Out Loud

Jews in the Desert and Conversations about Social Justice: NIF at JFNA’s TribeFest

17 April 2012 By Ruby Ong

By: Penina Eilberg-Schwartz, NIF Director of New Generations in San Francisco


I had the great pleasure of representing the New Israel Fund at the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) TribeFest conference at the end of March. TribeFest was a remarkable thing – over 1500 young Jews convening in Las Vegas to talk about Jewish identities, social media, engagement strategies, social justice, and Israel.

TribeFest was a deeply important place to celebrate the work the Jewish community is doing in the name of social justice – fighting poverty domestically and globally; promoting equal opportunities in education, bringing Jews abroad to witness the challenges of marginalized communities, and that is to name just a few areas of work among many. My colleagues who planned a session with me about Jewish social justice strategies entitled “How do you Tikkun?” (Repair the World, JDC, AJWS) represented organizations doing just that crucial work.

So there was much to celebrate.

Still, celebration of the Jewish community’s place within social justice movements can eclipse important self-critique, and reminders of the great work yet to be done.

On the first day of the conference I was sitting in a hotel suite with representatives of JFNA from Jerusalem and the American Zionist Movement in New York, waiting for the arrival of Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of Israel’s tent protests last summer. We were putting final touches on our session about the protests and how they fit into a global context, into a world where things – at least in some arenas – seem to be tipping toward the power of crowds, of the voices of many rather than those of a privileged few.

When Stav walked into the suite, we almost immediately began talking about Las Vegas. She was wondering about the workers in the Venetian hotel – where they were, and how they were treated. She felt like they were invisible in all the extravagance of the enormous restaurants, bars, never-ending casinos, and fake canals of the Venetian Hotel.

“When we go somewhere in Israel now,” she said, “we always look for the workers, and if they are not already organized, we organize them. It’s our hobby now.”

Stav’s reaction pointed to a significant incongruence in TribeFest. I, for one, felt uncomfortable talking about social justice work among the casinos and extravagant, yet cheap-looking, hotels. Like Stav, I wondered about the negative socio-economic impact of Las Vegas, and how we as a community might be participating in it.

At the New Israel Fund, our work does not affect workers’ rights in Las Vegas. We have, however, been deeply engaged for over thirty years in issues of workers’ rights – and other issues of socio-economic justice -- in Israel.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence enshrines democracy and equality for all people – regardless of race, religion, or sex. It is a beautiful document, but its values – as in America – have not been so easily translated into reality. There is a contradiction between this written commitment and the reality of the lives of immigrants, women, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and -- as the tent protests affirmed -- of all Israelis. Israel’s social safety net has been severely compromised – by policies of privatization, dramatic subsidies for the ultra-orthodox, and funding for the settlement enterprise. There are immense challenges not only for groups with traditionally less power and privilege, but for everyone living in Israel. That is why Stav and other young leaders like her organized a protest. That is why Israelis pitched their tents last summer, and marched through the streets in staggering, inspiring numbers.

In Israel, as in meetings of American Jewry, if we do not look deeply into ourselves and see the extent of the work that needs to be done, if we focus too heavily on celebration, we face a real danger. If we celebrate too much, we won’t take to the streets.

In Israel there is a great deal to celebrate – I know that for me, meeting Stav Shaffir, engaging in a new way with the incredibly moving protests of last summer and hearing about the work she is continuing through The Social Movement, reminded me of that. And there is so, so much needed in Israel - repairing the gutted social safety net, protecting and furthering religious pluralism, fighting for environmental justice, and working towards more true and complete equal rights for women, immigrants, and Palestinian citizens of Israel. This is the work of the New Israel Fund.

We should celebrate our communal accomplishments. We should be proud. And TribeFest offered an essential opportunity for us -- speakers and attendees, lay leaders and young Jewish professionals -- to do both. But TribeFest also reminded me of how our Jewish community needs to talk more about the ways we are implicated in the injustices we speak out against, and about how we can do better. Thinking about all of this, I felt proud of the way the New Israel Fund family asks some of the hardest questions and acts so bravely and strategically to address them.

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