Ex-Pittsburgh rabbi ‘thrilled’ by Israeli demonstrations

Ex-Pittsburgh rabbi ‘thrilled’ by Israeli demonstrations

JERUSALEM — About a month ago I heard on the radio that a group of students decided to pitch a tent on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard (the choice of the site sounds admittedly ironic) in order to protest the high rents in the city.
“How ridiculous,” I thought. Living in central Tel Aviv is not a mitzva and who would expect rents in such areas to be reasonable?
Well, to my surprise (and that of everyone else in the country) the protest caught on and within days groups with similar problems and related agendas either joined the bourgeoning tent community in the heart of Tel Aviv’s commercial district or established tent communities of their own in other parts of the country.
Even in Kiryat Hayovel, a Jerusalem neighborhood where I am creating a new congregation, tents started emerging even though it is a very diverse neighborhood that contains a big variety of Jews — secular, ultra-Orthodox, Ashkenazi, Sephardic and more.
Issues raised by the new protest movement include the needs of single-parent families, low minimum wage, high indirect taxes on just about everything, problems of the educational system and virtual absence of public housing construction that induces contractors to build only expensive apartments and sell them at exorbitant prices.
A major object of criticism is the prevailing economic ideology of classical capitalism, which encourages the wealthy at the expense of the over-burdened middle class. Sound familiar?
Representatives of the National Students Union assumed a central role in the new movement together with other young people in their 20s, and the protest literally caught Israel by storm. Critics predicted that things would sputter out in a week or two, but the large Saturday night rallies continue to baffle by their sheer numbers. The most recent one brought together close to 300,000 people in Tel-Aviv and well over 50,000 supporters in other parts of Israel. There have been large demonstrations in the past but only on issues relating to the peace process and security.
Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has systematically reduced the tax levels of the wealthy and corporations, convinced that their growing prosperity would not only strengthen the economy but would trickle down to the rest of society, benefiting all. The latter, however, has materialized only partially and has created a socioeconomic gap between rich and poor only matched in the Western world by that in the United States.
There is, indeed, a low level of unemployment and the Israeli economy proved itself less vulnerable than most others during the economic crisis a few years ago, but the middle classes have been experiencing an intensifying squeeze, which expresses itself in growing monthly overdrafts (yes, Israeli banks allow and even encourage such things).
Everyone has someone to blame. Are the settlements in the West Bank eating up our budget? Is it the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), who receive government subsidies to study at yeshivas (at a time when their counterparts are in the army or beginning to both work and study at universities) and who also receive a big share of public housing because of their large families? Is it the policy of “privatization” that has been extended to social services, many of which receive reduced government funding, leaving it to the public to pick up the slack?
And, of course, there’s the large military budget, which is relatively the largest one compared to any other country in the Western world.
Since the establishment of the state, Israelis have not taken to the streets over social issues because security concerns overshadowed every other burning issue. This is now changing. The people are demanding tzedek chevrati (social justice) and the government has no choice but to listen and deal with the inequities. The process, in fact, has already begun.
The protest has already produced a new collective social consciousness and the atmosphere at the demonstrations is electrifying. Young children have learned to boldly proclaim “Ha’Am doresh tzedek chevrati” (the people demand…).
One of the significant aspects of the protest is that it has brought together long-estranged groups in the society, such as religious and secular elements, right- and left-wingers, even some Israeli Arabs. The society is uniting under a social agenda.
I find people around me inspired by the opportunity to work together for a better future. After years of a silent struggle for social justice, we are lifting up our heads with a newfound sense of collective energy and national pride.
As a rabbi, I am thrilled that the concept of social justice, which is central to our heritage, has become a rallying point for our society. The people of Israel are rediscovering the foundation of the prophetic tradition. It is our role as educators and community leaders to make the public aware of the richness of this connection.

(Ezra Ende, a Reform rabbi and former associate rabbi at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, is the associate rabbi at Kehilat {congregation} Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem.)