Street protests are nothing new to Israel. But rarely are they spontaneous and free of fetters to a specific organization or political party. Something new is in the air.
Israel is in the midst of an awakening – a social awakening. Over sixty years ago the wonder, that is the State of Israel, came into being. The early days of the State’s founding were far from easy. Israel faced unprecedented problems and challenges that included security, massive immigration, poverty, infrastructure creation, and isolation.
In the early years, and even today, Israel has had to concern itself with real existential threats. Survival was far from guaranteed. Economic growth was heavily dependent on funding from the United States and from world Jewry. Austerity was the norm as people made due with little and while there were always poor, there were very few wealthy Israelis.
The focus of the State was on survival and state building. Mistakes, many of them, were made along the way. When voices were raised about the failures of the State of Israel with regard to social and economic justice, the oft heard reply was that “We are still so very young. We must first worry about our own survival before we can tackle issues that other states have the luxury of addressing.”
Today, Israel has the twenty forth largest economy in the world. Israel is, relatively, secure economically. Yet we are forty second in the average earned income per citizen. So, while the economy may be strong, many individuals, many educated hard working, taxpaying, families, find that they are unable to finish the month on the salary earned.
Tent City on Rotschild Blvd (Photo by: Ben Hartman)
Suddenly, and in a wave of intensity that caught almost all Israelis by surprise, tens of thousands of working class Israelis have taken to sleeping in tents and gathering for daily protests, demanding that Israel change social priorities. A safety net exists for Israel’s poorest – albeit far from adequate. But the costs of housing and of food are now at levels that many families find that they are unable to meet costs.
A small boycott, generated through Facebook, called upon Israelis to stop buying cottage cheese. This one product had increased in cost by some 30% over a very short period. The dairy companies capitulated and lowered the price. Suddenly there was a growing sense of empowerment.
Three weeks ago a few people set up tents on Rothschild Blvd in Tel Aviv to protest the inability of young people to find reasonably priced housing. There are now thousands of tent and camp sites in quite a few cities. On Saturday night, over 300,000 turned out on the streets.
Unlike the protests in other Middle Eastern countries, this one is calling for a change in priorities, not necessarily a change of government. Most of the protesters are educated and employed. But for too long economic burdens and government largess have been far from equitable. Significant segments of our society do not work. Tens of thousands are excused from military service. Those who play by the rules, who work hard, who do military reserve duty, pay taxes, get a raw deal.
Tel Aviv protests (Photo by: Reuters)
Israel was established, not only as a refuge but, in fulfillment of a Zionist dream. A dream that yearned for social justice and for equity. Herzl wrote: "It may be an elusive, perhaps even unattainable, ideal. I think that Zionism will always constitute of permanent challenge, and that this will be so even after we establish our state in the Land of Israel. Zionism, as I understand it, is not solely about the desire to acquire a legally secure piece of real estate for our downtrodden people, after all, but also about the desire to grow towards moral and spiritual perfection."
This too is the dream of our Masorti Movement. As a religious Zionist Movement we yearn to see the prophetic ideals become a part of the decision making process. “Rite” (religious ritual) without “Right” (social justice) is inadequate and unacceptable. The prophet Isaiah chastised the people by telling them that their fasting on Yom Kippur was not adequate.
“No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly;
As religious Jews, as religious Zionists, we must embrace the words of both Herzl and of Isaiah. We obligate ourselves to work toward spiritual and moral perfection.
We are now on the eve of Tisha B’Av and the period of seeking comfort which follows. It was our inability to create a moral and equitable society, one based upon mutual respect, based upon the recognition of the value of the other along with a sense of communal responsibility, that led to the destruction of our center of worship, the fall of Jerusalem, and the loss our homeland.
With the establishment of the State of Israel we have been given another chance. The Zionist dream is very much alive. Our obligation is to build an Israel based on the prophetic ideals.
It is for this very reason that the leadership of the Masorti movement and of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel issued the following statement:
The Masorti movement in Israel will designate Tisha B''Av as a day of solidarity with the “tent protest” movement. On the evening of the fast, and for the duration of the day, we will hold events connecting the destruction of the ancient Temple with this struggle for the future of our homeland; linking the “senseless hatred” in their time with the gaping economic disparity in Israel today.
The Masorti movement emphasizes that social justice is among the most basic principles of Judaism and that for thousands of years the Halachah has harkened to the cry of the weak. We see the emerging shift of national priorities and the renewed vitality of the people in its land as the fulfillment of Zionism. The Masorti movement, as a religious movement, calls upon the government of Israel to concern itself with the welfare of the weak and disempowered in the society - not from the perspective of charity, but from that of justice. We call upon Israel to repair the historic failures which have brought the middle class to the brink.
The continuing erosion of the middle class in the State of Israel in the last few years strikes at the heart of democracy. It requires the government of Israel to alter the national priorities in a profound and comprehensive manner; to be attentive to the cry of the people, and to make decisions which will enable young families, and all those who experience the challenges of Israeli life, to see their future in the land.
The State of Israel is the expression of the longing of the Jewish people through the generations. An engaged citizenry should be a point of pride for any democracy. As such we seek to strengthen the hands of the protestors and believe that change will surely come.
The words of the Hebrew song Ani V’At may best express our challenge: “Others have said it before, but it doesn’t matter, you and I we’ll change the world.”