Monday, August 29, 2011

Do the people really demand Social Justice? My two cents worth on the Protest Movement.

(Author's note: I have been too scared to post this for quite a while now, because it seems I am so against the popular tide, but nevertheless...)

Israel is awash with protest fever. This summer has seen the usual political, diplomatic and military engagements which usually stifle any internal political debate about economic policy. We have terror attacks, rockets in the south, possible Palestinian independence and yet, through it all, a vibrant protest movement, united under the banner of "העם דורש צדק חברתי" - "The people demand social justice" has managed to capture the imagination and support of the nation. This is laudable. I lend my voice to the protests. They should be supported - they should get exactly what they are asking for from the government. So what is that exactly?

For me, if the protests were truly about Social Justice, they would be calling for economic relief for the poorest and most disenfranchised of Israeli society. Do I hear these calls? Do I see any Arab leaders talking about the ingrained prejudice of society that stops Israeli Arabs being able to earn a decent living in this country? No. What about Israel's other huge sector that represents a large section of the poorest echelons of society - the Haredim? Have we heard from them? No. In fact, the organisers of the protest make no attempt to disguise the fact that this is a middle class protest. The justice being asked for, is not one that would eliminate poverty or create equality - it is simply that people who work for a living want to be able to enjoy a better standard of living. It's all about relieving the heavy economic burden - and you know what - I 100% support this aim. I agree that the middle classes of Israel should be able to reach the end of the month without going into debt, but this brings me to my main problem with the protests - what would do this? What suggestions are being proposed?

Stopping investing money in the settlements from the national budget? Protest leaders haven't proposed that. Stopping supporting the Hareidi private education system which doesn't teach the national curriculum from the public budget? They haven't proposed that. Enforce army conscription for all, so that the people who do reserve duty can do it for less time, spend more time with their families, need less (very expensive) childcare and invest more in their careers? No - they haven't suggested that. What are they suggesting? Less VAT and more direct tax for the super wealthy. And they think that will make a huge difference????????

It is clear to see why the protesters have not yet laid out a clear plan for any actual change - doing so would endanger the huge broad coalition of students, civil servants, teachers, the lower middle class, the upper middle class, basically everyone outside of the uber-wealthy and the government who support the protests. But that's the point - when you don't really say anything, beyond a catchy slogan or two, everyone can agree with you. These protests are great for getting people on the street - but do they have any content?

For a long long time, one political party, Meretz, has consistently articulated a socio-economic agenda for this country that would actually achieve what the protesters want. They have become so irrelevant and obsolete that they will probably fall out of the Knesset at the next elections. Virtually none of the protesters or their leaders will vote for them. Most will vote for the same parties that have created the current financial situation. Why? Because the protests have not changed the political reality of Israel. People will still vote on the issue of peace and security - without stopping to think whether the issues might even be connected.

Israel is awash with protest fever - but do not be fooled. These protests will mean little until they really do start demanding social justice, and not just cheaper cottage cheese.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

From Eicha to Ayeka: Why I chose not to fast this Tisha B’Av

I entered Tisha B’Av, perfectly prepared to observe my now usual custom of fasting from Sundown to Star-up. For the past decade, I have fasted on Tisha B’Av and for most of that time on the other minor fast days connected to the destruction of the Temple, and I have always had a good reason. This year, I discovered, in the middle of Tisha B’Av a good reason not to fast.

When I started fasting on Tisha B’Av I did not yet live in Israel, but I had become attached to my Jewish heritage and my fasting represented an expression of my desire to cast in my personal destiny with that of my people – to take responsibility for our collective fate – to be an active part of the nation’s life. Fasting as a Jew in Exile made perfect sense – I was literally mourning my exile – the historical circumstance that meant I as a Jew was not living in Judea.

On moving to Israel, fasting on Tisha B’Av became a little more complex, but nevertheless entirely reasonable to my own thinking. While I personally was no longer in exile (had I ever really been on a personal level?), now that I was back in the oh-so-imperfect third commonwealth of the state of Israel, I could see that there was so much still to mourn. As an Israeli, my mourning on Tisha B’Av was for our failure to learn the lessons of our exile. We may have succeeded to re-establish sovereignty in a political, physical sense, but we had not freed ourselves of the baseless hatred that led to the destruction of the second temple. We had not truly committed ourselves to building a society that could be an example to others. On becoming an Israeli, my fasting changed – I was no longer mourning for a mythical past – but rather for a very real present – I was mourning our inability to live up to our own promises to ourselves. Our inability to be our own redeemers.

So what changed this year?

As I was teaching a class that was meant to be about how we have failed to change our exilic thinking, and how exile forced us into being a more gendered hierarchical society, it hit me that mourning is a process one goes through, which is deliberately limited. You are meant to come out in a different place after it. It is meant to change you. Instituting the idea of fasting to represent our mourning for the temple (which we can then understand differently as our mourning for the incomplete job of rebuilding our society) is self-destructive, or at the least limits growth. We need to go past mourning. Only by actively stopping the slightly self-indulgent act of mourning can we stop viewing ourselves as victims of circumstance.

Here, I want to introduce another drash that I read in preparation for Shabbat Hazon this year. The term Eicha, which opens Megilat Eicha that we read on Tisha B’Av and also appears in the Haftarah for the Shabbat beforehand, and in parashat Devarim which is always read on Shabbat Hazon appears 18 times in Torah. One time, the same written word is actually read not as Eicha, but as Ayeka. The two words both seem to introduce questions, but they could not have more different meanings. Eicha, means “How?” – but when it is used, it is usually exclamatory rather than actually interrogatively understood – i.e. it’s not really a question. When we use Eicha, we are asking “How did this happen to me?” We are bemoaning our luck, our fate. We are self-empathising, or worse, asking for sympathy. When we hear Ayeka, once, in the story of Gan Eden, G-d is asking us where we are. Of course if we understand that G-d already knows where we are, we know that this question is not meant literally – where are you? But rather, where are you at? What have you become that you could sin so? Why are you trying to hide? What are you trying to hide? The Ayeka question turns the conversation from self-pity to self-analysis, from sympathy to introspection. It doesn’t belong in the process of mourning.

Tisha B’Av needs to stop being a day in which we mourn our national fate – for there is nothing to be mourned. We are a wealthy prosperous nation. We have had trouble in the past, we have got through it, we are well prepared for the future. But we haven’t learnt from our own mistakes. On this we should concentrate on Tisha B’Av: our physical exile has ended, how do we bring an end to our spiritual exile. If next year, I feel fasting will help me find an answer to that question, I will gladly go hungry.