August 4, 2011
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie who is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
We have said it a thousand times: Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East. But citizens of democracies are often passive and apathetic. It is thrilling, therefore, to see so many young Israelis energized, engaged, and protesting for justice. These young people are bringing Israel’s democracy to life.
The grievances must be very real because a passive citizenry is not easily aroused. Who is to blame for these grievances? Well, there is plenty of blame to go around.
The political parties on the right have stressed the virtues of competition and the free market, but they have not delivered. Israel’s free market has not been free. A handful of “tycoons” have dominated the economy, and political paybacks to favored constituencies have hugely distorted the economic process. For example, invoking the sacred cow of “security,” the right has showered money on the settlements, but in fact, settlers have enjoyed government largesse to a degree that security concerns cannot possibly justify.
Yet the left is hardly better. Those supposedly committed to social issues have allowed themselves to be distracted and co-opted by governments with no real social agenda. It is fine to believe in peace and the rights of others – and I do – but if you are not seriously devoted to the social welfare of your own people, you lack the credibility to accomplish anything. In the last quarter century, who are the major Israeli politicians who have been consistent advocates and true champions of justice and equality in Israeli society? Can you name five? Three? One?
And where are the Chief Rabbinate and the Orthodox parties that profess to speak in the name of the Jewish tradition? Religious voices should be at the center of this maelstrom, but instead they are silent. Torah, after all, has much to say about the nitty-gritty matters of economic fairness in the everyday lives of Jews and their neighbors. And the rabbi’s role, according to the great Talmudist R. Hayyim of Brisk, is “to redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” The problem is that Israel’s religious establishment obsesses about its own institutions and the minutiae of conversion laws but pays little attention to everyone else.
(A word of praise for Ariel Atias of Shas, Minister of Housing, who said that what distresses him most about the protests, is that “they have forgotten the weakest strata of Israeli society, those whose problem isn’t finishing the month but beginning it.” Shas, it should be said, began as a movement of social protest, but – Atias notwithstanding – long ago lost its way.)
And by the way, where is the American Jewish community – myself included – which talks of its commitment to Israel while saying little or nothing about the great social issues that will shape its future no less than security concerns?
But there is no reason for despair. A new generation of Israelis is looking squarely at these problems and affirming the need for mutual responsibility, fairness, and social justice in the Jewish state. And what they do is a blessing for us all.
Let us hope they do not get hijacked by the political opportunists.