State of Israel.
The mass demonstrations which have spread all over the country are a sign of love and patriotism, and definitely a source of pride. The anger of the young people and the middle class spilled into the streets because a distorted social economy has developed here in the past 30 years that has made it impossible to have the kind of life we all work hard to achieve.
The anger is not in response to the inability to have more expensive toys like jeeps or ski holidays in the Swiss Alps. The rage is because the very basics that a just society should provide for its people have been privatized, so now we must pay from our pockets what we have already paid for in taxes. Our fury is at the injustice we see when social workers need social workers to take care of their own basic needs because their salaries are so pitiful and too many of them are employed by associations and workers’ contractors rather than by the state. The injustice rings loud when we grasp that our school system is failing and too many of our teachers are hired by outside contractors. The People of the Book are no longer willing to tolerate “free education” that is not free.
We are in crisis – in almost every field that the government is
responsible for we face grave realities and for most of the past years
and past governments, wrong decisions have been made. Our environment is
in crisis. Israel has some of the most progressive environmental
protection laws in the world, yet our governments have failed to enforce
the laws they legislate. Now with the demand for public housing and
accessible housing, who will protect the scarce open public spaces? The
doctors have been on strike for months – they are certainly right in
their struggle to save public medicine. Calculating their salaries and
additional beds in hospitals is only one side of the equation; we need
and deserve much better public medicine. There is a need for a much more
holistic approach. How much money can be saved by reducing air
pollution? The rate of asthma among children in Israel is among the
highest in the western world. Increasing renewable energy immediately is
part of the answer; improving mass transit is another part. Yes, the
plans are on the drawing boards and some improvements are being made -
but too little, too late.
I, LIKE hundreds of thousands of Israelis, have taken to the streets
this summer. I have been doing it my whole life, but now there is a new
spirit, a new sense of purpose, a new vision. It is exciting, and I am
proud to be part of it.
But it is time to say it is also political. I laugh every time I hear
the uprising leaders saying we have to keep politics out of the
protests. I understand that they don’t want to politicize it in terms of
bringing in political parties that would fight for the spoils. And they
don’t want this uprising to be diminished by fighting over the
Palestinian issue. I really do understand their desire to have everyone
under the same tent. It is such a nice cozy feeling of solidarity.
A couple of nights ago I sat in a tent camp in the center of Jerusalem. I
listened to a brilliant young man. He spoke about all the social and
economic ills of Israel, and what needs to be done to correct them. I
agreed with every word. In turn, I took the microphone to respond. I
said that I agreed with all that was said, but I look eastward and note
that 250 meters away there are 300,000 permanent residents of Jerusalem
who are devoid of political rights; their economic rights fall far short
of an Israeli in the poorest neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and not one
word is said about them. Why? Because they are Palestinians.
HOW CAN we talk about social justice when one third of the population of
our capital city is not even part of the discussion? My partner at
work, Hanna Siniora, a well known Palestinian peace activist from east
Jerusalem, came to work late today. He had spent the morning in the
Ministry of Interior.
His wife Norma, living her whole life in this city, went to the ministry
to renew her Israeli issued Travel Document. This is a kind of passport
issued by the state to residents of east Jerusalem. It says their
citizenship is Jordanian and their place of birth is Israel. They are
not citizens of Israel, though both Hanna and Norma have lived in
Jerusalem their whole lives. Norma and Hanna, like many Palestinians and
Israelis, hold passports from another country – they have US passports.
Norma came into the office in a fury – the Ministry of Interior refused
to renew her travel document because she holds a second passport. For
those who have never heard this before, this is the well-documented
first step of denying a Palestinian from east Jerusalem the right to
reside in the city.
So, young people of Rothschild Blvd. I ask you: how long do you think
you can hide from the injustice between Jews and Arabs in Israel? How
long can you scream demands for social justice while we deny another
whole people their basic rights of freedom, liberty and self
determination? It is nice to live in the illusion that “it’s not
political,” but as the summer of discontent comes to an end, it’s time
to wake up to the real world of politics that we live in. Justice
doesn’t end at the boundaries of Independence Park in Jerusalem. This
land is too small to lock justice into convenient spaces. There can be
no justice in Israel if we deny our neighbors their piece of justice as
well.The writer is founder and co-director of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information. He hosts a weekly radio show in Hebrew on All for Peace radio, and is a voluntary columnist for
The Jerusalem Post.