In early June, more than 10,000 Israelis took to the streets on a Saturday night chanting “Bring back hope and justice,” in a resurgence of 2011’s protests against income inequality, shrinking social programs and the crisis of politicians driven more by self-preservation than by the needs of the country’s citizens. “We don’t want a government of cutbacks,” they chanted. “We don’t want a government of racists.”
The initial impetus for last year’s protests which was the impossible cost of housing, soon evolved into an all-encompassing demand for social justice. In the course of several? weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis — Jew and Arab, urban and periphery, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, secular and religious — crowded onto the tree-lined boulevards of Tel Aviv and into the centers of towns in the Negev and Galilee.
In the wake of Tahrir Square, young Israelis constructed more than 120 tent camps, dotting the landscape all summer. Widespread consumer boycotts forced major supermarket chains to cut prices. Even once winter arrived, volunteer watchdogs posted often contentious Knesset proceedings on the Web. And there was a slew of real successes as a result of the movement: expanding government sponsored childcare to children aged 3-5, higher capital gains taxes and improved labor conditions.
The response to these dramatic developments from American Jewry has been, for the most part, silence.
For many American Jews, Israel is a high-tech melting pot where our Zionist dreams are realized. It is hard to imagine it as a place with the highest socioeconomic gap in the Western world and state-sanctioned schisms among the population. This reality is far too unsettling.
For those accustomed to showing their love of Israel by worrying about its national security or fixating on the need to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the new focus seems off-script. What about the existential Iranian threat? Why worry about social inequality as long as the Occupation continues? The tent protesters seem just plain frivolous.
Besides, yet others argue, it is not our role to take sides or publicize the fact that something is amiss in the only democracy in the Middle East. This will only bring shame on Israel should the rest of the world get wind of it.
What follows are four reasons that the Israeli tent protests should rate our (and by “our,” I mean those of us who call ourselves pro-Israel) enthusiastic support.
Israel is the real home of real people with real problems. Polls taken last summer found broad public support for the protests, including 98% of Kadima supporters and 85% of Likudniks polled. A recent survey found continued support from 75% of respondents across party lines.
This nearly unanimous level of concern for the state of Israel’s social contract represents a major shift. What is at stake at this moment is nothing less than the promise enshrined in the state’s declaration of independence, “freedom, justice, and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel.” What is at stake is the future of real Israelis.
Security is not only about outside threats. The slogan “There is no personal security without social security” reminds us that unless basic welfare, education and health needs of a people are met, mistrust, self-interest and despair poison communal life.
Israel is a deeply divided society in which subgroups often blame the other for their suffering, without regard to the fact that the other is often a fellow Jew. “[W]hen the prevailing ambience,” writes the author David Grossman, “is that of ‘grab what you can,’ you cannot help but disparage the other and rob each other blind.”
An open discussion of shared problems encourages Israelis to listen to and have empathy for one another. There has been a dramatic decrease in reported incidences of racism committed by Jew against Arab within Israel proper over the past year, a change that some attribute directly to the tent protest movement. Surely this is a good thing.
Social justice is a cornerstone of Jewish culture and theology. Whether one is “right” or “left” on the Israeli and American Jewish political spectrum has long been defined by one’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and national security issues, and not by the traditional measures of income distribution and social equality.
Protest leader Stav Shaffir argues that Israelis, too, have been focused elsewhere “while ignoring the crimes that were taking place in our own neighborhoods, diminishing social services and social mobility, and the growth of segregation leading to great poverty and suffering.” To ignore the widow, orphan and stranger is simply not a long-term moral option for the Jewish state.
The development of intergroup solidarity encouraged by the tent movement provides the leverage needed to tackle a wide range of Israel’s problems, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Achievement of a resolution of the conflict will take more than just support from outside Israel; a broad swath of Israeli society must back the government to take the bold steps necessary for peace.
True peoplehood is built on hope, vision and genuine connection between human beings. The Israeli tent protest movement has brought genuine hope to the table. To borrow the words of Haifa Arab activist Raja Zaatry: “In this struggle there is room for everybody. In this struggle there is hope for everybody. This struggle is everyone’s.”
Aliza Becker is the director of Friends of the Israeli Social Movement.