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My Time in the Tents

Over the course of the summer, Israeli society experienced the fruition of an impressively large protest movement calling for changes to the social and economic infrastructure in Israel in the name of social justice (tzedek chevrati). Initially focused primarily on the lack of affordable housing in Israel, the demands of the protestors soon extended to other realms, including reform of the public education system, the tax infrastructure, and healthcare, in addition to the demand that the Israeli government halt the increasing privatization of its economy. Polls indicate that the movement enjoys the overwhelming support of the Israeli electorate across the political spectrum, including 98% of Kadima voters and 85% of those who identify with Likud, the ruling party in Knesset. The protests have been particularly successful in bringing Israelis out of their homes and onto the streets, with the largest protest thus far occurring on the night of August 6th; various estimates of the police and media placed the number of protestors that night in the ballpark of 300,000, equivalent in the United States to upwards of eleven million people.

The protests began when Daphni Leef, a 25-year-old film editor living in Tel Aviv, received a notice that she needed to vacate the apartment that she had been renting. Frustrated from several weeks of a futile search for an apartment within her budget, she created a Facebook event announcing that she was going to pitch a tent on Rothschild Boulevard—one of the central streets in Tel Aviv—and urged others to join her in the act of protest. At the outset, there were only a few dozen who pitched tents with her, but the “tent city” attracted considerable interest among the residents of Tel Aviv and the Israeli media. With time, those first tent dwellers triggered a much larger movement, attracting a broader group of people and a more extensive list of demands, and by August 6th —the night of the largest demonstration to date— the police had counted thousands of tents across the country.

I first came across the central tent city in Jerusalem the evening of July 26th, when the social movement’s surging momentum was transforming the phenomenon from isolated acts of protests to a movement spanning much of Israeli society. The tent city is located in a central location in Gan HaSus (on King George, right off Ben Yehuda), and consisted of a few dozen tents. When I arrived, there were upwards of 70 people gathering in the semicircular seating area of the park for what turned out to be a group discussion. Since the movement is completely grassroots, daily group discussions were held as a way of informing everyone about the latest updates, and more importantly, as a forum for offering suggestions and sharing ideas as to how to best proceed. I was immediately struck by what was clearly—though I didn’t fully appreciate it yet—an incredibly diverse group of Israelis representing all sorts of ages, ethnic backgrounds, religious communities and political leanings.

A student in his mid-twenties got up and explained that on that very afternoon—in response to the protests—Prime Minister Netanyahu had announced a new housing program aimed at addressing the housing shortage. With the help of a couple of people, the nuances of the program were hashed out, and several people around the circle explained why they felt that the latest legislation was an inadequate response to their problems. Everyone who wanted to speak was given a chance to briefly introduce his or herself and offer their own two cents. It seemed that each person there had something else to contribute; one professionally dressed woman explained how to best use the legislative process to advance their demands, some offered suggestions as to how to maximize the reach of the demonstrations, others provided data and statistics which allowed them to articulate the details of their demands, and one guy stood up and gave a stirring speech about how fortunate they were to live in a democracy in which people coming together have the power to shape their society – if only they cared enough to put in the required effort.

Perhaps what was most extraordinary about the assembled group was that a more ordinary cluster of people could not have been assembled if one tried. It was one run-of-the-mill individual after another, each one taking time out of his evening to come together with strangers to discuss flaws in Israeli society and share ideas on how to fix them. In a world in which concern for the common good is typically overshadowed by the pursuit of one’s material self-interest, it was refreshing to see regular people taking time out of their private lives to take an active role in reshaping the face of their public sphere.

Some would like to dismiss the protestors as lazy bums who just want better housing for less money, while others have written off the movement as a fringe left-wing group of political activists. A walk down Rothschild does reveal that there are both types of people present, but it would be a grave error to overlook the core group of mainstream, serious and complex citizens who gather each night. Each evening, there are a variety of different events ranging from presentations to lectures to concerts in the tent city. On one street corner, a crowd of 30 people gathers around a public school teacher who is giving a PowerPoint presentation about the deficiencies in the Israeli education system, and offering suggestions of how the inequalities between students can be reduced. On the next block, following a political talk, a lively debate over the wisdom of the settlement project is underway. Others discussed the need to build in Israel’s peripheral geographical regions, the need to increase funding in schools, the need to better integrate Haredim and Arabs into Israeli society, and the ballooning size of the defense budget. Quite clearly, there are those who are interested in seeing a genuine improvement of Israeli society, something that transcended personal material wants.

In Israel it is fairly common for stark lines to be drawn between different ethnic, religious and political groups (i.e. people refer to “the” Haredim, settlers, Russian immigrants, Arabs, leftists, etc.) which results in nasty generalizations, so it was remarkable simply to see the conversations that were taking place between people who normally would not speak to one another. This very observable sense of achdut (unity) was most visible on the night of Tisha B’Av, in which the usual festive atmosphere was replaced by a solemn night of reading Eicha (the Book of Lamentations) and discussions themed around ahavat chinam (groundless love). Could there be any scene more befitting of a Tisha B’Av than a group of astonishingly-diverse Jews listening to the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza while discussing ways to increase the sense of unity between their respective groups?

The most moving experience of mine on Rothschild was an evening in which a documentary was shown about the disengagement for the Gaza Strip (titled Tefilat ha-Na’arot, “The Girls’ Prayer”) followed by a brief lecture on the “ethics of love and the ethics of hate” and a group discussion. By the end of the emotionally moving film, there were close to a hundred people present for the discussion. The first gentleman to speak was named Yitzhak, who explained that he was in the unique position of having been a madrich (counselor) in Bnei Akiva for kids from Gush Katif and being a soldier in one of the units performing the actual disengagement. His description of the tension that he was going through was just heartbreaking; on the one hand, his own chanichim (campers) were literally begging him to refuse his orders to expel them, and on the other, he felt a strong sense of duty to the army and the state from which there was no release. Ultimately, he decided that, in his hierarchy of values, Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel) and Medinat Yisrael (the state of Israel) are more essential than Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), and he performed all that was asked of him. The amazing thing is that his commitment to the state didn’t falter - he went on to take an additional course in the army, served in an elite paratroopers unit, and saw heavy combat during the war in Lebanon the following summer.

An older, teary-eyed man spoke next about how he had lived through the terrible wars and other painful times in Israel’s history, but that what was most agonizing during the summer of the disengagement from Gaza was the divisiveness in Israeli society. He described an environment in which people did not even speak with those whom they disagreed politically. He added that, for him, seeing the conversations taking place on Rothschild between the left and the right, the religious and the secular, was a tikkun (reparation) for what occurred several years ago. There is nothing that would stand out about either of these two people if I had met them on the street, but, still, I couldn’t help but stand in genuine awe of both of them.

A recurring idea that kept on surfacing during the dialogue was how Israel, specifically as a Jewish state, needs to be doing X or Y. Hearing things phrased in this type of framework by ordinary people on the street was both noteworthy and encouraging. It revealed that for many of the people who were stirred by the events this summer, the overarching motivation to take part in the protests is something greater than a desire to live a more comfortable life. It’s about exploring the very significance and purpose of the state of Israel itself. We often speak of the desire to create a model state or a “light unto the nations” in vague abstract terms, but the significance of the discussions I witnessed is that they were very much practical. What does it mean that Israel is a Jewish state? Why should there be a Jewish state? What does a Jewish society look like? The catalyst of the movement may have been a push for cheaper housing, but I hope that the overwhelming support among Israelis for the movement is reflective of an underlying, broader desire to rediscover the nature of Israeli identity.

As Jews who identify with the state of Israel, it’s critical that we take part in this conversation as well. Upon my return to the United States in mid-August, I must say that it was disappointing to see the utter lack of concern about the events in Israel this summer among both individuals and organizations that self-identify as pro-Israel. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a committed Jew who identifies with Israel? Should we really not take interest in the makeup and policies of the sole Jewish society on our planet? Our support for Israel must venture beyond the realm of advocacy (an endeavor of questionable value at Yeshiva University) or empathy with Israelis following terror attacks. Our primary interest and the dominant conversation about Israel— if we seek profound and meaningful resolutions—must address these broader philosophical questions.