We're Fighting for the Soul of Our Community09 August 2011
The Washington Post published this weekend two articles related to Israel that, at first glance, may appear unrelated, but are as good as an example as I have seen of late of the disconnect between Israel and the American Jewish community.
On Sunday, the Post ran "Israelis stage massive economic protests," which details the strength of the public voice of debate and dissent in Israel. Though opposition opinion has sadly been under siege of late in Israel, there nevertheless remains a culture in Israel that promotes and respects the airing of differing views. In the picture that accompanies the story, one can see an Arabic language sign, indicating the willingness and ability of Israeli Arabs to participate in these protests. Not only does this provide a remarkable juxtaposition with protests throughout the Arab world, but it also reminded me of an article from the previous day.
In Saturday's "Theater J incident illustrates larger dialogue on Israel at Jewish institutions," the Post demonstrated how the vibrant protests and debate underway in Israel are simply not possible in the American Jewish community. Although Israelis were debating economic policy, rather than settlements, such political protests are also commonplace in Israel. Yet in the American Jewish community, we no longer seem able to practice our Jewish religious (and artistic) heritage, which is rooted in honest debate and disagreement -- indeed, the Hebrew word for "struggle" is at the core of the Hebrew word "Yisrael."
Theater J's Director, Ari Roth, summed this issue up best in the Saturday article when he said, "Look at what we’re doing: We’re fighting for the soul of our community. We are enacting dramas, and the subject is the embattled soul of the Jewish people. It’s a community and a people that are split and torn, and we sit on the seams of that divide and we need to reflect that schism: that person who looks deeply at himself, and is divided." That is the essence of the word "struggle," the core of what the community should be celebrating, not censoring.Add a comment
Sadly, it would appear that those who have pushed to marginalize the Peace Cafe and other brave efforts byTheater J have abandoned both the teachings of their culture and the lessons being taught by Jews and Arabs in Israel: if you believe that what you stand for is just, you should not be afraid to defend it against those who disagree. Perhaps this indeed is the best evidence of all that the settlements and related policies put under the microscope by Theater J are simply indefensible.
Window to a New World05 August 2011
Last Saturday night, at the demonstration in Jerusalem, I looked around and I saw a red river flowing in the streets. There were thousands of people there, people who haven’t raised their voices for years, people who had lost all hope for change, people who had closed themselves off inside their troubles and despair.
It wasn’t easy for them to join the rhythmic shouts of the young people with the speakers. Maybe it was the embarrassment of someone who isn’t used to raising a voice in public, a person who is afraid to shout out loud and even more afraid to shout out as part of a large group. For a few moments I felt that we, the marchers, looked at ourselves with a fair degree of wonder and some uncertainty, not entirely sure of ourselves, or in what is bubbling up from within us: are we really “the masses,” an angry mob, fists in the air, like we saw recently during demonstrations in Tunis, Egypt, Syria and Greece? Do we really want to be that kind of mob? Do we really mean what we’ve been shouting rhythmically, “R-E-V-O-L-U-T-I-O-N”? And what will happen if we are “too successful,” and the fragile bands of this country start to crack? And what if this protest and the heat turns into anarchy?
But after a few steps something happens, gets into the blood. The rhythm, the movement, the togetherness. Not a threatening, faceless “unity,” but rather unity-not-unison, mosaic-like and messy, like a family, with a strong feeling of—here we are, doing the right thing. And then the shock comes—where were we up to now? How did we let this happen?
How could we have made peace with the fact that the government we elected has turned out healthcare and our children’s education into luxuries? How could we not have shouted and screamed when the Finance Ministry crushed the social workers, and before them—the disabled, the Holocaust survivors, the elderly and the retirees? How, for years, could we have pushed the hungry and the poor to soup kitchens and to charitable organizations for a life of humiliation, how could we have abandoned foreign workers to the people hunting and chasing them? How could we have abandoned them to trafficking in workers and women? How could we have made peace with the destructive displays of privatization while at the same time breaking down everything that was important to us—solidarity, responsibility, mutual assistance and a feeling of being connected to another nation?
It is well known that there were many reasons for this apathy, but the deep split surrounding the question of the occupation, in my view, is the thing that disrupted more than anything the control and warning systems in Israeli society. Our evil and diseased qualities as a society rose to the surface, and we—perhaps because of our fear to stand, eyes wide open, opposite the full reality of our lives—we enthusiastically dedicated ourselves to all kinds of people who would dull our senses, who would cause us to suppress the reality. Sometimes we looked at ourselves: some of us really liked what we saw; some of us were appalled. But even those who were appalled said, “well, that’s the way it is.” They called it “the situation,” as if it were fate or a heavenly decree. In addition, we allowed commercial television to fill up our collective consciousness and to dictate for us the terms of our fights for survival and predation, to split us apart from one another and to denigrate anyone weaker than us or different and “not pretty” and not rich. It has been many years since we have spoken to one another, and certainly many years since we have listened, because how—in this atmosphere of “catch what you can”—can we do it without trampling one another, without violence. Isn’t this what they’re telling and showing us, in every possible way—that it’s every man for himself?
And the more we exhausted ourselves with unending denials, so we have become better fodder for control and manipulation and stupidity, victims of a subtle and effective “divide and conquer.” And thus, from money to money, from money to power, and to the press, our dealings with critical questions took a dive and became questions like “who loves this country and who hates it,” “who is faithful to it and who is a traitor,” who is a “good Jew” and who has “forgotten that he is Jewish.” Every rational discussion has been buried in a thick dough of kitsch and sentimentalism, the kitsch of patriotism and nationalism, the kitsch of self-righteousness and of victimhood, and slowly the ability to analyze soberly what is going on here became blocked, and at the end of the day Israel finds itself acting and behaving—towards its own citizens —in complete contrast to the values and the world view that were once its very soul and its inimitability.
But here, all of a sudden, and in contrast to all the predictions, something is rising up. People are waking up, opening up to something that isn’t entirely clear yet, where it is all going, and there are no words yet precisely to describe it all, or completely to understand it, but it is becoming more clear and crystallizing while calling out these slogans, which are all of a sudden blossoming from a cliche into live feelings, “The Entire Nation Demands Social Justice!”, “We Want Justice, Not Charity” and other sayings taken from other times, and once in a while there is a feeling in the air that there is a path to recovery, to mending, and this forgotten thing comes back to us, our self-respect, of the individual Israeli and of Israelis as a whole.
There is an unbelievable power, a power which is also a bit deceiving and intoxicating, in this awakening. It is enticing to be swept away by euphoria— and in the renewal of youth—that the new movement has inspired. It is easy to err with the misconception that once again, we are destroying an old world to the very foundations. But that’s not exactly right: the old world wasn’t all bad. There were great accomplishments, too, some of which will make it possible for the current protest movement to achieve some of its goals, as well as the freedom to express these desires. Therefore, this struggle must use entirely different language than struggles we’ve had here previously. Above all, it must be based on dialogue; it must be inclusive rather than exclude people, ideological and not sectoral and opportunistic. It shouldn’t be “every tent for itself.” This is the way for the protest movement to maintain the widespread public support it currently enjoys. A certain amount of vagueness by the protest movement makes it possible for every group within the movement to hold different and opposing political opinions and beliefs but still—for the first time in decades—to form a common human, civilian platform, and even to feel pride about being part of this community. Who in Israel can allow himself to relinquish these precious resources?
This protest movement and the waves of aftermath offer an opportunity for people who haven’t spoken to one another for decades finally to speak to one another. Different layers of society who are far removed from one another. Religious and secular, Arabs and Jews. Inside this process of identifying what unites us, there can also be a renewed dialogue between right and left wing, a discussion based on reality and more empathetic—for example, the left’s apathy with regard to people who lost their homes in Gush Katif, the settlers’ open wound—the type of discussion that could salvage what’s left of our mutual responsibility, something that a country in our current state cannot afford to let go of. In other words, if the spirit behind this movement really is to be found in the words of Amir Gilboa—“All of a sudden a man wakes up one morning and feels he is an entire nation and he begins to move,” then the movement must now continue on and sing, “and he said ‘shalom’ to everything he met.”
It is easy to criticize the steps of this young movement. And in general —it is always easier to find reasons to say “no” than to get up and make bold, brave steps. But anyone who listens to the mercies of the protesters hearts — not only on Rothschild Boulevard, but also in south Tel Aviv, in Ashdod, in the lower socio-economic neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Haifa and Ma’alot-Tarshiha—understands that we may have opened a window here to a new future. The time is right for such a process, and surprise surprise!—there are people, at long last, who are joining the fight. Maybe that’s what one young woman meant when she came up to me at a demonstration in Jerusalem and said, “look! The leadership is still terrible, but the people aren’t anymore.”
Originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth.Add a comment
Something is happening here26 July 2011
26 July 2011
Something is Happening Here
I have been living in Palestine/Israel as an activist and politically engaged citizen for nearly two years now, and I have never seen anything like this.
As many of you may have heard, over the past two weeks a group of Israeli twenty-somethings, fed up with the high (and getting increasingly higher) cost of living in Tel Aviv and throughout Israel, set up a tent city on Rothschild Boulevard, the symbol of middle-class Tel Aviv bourgeoisie (here is a brief overview from the NYTimes). The demonstration quickly blossomed, and within days hundreds more set up tents all the way up the boulevard, with thousands more visiting in solidarity. As of today, the tents reached all the way from Habima to beyond Rechov Mazeh (for those of you who know Tel Aviv).
Responding to the government’s retorts that these young people are “spoiled,” urban Tel Aviv elitists, solidarity tent cities sprung up overnight in Beer Sheva, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Kiryat Shemona (other cities around Israel, many in the periphery) and more, attesting to the fact that this crisis is in fact nationwide.
From there, the protests grew. An estimated thirty thousand people gathered Saturday night in the center of Tel Aviv. People are angry that the the cost of living is spiraling out of control, and that the neoliberal policies adopted by the Israeli establishment since the mid-1980s have decimated the welfare state into oblivion. I’ve been riding the left-wing protest circuit for nearly two years, but I’ve never seen anything like this – I’ve never seen this kind of energy, this kind of emotion. I’ve never seen this many people. Approximately thirty activists were arrested for blocking a major intersection in the middle of Tel Aviv, while they shouted “Assad, Mubarak, Bibi” (referring to Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister). I am so moved – this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Tel Aviv. It happens in Sheikh Jarrah, in Bil’in and in Nebi Salah (the sites of more radical demonstrations). But it does not happen in the middle of mainstream Tel Aviv, and certainly not in a way that publicly draws inspiration from the Arab Spring.
And it’s only getting bigger. Hundreds of people marched on the Knesset (Parliament) today, and breaking news just told me that 200 people blocked the road outside Prime Minister Nethanyahu's home in Jerusalem. (Can you believe it?! Civil disobedience has gone mainstream in Israel!)
For me, this movement has come to represent – simultaneously – what I find ugliest and what I find most beautiful about the place I’ve chosen to make my home.
Walking down Rothschild Boulevard, it is impossible to tell if it’s a protest or a street festival. The cross-section of people here is incredible. I’ve seen a Breslover (a sect of Hassidic Jews) dance circle, the Anarchist drummers marching down the boulevard, and Im Tirzu (the fascists who everyone loves to hate) handing out flyers. There is a compost bin. And a sukkah. And a teepee. The place is packed with young people drinking beer, barbecuing, sitting around in circles singing as someone plays a guitar, doing contact improv in the middle of the street, and of course I'm certain there is going to be a tent-baby boom in Tel Aviv come April (for great visuals, see Activestills’ photosream). I am constantly awed by Israelis’ capacity to experience unbridled joy, despite the exceedingly difficult socio-political and material circumstances in which they live their lives.
Yet walking down Rothschild, I am also keenly aware who isn’t there. The protest is overwhelmingly white and middle-class. Conspicuously absent are the “other” residents of Tel Aviv - Palestinians from Yafo, whose severe housing crisis has gone unmentioned for years, exaggerated by municipal policies that favor gentrification and Jewish-only settlement over community development, and Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews, refugees and migrant workers from Tel Aviv’s poor, neglected southern neighborhoods. In fact, out of all of the tent cities that have been raised all over the country over these few weeks, the only one to be demolished was the one built in south Tel Aviv (see an excellent video here).
I am also keenly aware of what is not being said (at least not by the protesters. The left-wing op-ed media is of course having a field day!). What’s not being said is that for decades the government of Israel has been pouring money into settlement construction in the West Bank, instead of developing sustainable housing solutions for Jewish citizens of what the rest of the world considers to be Israel. What's not being said is that there is been a dire housing crisis for years among Palestinian communities in Israel, because the government does not permit Palestinian citizens to build. What's not being said is that Mizrachi Jews have been geographically marginalized in urban spaces and housing issues since the State of Israel's founding. What’s not being said is that this popular uprising takes place against the backdrop of a brutal and repressive legislative assault on democratic freedoms.
The tent movement’s leaders insist that their struggle is not “political.” For young Israelis fed up with the corruption and ineffectiveness of their government, “politics” is a dirty word. But for me, it’s impossible to look at what’s happening in Tel Aviv and not see the bigger picture.
I am truly uplifted and inspired by the sound of thirty thousand people calling, “The nation demands social justice!” I am ecstatic that when they talk about social justice they are talking not only about housing, but they are making connections with other struggles here - the price of consumer goods (the "cottage cheese boycott"), the doctors' and social workers' strikes, etc. The popular discourse has finally - FINALLY - moved beyond the "peace process," and started to look critically at what kind of society we are trying to build here.
But I am pained that these voices come wrapped in an Israeli flag, which to me represents a nation built on the backs of many for the political and economic benefit of an elite few (for more on this, see the post-colonialist discussion of Zionism – Oren Yiftachel, Ella Shohat, Aziza Khazzoum, Yehuda Shenhav). When we say that "the nation" is demanding social justice, what kind of social justice are we talking about, and are we defining "the nation" in a way that is truly inclusive?
In his infamous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I am full of hope that this movement will be the doorway to a broader movement for change. I hope that the middle class in Tel Aviv has opened its eyes and will connect the dots to see that their struggle is the same as that of Palestinians being evicted from their homes in Lod, Ramle and Sheikh Jarrah; of the Bedouins in Al Arakib, an “unrecognized” village in the Negev that has been destroyed 27 times over the past year alone; and of Mizrahi Jews in Kfar Shalem who have been in a tug-of-war for decades with the municipality, who is trying to demolish their homes and build luxury high rises. I am heartened by the fact that throughout history it has been the middle class who has lead the most successful revolutions, so even if the tent city strikes me as overly yuppy and white, maybe in the end that's not a bad thing.
There is talk of revolution. There is talk of an awakening. My sincerest prayer is that this is the beginning of a movement for true democracy in this country, and the dawning of new era marked by the social, political, and economic inclusion of all of us living in this crazy, crazy place.
May it come speedily, and in our days.
For further reading: Great ongoing analysis of the "Tentifada" at +972 magazine: http://972mag.com/tag/tent-protest/
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Rachel Bergstein was the NIF's Rabbi Richard J. Israel Social Justice Fellow in 2009-2010. She currently resides in Tel Aviv. The views expressed here are hers entirely, and do not indicate an endorsement of all NIF policies and stances, nor an NIF endorsement of all Rachel’s statements.
The Rat Race And The March Of Folly29 July 2011
The wave of protests that are splashing over Israel represent, first and foremost, the middle class' recognition – at long last – that it is powerless to hold its own in the mad competition that has been forced upon it: military service involving the loss of three years of income, college studies, the purchase of a decent condominium, the high cost of raising children, and the high cost of basic foods. The mad competition, in turn, is the product of the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few – the top ten percent of income earners, and among them, the top one percent and the top .1%. The increasing wealth at the top enables a small minority to determine new standards in every area of life: a one-family dwelling with a yard or a condo in a prestigious new city tower in Tel Aviv; kindergartens that purport to increase children's IQ, elementary schools for the gifted, arts and sciences high schools, private colleges, and luxury consumer goods.
Young middle-class people, aware of the new standards, realize that this is a race they cannot win, a race that turns them into rats caught in a maze. In the 1960s, American students called it the rat race.
For its part, the government of Israel washes its hands in the ideology of the free market and is willing, at most, to admit that there are a few "market failures." But ideology is a matter of geography, and in our case, the free market ideology stops at the border between Israel and the West Bank. On the other side of the Green Line, the government – like all recent governments of Israel – continues to take the initiative and lead the largest national civilian project undertaken in Israel since the 1967 war – the settlements. This ongoing undertaking is a march of folly not only because it costs a huge amount of money: it also guarantees the continuation of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
It is an undertaking involving huge expenditures to which there appears to be no end. Perhaps the construction of homes need not be taken into account, as persons living in the settlements would still have needed homes had they chosen to remain within the Green Line. However, a home in a settlement is less expensive for the settler but very expensive for every other Israeli: settlements involve expensive infrastructures, expensive by-pass roads, a separation wall, armored transportation, generous public services, income tax and municipal tax breaks, development subsidies and housing purchase assistance.
The real costs are higher still: special military installations built to protect the settlements and their access roads, military activity in which all units of the infantry need to take part, and special budgetary outlays in times of increased hostilities. Since the first Intifada, the defense budget has received additional allocations for "events in the territories" amounting to $13.5 billion.
Who pays? Tax-payers, and, among them, members of the middle class. The same people called upon to patrol and to scout and to fight – the middle class, which is the backbone of the Israel Defense Forces.
So what do we have here? We have a state of Israel with a split personality, a two-faced state. On the Israeli side of the Green Line, it says to the middle class: "It's not my job to correct the situation," while on the occupied side of the Green Line it says: "I'll do it! I'll do it! I'll initiate. I'll invest. I'll build. I'll take care of you." What we have is a highly pro-active state on the east side of the Green line and a free market state on west side of the Green Line. A democratic state with a free market here, and an occupier state with state socialism for settlers there.
The rat race and the march of folly. Has Israel reached the breaking point?
Shlomo Swirski is the Academic Research Director of the Adva Center, which provides policy analysis and public education on issues of economic inequality in Israel.Add a comment
Message from Daniel Sokatch, NIF CEO06 April 2011
As I write this, at 36,000 feet somewhere over Greenland, it has just turned 2010 . . . I spent the last week of 2009 on my first working visit to Israel as NIF's new CEO. I return to the States exhausted, but also renewed. And as we say goodbye to a dark decade, I am more convinced than ever that the work that NIF does on the ground in Israel is critical to ensuring that the lights of democracy, equality and, perhaps most importantly, hope continue shine in 2010, and for the next ten years.Add a comment