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Local rabbis had ringside seats to Israeli unrest
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Local rabbis had ringside seats to Israeli unrest

Visiting scholars say tent cities reflect rise of ‘social justice Left’

Rabbis Amy Small and Douglas Sagal in July at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy Rabbi Amy Small
Rabbis Amy Small and Douglas Sagal in July at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy Rabbi Amy Small

Even before Rabbi Amy Small arrived in Jerusalem on July 1, she began to get a sense of the heavy domestic conflicts brewing in Israel.

On her flight from Newark, the religious leader of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit became engrossed in conversation with an Israeli woman who sat beside her.

“We talked about how dear cottage cheese is to the Israeli household and how amazing it is that people could stand up to the wealthy corporations who produce it by boycotting it,” Small told NJ Jewish News in an Aug. 9 telephone interview.

“At first it seemed funny that people were having a protest about cottage cheese, but no, it wasn’t funny at all, and it wasn’t just about cottage cheese. It was about everything. The price of food is not just the price of cottage cheese, but it was the flashpoint. It was the spark that lit this flame.”

A successful consumer protest against the high price of cottage cheese — an Israeli staple — is credited with inspiring a wave of street demonstrations and tent cities in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities to protest the high cost of food, housing, and education.

Small and Rabbi Douglas Sagal of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield were both fellows at a study program for rabbis at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where they had ringside seats to some of the demonstrations that are roiling Israel.

“What they are doing across Israel is saying, ‘Enough,’” Small said. “The focus on security issues and the Jewish character of Israel are really important issues. But in the mix, something had been missing, and that was the quality of life for Israelis.”

“What is happening in Israel is very similar to what is happening in the United States,” Sagal told NJJN. “The high costs are primarily being borne by the middle class. There is a growing gap between the rich and poor in Israel, and I think what we are seeing — unlike in the United States — is that the middle class is rising up and saying, ‘The situation is becoming intolerable.’”

‘Silent too long’

Both rabbis also heard people’s discontent with the enormous amounts of money the Israeli government spends to subsidize and protect West Bank settlements and the generous public funding for fervently Orthodox schools and welfare programs.

“Yes, I think the middle class in Israel is resentful of the fact that billions of shekels are being spent to subsidize people who not only don’t work but don’t serve in the army and in some cases are actually anti-Zionist and don’t even support the state,” Sagal said of the haredim, or fervently Orthodox. “The growing power of the haredi community is of some concern, but my observation is [the issues] are primarily economic.”

As for anger with the cost of the security for the settlements: “It was not sufficient to have sparked these protests,” Small said. The protesters, she said, “want to live the lives they have dreamed of living with the sacrifices they have made.”

Both rabbis were reluctant to make, as some have, a strong connection between the Israelis’ protests and the anti-government uprisings in the Arab world.

“The influence of the Arab Spring, if there is one, is the use of social media to organize,” said Small. The young Israelis “who began the housing protests were distressed about the fact that they can’t afford to live in the cities in Israel. They have been priced out. They know how to use social media, and that organized these protests using Facebook.”

Sagal views the demonstrations as a new empowerment of “the social justice Left. The Left was demoralized by events of the last decade. They had put their hopes on a peace process that did not come to fruition. But now the Left in Israel has been galvanized by the issue of social justice.”

Both rabbis said they had come home with a valuable lesson.

“We in the United States need to be awakened to this issue as well,” said Small. “All of us have great love for Israel and great concern for its democracy, and this speaks directly to Jewish values and Israel’s democracy. We are very engaged by this issue.”

“I think we could learn a lot from Israelis about how to stand up to our government and corrupt politicians and how to make our voices heard. I think the middle class in America has been really silent for too long and easily swayed,” said Sagal.

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