Israeli Tent-City Protests: The View from R. Arik Ascherman & Rabbis for Human Rights

[By Rabbi Arik Ascherman, leader of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel]

I have been told that both the Jewish and general press outside Israel were very slow off the mark in covering the wave of tent protests engulfing Israeli and dominating our headlines.  For quite a while, relatively informed and concerned Jews were telling me that they knew little to nothing about this, or only knew about it because they were reading the Israeli press online.  From a quick google survey of what is out there now, the most people are likely to know is that the middle class is fed up with high rents. 

Nobody would have a clue that this is an unprecedented protest movement.  It might fizzle out or be co-opted as often happens, but also has the potential bring about significant and important changes. Nobody would know from the press abroad that this is much more than a protest by the Jewish middle class, or how important the outcome is to anybody concerned with human rights in Israel.

RHR is deeply involved in this protest because it raises a crucial question:  Are we or can we become a unified society that truly cares about all of its components?

The dearth of coverage that really "gets it" is not surprising because, for better or worse this movement scrupulously avoids taking any position on the Occupation, the peace process (or lack thereof),
or Palestinian human rights.

For many, only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of interest. Despite the fact that economic and social justice have been an important component our RHR's work for many years,  I know how hard I have to work to convey my passion about internal Israeli issues when speaking to audiences who are expecting to hear me speak only about Palestinians.
On the first day that students set up a tent city in Jerusalem, I visited along with one of the organizers of a group of residents from the Katamonim neighborhood being impacted by the ongoing attempt by
successive governments to eliminate/minimalise public housing.  He came away convinced that we needed to set up a separate camp because the students' belief in the right to put a roof over one's head  did
not translate into concern for the plight of lower income public housing tenants. 

Since then, there have been incredible efforts to bridge the gaps both in Jerusalem and nationally.  It has been a fascinating and moving educational process.  Today, I still detect hierarchy and paternalism, but today public housing residents are invited to speak at the protests, some of their needs are included in the national list of demands, there are joint activities, and we are moving towards joint planning.

The attempt at inclusiveness does not stop with the attempt to find common cause between the middle and lower classes regarding the right to a roof over one's head. Today, the protest movement also includes the protests of doctors, teachers, parents of young children and those concerned with the rising prices of basic food staples.  The protest tents bring together right wing Likud supporters with left wing supporters of Meretz and Hadash, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, religious
and secular, and to a limited degree Jews and Arabs.

Some interpret this as a cynical attempt to unite everybody to topple the government or as proof that there is no real focus to the protest movement.  The latter is a genuine challenge.  There is a wide spread sense that there is an overarching principle uniting these protests but it has not yet been clearly articulated.

There are other challenges.  Even as a national network has been set up aspiring to include all of the tent cities, a second network comprising the encampments of lower income people has also been created.  For all of the improvement and change bringing social classes much closer today than when this protest began, more has to be done to make this truly one movement.

For those of us like RHR who have been and will continue to work on public housing issues for the long run, we are concerned that simplistic treatment of these issues now could negatively impact
our attempts to achieve long term, in depth and comprehensive

Some of our proposals are already a part of the national list of demands,  but many are not. With limited success, we have been attempting to ensure that our list of demands are understood and included by those writing position papers for the protest movement. (The movement has taken up the need to build additional public housing, but there needs to be maintenance of existing housing, transparent regulations governing eligibility, priorities among the some 50,000 on a waiting list for public housing, the calculation of debts, etc)  

There must be a change in the disdainful treatment tenants suffer from public officials, Amidar, and the other public housing corporations.  Of course, we are demanding a stop to evictions, especially when no thought has been given to solutions for the children.

As mentioned above, there is a real struggle going on as to whether or not the spirit of inclusiveness extends to Israeli Arabs.  In some places they have been welcome, in others not, and in some places
initial rejection has been replaced by an extended hand.  The Bedouin of the unrecognized villages in the Negev have a symbolic tent at the Beer Sheva camp, but do not feel truly integrated.  If the last chapter is still to be written on the inclusion of Israeli Arabs, it is absolutely clear that this movement will not and can not address the needs of Palestinians because it would rip the coalitions apart.  When spokesperson after spokesperson says this movement is not "left" or "right," this is in many ways code for "No position on the Occupation."

So, what is this as of yet undefined unifying principle, and how is it
connected to Tisha B'Av?

Among the reasons given for the destruction of the Second Temple, we are taught about causeless hatred.  The Talmud emphasizes that the people of theSecond Temple period were righteous people, who did not engage in the bloodshed, sexual crimes and idolatry that led to the destruction of the firstTemple.  The Tosefta to Tracate Menakhot specifies that people "Loved their money while hating their fellows." We were already warned in the Haftarah for the Shabbat preceding Tisha B'Av that a fast is meaningless if we do not "Learn to do good; Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged; Uphold the rights of the orphan.  Defend the casue of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17) 

The aspiration is to be an Ir Tzedek -- a city/ nation of righteousness (Isaiah 1:27).  In other words, even well intentioned and good people can fail the test of inclusiveness and social solidarity.  They can identify with the suffering of some while being blind to the suffering of others.  Sometimes, they are concerned with their own needs only.

When we began the three weeks of prophetic warnings leading up to
Tisha B'Av the Torah portion was Masai.  There Moses becomes enraged
with the tribes of Reuven and Gad for wishing to settle on lands east
of the Jordan river, asking how can they let their fellow Israelites
go on to fight without them.  Whether or not it was their intent,
Moses perceives that they are only worrying about their own needs, and
not demonstrating solidarity.

When I visited the student tent city on that first day several weeks
ago, I said that the true _parashat hadrakhim_(moment when the
students would be tested as to their real mettle) would come when they
were made an offer that solved their problems, but did not solve the
problems of lower class public housing tenants.

With all of the caution I have learned over the years, one of the most significant, moving and hopeful movements of this entire protest was when PM Netanyahu offered a package that seemed to meet the needs of the middle class, and the protest leadership made it clear that they would
not accept an offer which left the lower class behind.

The leadership passed one test, but there will be many more tests
before we are done.  The final chapter is far from having been
written.  However, as I wrote for our Israeli mailing list last week
[1],  our genuine fast on Tisha B'Av can lead to cleansing, uplift
and purpose. I pray that our fast this Tisha B;Av will be a fast
reminding us than "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice
everywhere" (Martin Luther King Jr.). 

I pray that this will be a fast that opens our eyes to needs beyond our own. I pray that this will be a fast teaching us to put people before profits, and rededicating us to the prophetic ideals to which we committed
ourselves in our Israeli Declaration of Independence.

That elusive and hard to define common denominator bringing together
the various and varied movements is actually quite simple.  When the
crowds shout out, "Ha'am doresh tzedek chevrati --  The people want social justice,"* they are saying --
Even if it can't be easily expressed in position papers and even
if in a world of limited resources it seems that meeting the needs of
some requires us to deny the needs of others, there are as of yet
unimagined possibilities and solutions when we start from the premise
of _ahavat khinam_, social solidarity stemming from the spiritual
ability to see God's Image in every human being.

Every year I ask myself about the meaning of the Tisha B'Av
fast.  It is not commanded in the Torah and it focuses on but a few
of the so many Jewish and human tragedies we could mourn over.

*This year I know why I am fasting.
["Chevrati" has overtones of "chaver, comrade," "Chavura, community," "chevra, friendship group."  So the kind of social justice the protests invoke is justice infused with community, not just with arithmetic equality. --  AW, ed.]



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