“Mr. Prime Minister, I know you are watching us now — I recommend you take a good look: What you see now, this enormous crowd, here and all across Israel, is not the public you know. This is no longer the public that agreed with any decision the governments (present and past) had decided just because ‘that’s the way it is.’ Mr. Prime Minister, I would like to introduce ourselves — we are the new Israelis. We, the new Israelis, want only one thing, not easy but simple: to live in this land. We want not just to love the State of Israel as we do love it, but rather to have the realistic possibility of living and providing with dignity in this country. We have a dream, a simple dream: to build our home in Israel, to raise here our children and to weave here our life story.”
With these words Itzik Shmuli, the head of Israel’s National Student Union, opened his speech on Sept. 3. He was speaking in front of an audience of more than 300,000, some say 400,000, at the biggest democratic protest in Israel’s history. A public cry for social justice. Nearly 7 percent of Israel’s population took part in this protest. Can you imagine? This would be the equivalent of almost 20 million Americans or 2 million Canadians or 4 million in the U.K. participating in a peaceful, nonviolent, protest.
Shmuli was speaking at the heart of Tel Aviv’s “State Square,” surrounded by some of the most luxurious boutique stores in Israel, yet there was not a single act of violence! Not even one store was burned down or had a window smashed. Looking at pictures from the London riots last month makes one understand that this could not and should not be taken for granted. Not to mention the Arab spring and the unspeakable oppression of Arab people by their own governments.
Watching these images from Israel I felt proud of being part of these people, who care, and act, and have this amazing democracy. It also made me sad, very sad. In the past several years many young Israelis have left the country. They did not leave because of the security “situation,” nor did they leave because of the failure to achieve real and lasting peace. Most of them left because of the economic pressure. As Shmuli phrased it earlier this month, “This protest is not about the price of a house, nor is it about the price of one food product or the other, this protest is about hope!”
Daphne Leef, 25, another leader of the protest, said on Sept. 3, “Something massive, something huge happened this summer. Summer 2011 is the big summer of the new Israeli hope. This hope was born, like many hopes, out of a feeling of despair, alienation, inequalities that became impossible for all of us, inequalities that almost became impossible to overcome. The Israeli society that stands here — and also, it’s important to note, also the Israeli society that chose to stay home this evening — reached its red line. And then it stood up and said: Enough! No more! You can cheat some of the people some of the time, but you can’t cheat everyone all the time. This summer we woke up and refused to keep walking with our eyes shut towards the abyss.”
According to several polls, over 85 percent of Israelis support the protests, people from right and left, from different backgrounds and different parts of society. Attempts to break the protest by trying to divide supporters of the left and the right did not succeed.
Many of my American friends were puzzled. “Don’t you want a free market? Don’t you support capitalism? Do Israelis want a communist country?” No, Israelis do not want a communist country. We do believe in a free market, but we also believe that we are responsible for helping one another. We believe that helping one another is not a matter of charity, it is a matter of justice, like the Hebrew word tzedakah, which comes from the Hebrew word tzedek — justice, social justice!
Theodor Herzl, the visionary who created the Zionist movement wrote in his book Altneuland (“The Old New Land,” 1902) that the future state of the Jews will not be based on the idea of capitalism nor will it be based on socialism. He suggested a new alternative — mutualism. Could it be that this wave of protest is the beginning of making his vision real? Could it be that the next step of Zionism will be to transfer the State of Israel from a safe haven for Jews worldwide, to a place where any Jewish family would love to raise their kids? I say: Amen!
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach(Israeli emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.