Social Justice and National Security

Taking Israel’s existential temperature right now and diagnosing exactly how to interpret what is going on there is no simple task.

On the one hand, between the recent spate of terrorist attacks and indiscriminate missile attacks in the south, Egypt’s saber rattling, Iran’s nuclear push, Syria’s instability, Turkey’s ever-increasing hostility, and the imminent UDI crisis (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) with the Palestinians at the UN, Israel has more than its usual garden variety of reasons to feel seriously threatened in a way that it hasn’t in a very long time.

But then there’s that pesky “other hand.”

Just last Saturday night, hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Tel Aviv, some fifty thousand in Jerusalem, and many thousands in other locations in Israel- across all religious and party lines- marched to express their desire for what they term “tzeddek chevrati-” best translated as social equity, or justice. With enormous wealth concentrated in the hands of a relative few, housing prices exorbitant, tax rates extremely high, and any kind of economic security seemingly out of reach, Israelis took to the streets to lament the battered and vanishing middle class in Israel. This protest called on the government to ease the burden of living in Israel by lowering prices on basic commodities, provide affordable housing, creating a national day care system, and much more.

What makes the Tzeddek Chevrati movement particularly fascinating is that it has nothing at all to do with issues of national security. It is about Israelis just trying to live a life of dignity, being able to afford their lives and enjoy them.

Total schizophrenia, right? Israel is a country where people still stop talking on the bus when the news comes on the radio so that they can begin worrying as soon as is necessary about the latest threat. And yet, for the first time in her short history, hundreds of thousands of citizens managed to put those very real concerns on hold and focus on… life.

In the past weeks, I’ve heard two members of Israel’s diplomatic corps say that the Tzeddek Chevrati demonstrations attest to the growing maturity of Israel’s citizens. The fact that they can set aside, at least for the moment, the very real security issues that they face and deal in a significant way with the quality of Israeli society is a great accomplishment. The inequities that they are protesting are real, and left to fester, they will wreak havoc with Israel’s security down the road every bit as much as external threats will.

I agree. It has long been said by many that if the Arabs really wanted to throw Israel into grave crisis, they should make peace, and let all of her internal divisions finally have a chance to explode. There doesn’t seem to be too much of a chance of that happening. But even without external calm, Israel will be, down the road, a much healthier and happier country if more attention is paid to the social fabric of its society. The time has certainly come to do that, and the Tzeddek Chevrati movement seems to have gotten the government’s attention.

Now, if there could only be a Tzeddek Dati movement- one that focused on the inequities in religious life in Israel that also threaten the fabric of her society… How great would that be?

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About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.