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July 28, 2014 | 1st Av 5774

Justice, Justice

Galilee Diary #548, September 7, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

No, if you really mend your ways and your actions, if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place, if you do not follow other gods, to your own hurt - then only will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time.
-Jeremiah 7:5-7

At the beginning of the summer, a few young adults pitched tents in the median of Rothschild Blvd. in Tel Aviv to protest the astronomically high rents in central Tel Aviv. They were soon joined by thousands more, and tents sprang up all over the country, accompanied by demonstrations of all sorts of groups from the middle class who feel frustrated and angry that they are unable "to finish the month" due to high prices of rent, food, child care, and public transportation. The demonstrations grew into major Saturday night events in cities and towns both central and peripheral, until this past Saturday, when a total of around 450,000 marchers turned out - exceeding even the famous "march of the 400,000" after the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in 1982.

The media, and the politicians, and various religious and social movements and organizations, have been very busy visiting the tent camps and conducting discussions and study sessions and kabbalot Shabbat. And the op-ed pages and talk shows are full of debate as to whether this a serious social movement, demanding a pull-back from the privatization policies of recent governments, toward more of a welfare state as Israel was in its earlier years - or whether it is just a vague expression of the unhappiness of spoiled young people, which will peter out when it rains and the protesters realize how complicated matters are (for example, the high price of dairy products was one of the original triggers of this protest - but when it was suggested that the solution was to open the market to imports, the dairy farmers came out to march in opposition; and when the government created a mechanism for streamlined approval of construction permits for housing developments, in order to reduce prices, the environmentalists saw it as a way to run roughshod over their concerns; etc.). Everybody seems to be marching side by side, but sometimes what they are demanding is in direct opposition to the demands of their fellow marchers. Generally, protesters have refrained from connecting the economic situation to the geo-political situation, out of a desire to create and maintain a wall-to-wall coalition not poisoned by the usual left-right polarization; however, much of the right, and the ultra-orthodox, remain skeptical, concerned that the hidden target of the protest is them.

I have been ambivalent myself, not allowing myself to get caught up in rhetoric which seems too vague and unrealistic to be useful, and even demagogic at times; but feeling guilty for standing aloof from this pluralistic, idealistic groundswell. Saturday night I went along to the march in Karmiel, which drew several thousand people. There was a festive, summer night feeling, with lots of families with kids, including many of my neighbors and others from "suburban" communities like ours. Everyone was cheerful, meeting old friends, gathering in a park for amateur speeches and a performance by a popular singer (all the rallies have benefited from volunteer entertainment), chanting "The People Demand Social Justice!" as we marched. At one point I found myself marching between the mayor of Karmiel and a delegation from a nearby Arab village waving red flags with the hammer and sickle (!), wearing Che Guevara T-shirts.

There is something inspiring and moving about being part of such a crowd. But the message remains vague and detached, as if somehow we could bypass the dirty business of party politics and coalition negotiations, and just express the people's will by marching and chanting. It feels like sour grapes to mention that the politicians and their parties against whom we are demonstrating were elected by us just a few years ago, and their policies and priorities were perfectly clear at the time; we could have voted for others, but we didn't.

On the other hand, if this "uprising" succeeds in shifting the public political discourse out of its rut of polarization on issues of peace/security, encouraging parties to engage in serious campaigns based on platforms of social and economic policies, this summer camp-out might turn out to be historic after all.

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