Sunday, July 31, 2011

150,000 march to demand a more just economic system in Israel

To whom does the country belong?
The hoarders of wealth, or the brave of soul?

The Messianic era is characterized by massive social, political and economic changes, across the world and no less so in Israel. Last night, 150,000 Israelis across the country marched in the streets, protesting the high costs of living and raising a family in Israel, and demanding affordable housing, free education from age 0, lower prices on staple goods, and a new set of priorities for Israeli society--those emphasizing social and economic justice, and moving away from a socially-blind, free-market policy that has characterized the recent administrations.

The affordable housing movement, which has now morphed into a multi-cause social justice movement, began two weeks ago when Daphni Leef, 25, became so frustrated while searching for an affordable apartment in the Tel Aviv area where she studied and worked, that she decided to pitch a tent on the street and invited her friends to do so as well. One week later, tent cities sprouted up across Israel, populated by students and struggling, low-income individuals and families. In a recent poll, 87% of the Israeli public voiced support of the tent protests. Last night, tens of thousands of Israelis voiced their support and filled the streets in the largest protest in decades, if not in Israel's history. And this is only the beginning.

Contrary to certain portrayals, the people in the tents and in the streets are not radical leftists. They are students, low-income and middle-class families. Yes, until now, many have been secular. But I don't think that this will remain a secular protest, and I don't think it should.

Last week, a woman holding a newborn sat and listened to a communal discussion led by students in the Jerusalem encampment near Ben-Yehudah Street. As it turned out, this woman was a mother to 8 children, whose husband stopped working several years ago as a result of an accident. The ten of them live in a home no larger than 50 square meters in the periphery and still barely make it. When they heard about the tent protest, they heard a cry close to home, and together with their eight children they came and set up camp in the Jerusalem park. They have now been here five nights, and have no intention of leaving, until they hear solutions. This family, and many others, are not anarchists. They represent a large number of Israelis who are overburdened by years of unregulated free markets.

The time has come to ask a difficult question: Do religious Jews view capitalism as an ideal? Is the Torah a capitalist system? Have we become complacent, having lived well in America, England, South Africa, Australia, and other parts of the developed world? Have we compartmentalized tzedakah to the personal realm, standing by while the government and Israel's ten richest families hoard wealth, homes, cars and luxuries, while Israeli children are hungry? Where is the word "unregulated markets" in the Tanach? In the book of Jeremiah? For years we have swallowed the fact that capitalism is "the best system we've got". Well I've got news, my fellow yidden, we have something much better, and it's explained at length throughout the Written and Oral Torahs. And economically speaking, it looks a lot more like the vision of the tenters on Rothschild than like the current rules of the game.

Until now the religious community in Israel operates vis-a-vis the political-economic sphere as if we are still in exile. In many ways we are: our government is not focusing its resources on the construction of the Temple and the settling and bolstering of the land in its entirety. The Sabbath is a cultural relic and the holidays and commercialized. The values of the country have faded from idealism, Zionism and Jewish peoplehood to multi-culturalism and economic and social liberalism. In this context, we assume that a free-market society that leaves behind the weak and needy is something we take for granted, and at best, we can give a hefty donation on Pesach and give our last few agurot to the beggars in the shuk.

We learn, we daven, we invite Shabbos guests, and we tell Bibi to build, and we talk about the third Temple, and yearn to see it rebuilt. Yet how can we merit a Temple, when we are party to a system in which a family of ten chooses to camp out in public park, because the situation has become too heavy to bear? Our Temple was destroyed because of an indifference to the person next door, because the image of our own merit clouded the heart's most basic sensitivity to the material and psychological plight of our fellow Jew. The State of Israel should excel first and foremost in its care for the weak, in its social welfare, in its assurance of basic needs to its citizens. We don't need to imitate social welfare systems across Europe; we have our own values deep within our own national conscience, even if they are temporarily muted.

A commentator in today's press wrote that the movement beginning across Israel cuts through the traditional left/right divide with which Israeli society has become obsessed. I sincerely hope it succeeds in overcoming yet another divide within this society, that between religious and secular. There are severe housing and economic problems in the religious and haredi sectors in Israel, and there are is no reason why these sectors should not stand side-by-side with other Jews demanding a more socially and economically just society. A new generation of Israelis are hungry for a vision which can provide more than Zionism, more than capitalism. The protestors are chanting for bread and water, but can we as the religious community be bold enough to hear the thirst for a new incarnation of Israel from amidst the protests, and can we answer the call, armed with the authentic values and wisdom of Torah, and the derech eretz of Avraham Avinu? If not, we not only risk losing the momentum of this movement, but also our own moral integrity. Tests from Hashem -- especially in the time of Mashiach -- are more often than not pop quizzes, in the guise of another headline to ignore, on the way to shul.

And you shall return by your God: keep loving-kindness and justice, and hope to your God always.

A trafficker who has deceitful scales in his hand; he loves to oppress.

And Ephraim said: Surely I have become rich; I have found power for myself; all my toils shall not suffice for my iniquity which is sin.

And I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; I will yet settle you in tents as in that time 

And I spoke to the prophets, and I increased their visions; and to the prophets I assumed likenesses

Hosea 12: 7-11

וְאַתָּה בֵּאלֹהֶיךָ תָשׁוּב חֶסֶד וּמִשְׁפָּט שְׁמֹר וְקַוֵּה אֶל אֱלֹהֶיךָ תָּמִיד

כְּנַעַן בְּיָדוֹ מֹאזְנֵי מִרְמָה לַעֲשֹׁק אָהֵב

וַיֹּאמֶר אֶפְרַיִם אַךְ עָשַׁרְתִּי מָצָאתִי אוֹן לִי כָּל יְגִיעַי לֹא יִמְצְאוּ לִי עָו‍ֹן אֲשֶׁר חֵטְא 

וְאָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם עֹד אוֹשִׁיבְךָ בָאֳהָלִים כִּימֵי מוֹעֵד

וְדִבַּרְתִּי עַל הַנְּבִיאִים וְאָנֹכִי חָזוֹן הִרְבֵּיתִי וּבְיַד הַנְּבִיאִים אֲדַמֶּה

הושע יב, ז-יא

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