What does social justice mean in Israel?

Dahlia Scheindlin and Joseph Dana write:

The popular, mass protests here that began as a cry of rage against housing prices have evolved admirably into a public outcry against a slew of deep-rooted problems in Israeli social and economic life. Visiting the tent camps early every day, we’ve watched the protest grow from a motley band of wishful Woodstockers at the tip of Rothschild Boulevard two weeks ago, to a sort of mini-metropolis spreading close to the end of the road. There’s a first aid tent courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights, “Settle the Negev and the Galil” tents, ideological discussions, guitar and drum sing-alongs, Kabalat Shabbat, Friday night dinner, outdoor films about revolutionary themes, families with babies, and endlessly creative slogans. There are tents down near the central bus station, in a cat and mouse game with the municipality, which is trying to break up their camp.

Every grievance is coming out: there are slogans against the huge concentration of the country’s wealth into the hands of a very few, slogans raging against enormous economic gaps between rich and poor in Israel, lists of demands for just resource distribution and for various elements of a welfare state, salary hikes and lower costs, better education conditions and health care; against the national housing committees law, against the government, for Tahrir. At 10pm on Friday night, when a song group spontaneously burst into chants of “The people! Want! Social Justice!” one young woman sang out beatifically, “The people! Want! All Sorts of Things!”

Many are saying that this is something new, especially after Saturday night turned into Israel’s largest-ever social protest, as Maariv’s print headline proclaimed. A new language is being developed: silent hand gestures replace Israeli shouting matches. The hyper-fragmented groups in Israel are listening to each other, hammering out common ground to combat shared economic desperation.

Just don’t mention Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, or even the neutral local euphemism “medini” [lit: political/diplomatic] issues. Just leave out the institutional inequality most Palestinian citizens of Israel experience here – inequality of other groups is welcome.

I learned this the hard way. After a number of conversations with protesters, including some of its organizers (the protests are actually notably non-cohesive) – it became very clear that one of the top strategic goals is to avoid being branded as “left.” Joseph feels the environment around this topic is so toxic, he has tried to avoid even raising questions about why a ‘social justice revolution’ does not address the inequality of all those living under Israeli control. Even soft questions are met with hard responses from many who passionately demand that the protests be given time, space and compassion to grow inside Israeli society.

In this revolution, strategic thinking says that the current government can delegitimize the protest by making it look like lefties. The whole country will believe the government, because everybody hates the left. Indeed, the Prime Minister tried just this, branding them left-wing rabble rousers in the very first week. He failed – perhaps because of the revolutionary success in focusing on social issues only.

If the protests are labeled “left,” in revolutionary thinking, then ergo they are either – a. a conspiracy to overthrow the current government by opposition parties or groups (which somehow delegitimizes the policy goals), or b. a conspiracy by anti-Israel leftists to tie everything back to the occupation and force this or any government to cave in to the Palestinians. The revolution is too important to be branded.

Anyway, as a young woman in a long skirt and a sweet smile pleaded with me at 1am on Friday night, the Israeli-Palestinian cause is a different struggle. Why do I have to bring it to Rothschild?

Many Israelis, not just right-wingers, deride the left for a reductionist “occupation, occupation, occupation,” approach as if it is the source of all social ills. We believe there are other sources – but that other social ills can never truly be solved without a just resolution of the conflict, whatever it is. Joseph and I agree on this, although we may not agree on what that resolution is.

In Lia Tarachansky’s report for the Real News Network we see one protester holding up a sign saying “The solution is in Judea and Samaria,” implying Israel’s housing shortage can be solved by expanding settlements. Yet the sign draws boos from many Israelis around this settler.

Another protester says, “They talk about security, terrorism, terrorism, terrorism — it’s not enough for people anymore. They have to stop telling us fairy tales that because of security we must tolerate everything.”

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