The Israeli People, With a Capital 'P,' Demand Social Justice

Collective Action at the Heart of the Mass Demonstrations

By Leonard Fein

Published September 09, 2011, issue of September 16, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to watch, in the comfort of my air-conditioned living room in Boston, the entire September 3 protest rally in Tel Aviv via a live stream provided by the Israeli news website, YNet. (By way of contrast, my Israeli friends, who were there in the flesh, faded after an hour or two and then made their longish way home.)

I have several times quoted here the leading chant of the protesters, rendering it “The People demand social justice!” I need to call attention to and explain the capitalization of “People.” The word “ahm” in Hebrew does not mean “people” (lower case), as, for example, anashim would convey. It is a specific reference to the collectivity. Hence it would be wrong to render the chant as “The people demand social justice,” suggesting an aggregation rather than a specific entity. Accordingly, “The People.”

And the collectivity was very much on the minds of those who addressed the rally, almost all of whom spoke of “solidarity” as one of the keys to its rousing success, which was nothing less than the largest rally in Israel’s history, with crowds gathering not only in Tel Aviv but also in Jerusalem, in Haifa, in Kiryat Shmoneh and Afula and Bet She’an and Eilat and a dozen other places around the country, somewhere between 420,000-450,000 people in all.

There was much talk of “the new Israelis,” by which attention was called to the end of indifference and cynicism, to the insistence that the kind of Israel that has unfolded over the course of these last 63 years is inadequate to the hopes and aspirations of masses of people. That, obviously, is the big news of the protest process. It is as if, quite unexpectedly, the flag of classic Zionism, long since tucked away in a dresser drawer while historians and journalists wrote casually of the “Tel Aviv bubble,” had been picked up, aired out and now claimed by a new generation.

Among the speakers, the one who came closest to articulating the potential portent of all this was actually of an earlier generation. He was oratorically the most phlegmatic, though he was also perhaps the most storied of the participants and the one with genuine precedent on his side. His name is Moti Ashkenazi. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, his was the only position along the Bar Lev line (intended to prevent an Egyptian assault against Israel) that did not fall to the Egyptians. Ashkenazi was outraged by what he saw as a series of calamitous decisions by Israel’s political echelon, decisions that had led to many casualties and, until the Nixon/Kissinger resupply to Israel, a serious threat of defeat. So he began a one-man protest in front of the prime minister’s home, a protest that eventually attracted sufficient support to force the Golda Meir government (which included Moshe Dayan, who initially dismissed the protest, saying “The people have said their piece, and no demonstration or rally will bring down the government”) to resign.

Ashkenazi — whose own story may well not have been known by the masses of young people in Tel Aviv — was blunt: “What is needed is not a change in the system; what is needed is a change in the culture.” I am not certain what Ashkenazi intended thereby, but if I can infer his meaning from the remarks of the other key participants — especially Itzik Shmoli of the National Union of Israeli Students and Daphne Leef, the original solitary protester whose action just seven weeks ago kicked off the entire movement — the cultural changes that are now required include not only the engaged energy of ongoing protest but also, and more specifically, a refusal to make peace with the immense gaps in wealth that have come to characterize the country — gaps between the super-rich and everyone else, though especially the bottom quarter of Israel’s population; gaps between the urban centers and the peripheral towns; gaps between Jews and Arabs; gaps in medical care, in housing, in education, in every sector. A refusal, as well, to accept the galloping privatization that has been a hallmark of the Netanyahu administration.

One of the catch-phrases of recent years has been “ein lanu eretz acheret”: we have no other country. Leef was explicit in her dismissal of that phrase: “We are here not because we have no other country; we are here because this is where we choose to be.” And then much about being here, in this country repurposed, reinvented, a country of equity and dignity, a country beloved by the protesters.

I cannot report all this, as encouraging as it is, without wondering why there has been no comparable protest in the United States, where our political leadership seems no less out of touch than Israel’s patently is. Here, income inequality is even more skewed than in Israel; here, since 1980 and Reagan’s presidency, the welfare state has been dismantled, piece by piece, leaving the poor more locked out than ever and the middle class slipping into reverse; the data are a madness. Here, it seems, we, too live in a bubble.

For Israel, for America: Sandburg ends his classic, The People, Yes with “In the darkness with a great bundle of grief the people march. In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march: ‘Where to? What next?’”

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.