Friday, January 06, 2012

How do you say Social Justice in Hebrew?

In December 2011, I was privileged to attend one of the most amazing events in the Jewish world known as Limmud. Held at the University of Warwick in England, Limmud brings together over 2,300 Jews to learn continually for 5 days. Each hour there are over 25 sessions on offer from some of the greatest minds in the Jewish world. This year I attended a number of sessions about the J14 social protests, presented by Ruth Calderon, Eetta Prince-Gibson and two of the first tent dwellers, Daphni Leef and Barak Segal.

The seed for these protests began in June 2011 when Israeli film student Daphni Leef received a notice to vacate the apartment that she had rented in Tel Aviv for the previous three years. After several weeks of searching to no avail for a new apartment within reach of her financial situation, Leef discovered that the rental prices in the entire Tel Aviv metropolitan area had doubled in the previous five years. At the time, Daphni was working 14 hours a day on a reality TV show ironically named “Your house is worth more.” In realising that even a person like herself, from a 'good' family with an honest job could not afford to live in Gush Dan where rents had risen by 49% in the past 5 years (42% of Israelis live in the Gush Dan region), she started a Facebook group inviting anyone else in the same situation to join her in a tent on Habima Square on July 14. (see

These protests gradually grew larger until they peaked on the night of September 3rd where 460,000 Israelis marched for Social Justice. An opinion poll released by Channel 10 television showed that 88% of respondents said they supported the movement.

Daphni spoke of the idea in this TED Talk as being particularly significant in shaping her political philosophy. “You know, in the middle ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an “unfortunate.” Literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may, unkindly, be described as a “loser.” There is a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser. And that shows 400 years of evolution in society, and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It’s no longer the gods, it’s us. We’re in the driving seat. That’s exhilarating if you’re doing well, and very crushing if you’re not.” – Alain de Botton.

The demands of the protests were initially for the government to do something about housing prices. As more people joined their movement, they articulated further demands that were formed out of many dialogue circles and round tables.The round tables during the tent protests were conducted in a manner that is unlike any discussions I have ever had with Israelis. Inspired by the 15M movement which brought over 7 million Spaniards out to the streets in May 2011, they adopted and invented a number of unique hand signals in order facilitate up to 200 people being part of one discussion.These emoticons have now spread throughout the world through the occupy movement.

One of the best sessions I attended at Limmud was run by Daphni Leef and Barak Segal, where they broke with the traditional lecture style format and arranged all the chairs in the room into circles around ten. They then taught us the speaking legend:

Waiving your hands upwards – Agreeing

Waiving your hands downwards – Not agreeing

Crossing your hands – Veto (I will not participate in this initiative)

Rolling hands – Get on with it, I’m not getting any younger.

Raising your hand – I want to speak (the table instructor will note and write down)

Firing with Fingers – I have a brief comment – Only allowed with the permission of the speaker

Time out sign – Technical intervention

We then participated in a Round Table discussion which gave all involved a powerful taste of what direct democracy feels like. Under the rules of Round Table facilitation, all present must speak, which in itself is a big step forward from the far too passive approach many citizens around the world have towards their stake in democracy. Next, each person spoke to the person on their right for 5 minutes, after which their partner introduced them to the group. After this, each person turned to their left and shared an economic problem they had experienced. Topics that came up included the source of the London Riots, rises in student fees and the nature of capitalism. These problems were then shared back with the main circle, after which we again split into smaller groups to start researching solutions to each of these problems.

In the tent protest, the suggestions of these teams went on to become part of a detailed report by a committee of 60 economists led by Yossi Yonah, professor of education at Ben-Gurion University, and Avia Spivak, professor of economics at Ben-Gurion University and former deputy governor of the Bank of Israel. As opposed to the Trachtenberg Committee established by the government, the recommendations of the Spivak-Yonah Committee were very much by the people, for the people.The use of round tables has now spread throughout Israel through organisations such as and the Israel 2021.

Another one of my favourite presenters at Limmud was Ruth Calderon from Alma, the Secular Yeshiva in Tel-Aviv, who spoke movingly about the place of humanistic Jewish ideals in the slogans of the tent protestors. To see her point, compare the slogans of the many social justice campaigns around the world.

“Give me Liberty or Give me Death” – Patrick Henry, American Revolutionary War, 1775

“Libertie Egalitie Fraternitie” – French Revolution 1789

“We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers” – M15 Protests in Spain

“Action for Australia” – GetUp (Australia)

“We Are the 99%” - Occupy Movement (Global)

Noting that the similarity between the concerns of these other social justice movements and the tent protestors, it was amazing to see the Israelis use decidedly Jewish language to make their point with slogans such as: The nation demands social justice העם דורש צדק חברתי”, “We want justice, not charity רוצים צדק לא רוצים צדקה” and finally “ כל ישראל אוהלים זה לזהAll of Israel are tents for one another,” a play on words from the famous Talmudic quote, “All of Israel are responsible for one another.” (BT Shavuot 39a).

In addition to these highly prophetic slogans that would seem for more at home in the mouths of Amos, Jeremiah or Isaiah than the streets of secular Tel-Aviv, Calderon spoke proudly of the many Talmud study sessions facilitated by Alma in between the tents and the Kabbalat Shabbat services held each Friday night.

In reflecting on the remarkable events of Summer 2011 in Israel, many have decried the protesters as being naive idealists in calling for a welfare state that Israel can’t afford, whose protest will not achieve anything until they can form a political party and win big in an election. But Daphni doesn’t see it this way. She sees the goal of this protest as not changing the government, because she knows that this is not a right- left issue. What she is trying to do is to make sure that the concerns of the protesters are at the core of every decision made in the Knesset, no matter which side is in power. Acknowledging that the change she is advocating for will take a generation, the protest movement has recently created a new non-parliamentary movement תנועה called ב' זה אוהל that will continue the struggle over the cost of living and the values of Israeli culture and democracy. The movement will form a non-profit company in which the public will be able to buy shares and which will act as a lobbying group for social affairs.

Together with a number of the first tent protestors, the movement will be headed up by Major (res) Tomer Bohadana, a company commander in the reserves, who was seriously wounded in the Summer of 2006, fighting in the Second Lebanon War. He was evacuated to Rambam hospital in Haifa, and then rushed from the helicopter on a stretcher, with a doctor pressing his neck so he would not bleed to death. Before losing consciousness he saw a group of television crews and photographers, and signalled V for victory with his hand. This became the symbol of the war.

At the launch of the new movement, they read out the following statement, “The foundation of this movement is the understanding that being a citizen in a democracy is not a responsibility that ends with a ballot at election time. This movement will strive to bring about a public debate around the hot topics that were strengthened by Herzl’s response on the eve of the First Zionist Congress in Basel to those who criticised him by saying that “the Zionist movement is entirely a racket, no more!” Herzl replied angrily: “Yes of course! But all politics is bustle. The whole of world history is nothing but tumult: tumult of new ideas advancing. ”

Echoing the words of Herzl, I fervently hope that the new ideas that are being advanced by this movement will be the saviour of Zionism. By combining the best Jewish humanistic ideals epitomised in the direct democracy of the round tables, combined with the ancient vision of the prophets for a more just society, these young Israelis are showing the world how one should say Social Justice in Hebrew.



Peretz said...

Fantastic piece Ittay. Thank you for reviewing the social justice related sessions you attended (especially for those who were even at the conference but couldn't be everywhere at the same time!)

In light of all you wrote I emphasize too that there are two sides of the coin of change - the speaking and the listening. There is, thanks to these movements and immense amount of positive and valuable speaking and message-propagating. Let us hope that someone is listening.

Ittay said...

Hi Peretz,
In news just in from today's haaretz, it looks like someone is listening.

Free preschool education for three and four year-olds was one of the most important recommendations of the Trajtenberg committee on socioeconomic reform.

The original law for free preschool education was passed by the Knesset in 1984, but its implementation has been postponed annually by means of the Economic Arrangements Law since the Finance Ministry objected, arguing that the cost is too high and there is no budget for such an undertaking.

Hopefully today's vote will see tax payer funded pre-school education finally implemented this year.

Mo said...

A fantastic piece. All great civilizations truimph on values in the long run. As a non Jew, I find these discussions to be truly inspiring. I hope it gets the publicity it deserves

Ittay said...

And here's another success from the protests

"Nearly half of all Israeli Jews have changed their consumption habits in the past few months, and most cited the summer's cost-of-living protests as the reason, found a survey by the Geocartography Knowledge Group."