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Helping Israel Help Itself

Supporters want to know how to assist the Jewish state. Here’s a way: Back Tel Aviv’s tent city protesters.

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A girl holds a Hebrew sign that reads “I am angry” during a protest in front of Tel Aviv’s city hall on June 26, 2012. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Let’s not talk about politics. Let’s not even talk about religion, or justice, or the meaning of the Jewish state. Instead, let’s talk about the ask.

If you’ve ever worked in fundraising, or done a spot of diplomacy, or even just read Sam Lipsyte’s popular novel of the same name, you know that the ask is that awkward moment in which the small talk dies down and one person has to look another person in the eye and ask for something precious and concrete. Often, it’s money. Sometimes, it’s a vote.

When it comes to Israel, what exactly is the ask?

This may sound funny. Israel, after all, has coined its own word, hasbara, designed precisely to mean the process by which representatives of the Jewish state plead its case abroad. But while Jerusalem has perfected the art of pillow talk, it seems to have forgotten how to seal the deal.

I learned this firsthand years ago, working as the senior press officer for the Israeli consulate in New York. Each week, I was placed in a Town Car and dispatched to all corners of the tristate area to preach the gospel. This was at the height of the peace process’s most hopeful time, so I hadn’t much truck with the government’s policies. What bothered me was the inevitable question from my audiences that, nearly every time, followed directly after my short and rousing speech: “What, exactly, are you asking us to do?”

The folks asking the question varied from speech to speech, but their intonation stayed the same. They didn’t mean it in the way your uncle might when you complain to him that taxes are too high, with an impotent shrug of the shoulders. They meant it the way someone might when alerted by Lassie that Timmy had fallen down the well again and needed rescuing. They were ready to mobilize. They asked me what to do. And I had nothing to tell them.

It’s not just that my superiors in the foreign ministry supplied me with no clear instructions. It’s that common sense itself seemed at a loss. What to say? Should I have urged them all to make aliyah? That would have been simple enough, but it’s unlikely that any one Israeli speaker would have sparked a mass exodus from Teaneck or Poughkeepsie. It’s also unlikely that the Israeli government would have been particularly interested in such a sudden surge of immigrants; for all its flowery rhetoric, Israel has a strong interest in a robust American Jewish community healthily advocating on its behalf. What else, then? Should I have asked my listeners to support Hadassah? Read Ha’aretz? Show their love by marching in parades or taking trips or buying Israeli-made products? If that was all, Israel didn’t need emissaries and nonprofit organizations and special words; it could have done the same thing Sweden did, say, and shell out for an annual ad campaign.

The same sort of cosmic confusion was strongly in evidence a few months ago, when Tablet’s editorial board had the privilege of hearing from a high-ranking Israeli official. An erudite and eloquent man, he stopped by to talk about a variety of topics, but Iran, naturally, crept to the top of the list. The official gave his assessments of the gravity of the Iranian threat, after which most of us posed that same chestnut of a question: What do you want American Jews to do? Petition Congress? Write op-eds? Camp out in front of the U.N.? The official wouldn’t say.

Let’s be honest: There’s nothing he, or I, or anyone else who has ever spoken on Israel’s behalf could say. This is because Israel is a sovereign country, and the whole point of these is that they make their own decisions independently without ever depending on the kindness of strangers. Israel needs no favors, which is why Israel has no ask. But this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for American Jews and others who care deeply about the Jewish state to do in order to ensure its well-being and prosperity.

So, indulge me here as I do the one thing I could never do when I wore my cheap suit and my diplomat’s hat. I’m going to tell you what you should do.

Last week, scores of young Israelis took to the streets once again, to finish what they had started last July and overhaul their country’s priorities. You may know them as the J14 movement, or as the tent people of Rothschild Boulevard, after the Tel Aviv thoroughfare where they took temporary refuge last summer, asking for affordable housing, education, and other basic human rights. If you think of their protests as empty theatrics, think again: According to a report released this week by the Bank of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet has endorsed nearly 70 percent of the recommendations made by the Trachtenberg Committee, appointed last summer to address the social movement’s demands. This includes at least two major resolutions, the one calling for progressive taxation and the other for free education to any child 3 and older. And while it’s true that the government, as of now, has only endorsed these resolutions but has yet to pass them into law, the latest report suggests that the movement’s demands are being seriously considered. That’s a very big deal.

This being the case, one might expect that the reformers’ return to the streets would be warmly welcomed. And it was, by the public at large, 69 percent of which expressed enthusiastic support for further demonstrations and cheered on the movement and its causes. The Israeli police, however, were in a far less congratulatory mood: When a handful of activists—led by J14’s unofficial leader, Daphne Leef—tried to pitch their tents once more in the same boulevard where they’d launched their movement last summer, they were met with throngs of agitated officers. The police, of course, claim that the protesters were violent; thankfully, there’s a YouTube video (isn’t there always?) showing a sea of blue closing in on Leef and her bewildered bunch. The protesters claimed to have been beaten, which led to scores of their friends rioting in Tel Aviv, which led to more arrests and more violence. When the dust settled, the police admitted that most of those arrested were detained without reason. Add to this the police’s controversial decision to summon the movement’s known leaders to interrogations before they had done anything that merits suspicion, and you get a very dark portrait of law enforcement acting in violation of the law and against the very people it is sworn to serve and protect.

But the people—left, right, and center—are having none of this. Much of the blame here lies with Tel Aviv’s mayor, Ron Huldai, who sent uniformed municipal employees to help thwart the activists’ recent attempt at resettling in Rothschild Boulevard, which is why scores of artists, musicians, writers (including Tablet’s Etgar Keret), and shopkeepers have decided to ban an all-night cultural happening planned for this week, one of the most hyped events on Tel Aviv’s calendar. Some members of Huldai’s municipal coalition quit in disgust. Many other Tel Avivis and Israelis from all over have since pledged to make this summer’s demonstrations count.

And so, here’s what you should do: You should join them. If you plan on traveling to Israel this summer, make Tel Aviv’s tent city—providing that public pressure will convince Huldai to once again supply the movement with the necessary permits—a tourism destination. Otherwise, visit the movement’s website, learn more, and get involved. Think of it as the 2012 equivalent of that ubiquitous JNF blue box, a convenient and important way to directly influence the reshaping and rejuvenation of Israel. It’s been a while since we’ve all had such a unanimous cause to support, a cause that invites the Orthodox and the secular, left and right alike, to join up. It’s been a while since we’ve had such a good ask. Let’s make sure our answer is heard loud and clear.

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julis123 says:

Liel–The cat is out of the bag. If you read the signs that people were carrying and heard what they said last week. The movement (at least this year) has a clear political agenda. The agenda is to topple the current government. No effort is made to hide their goals. I don’t recommend that people visiting Israel should take part in political movements if 2 weeks after their participation they are getting on a plane and leaving without having to live with the results of their protests.

mahatmacoatmabag says:

Liel, if you are one of our diplomats, you should immediately be recalled & Fired !
The Left Wing Scumbags like Daphne Leaf are engaged in ” Soft Terrorism ” against the state of Israel. Leaf who is a draft dodger, with rich well connected parents can easily afford the NIS. 6,000 a month rent in Wealthy North Tel Aviv. The Fake social protest movement is a campaign by Meretz, Labour, Hadash & Matzpen Activists to bring down the elected govt. by non legal means ie. Rebelion & Subversion. Leaf & her fellow conspiritors has no real sympathy or compassion for the poor of South Tel Aviv who the Left have deliberately funneled the Dregs of Africa into their neighbourhoods.
As a hard working Israeli Tax Payer, ex-IDF soldier & long time resident of a working class neighbourhood of Tel Aviv, Leaf & Co. do not represent me or the working class & certainly not the poor of South Tel Aviv who need better housing & better paid jobs.

American Jews and all other Americans DO live with the results: both in the large amount of aid sent to Israel in dollars and the fall out from Israeli policies, with effect the entire global political power paradigm.

Boychic says:

“Lets not talk politics.” Do you think we’re a bunch of idiots? Is this what happens when you upgrade your cheap suit? Do you automatically become self-righteous and sprout the wings of an angel?

salemst says:

I don’t support them. And I believe in this case Israelis should self-determine what’s in their own interests without fellow Jews thousands of miles away acting like “Butt-in-skis” I don’t live there. Just as I disagree with American politicians forcing Israel into decisions while being safely ensconced here in the US unable to fathom what it’s like there, I believe Jews here also shouldn’t be interfering into Israel’s internal affairs. Instead, let’s argue about our country as we conservatives attempt to depose President Healthcare Tax Increase this November, which we all have a direct stake in.

Yes, yes, yes! This is what I’ve been saying since last year! Thank you for writing/publishing this. Let’s not be afraid to ASK….We ALL need the “Tel Aviv Protests”….

Liel, once again gets it all wrong. It is hard from outside the country to see the anarchy, chaos and violence that was perpetrated by many of the demonstrators. Yes, the police over-reacted in some cases. But to suggest that Jews outside the country need to support more tents, rats and other vermin on Rothchild is childish. I was there, both for this event and last years huge non-partisan demonstrations.

Liel seems to have a need to overstate the truth about the boycott. The boycott, is in fact ,less than impressive. As of a few hours ago many people were scheduled to participate in the Tel Aviv event.

We do not have an organized leadership that is truly interested in what is best for the country but rather more concerned with their own political agendas making a large inclusive citizen participation almost impossible.

What we need is for young spokespeople to stop acting like spoiled children being used by Meretz, and Hadash and allow the wonderful talent that we have been blessed with to take over this leadership with courage and integrity.

Then spend your time fighting against giving us the money in the form of jobs in the States. Come live here and then express yourself all you want. It is our children that are on the line. Not yours.

PhillipNagle says:

It appears Israel has a greedy generation too, always demanding more goodies from the government, usually without having to work for it. Adding to their outrage, they can’t seem to win an election.

rachellepachtman says:

Thanks, Liel, for saying what must be said.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

Your reply means keep law and order. But the Gov is an institution – Israel gov is not an exception – that reminds me of Kafka. http://bitly.com/cb79sy. So the meaning of the protests is”: You left us out! We are waiting forever,meekly,in the name of Zionism and patriotism. Liel (ex Israeli gov employee),and I (Technion graduate) are qualified to talk as much as you are.

mouskatel says:

Uch, for the 9,345th time American aid to Israel is MILITARY AID that goes directly back to American military contractors in North Carolina like Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman to pay for the nice shiny military gear that’s shipped to Israel. We don’t get checks from the American government unless Israeli citizens who also carry dual citizenship lawfully file their taxes and get back tax return checks thanks to the EITC. So please stop whining about foreign aid to Israel unless you want to piss off those nice people in North Carolina who would lose their jobs because Israel had no money to pay for nice shiny new military gear.

mouskatel says:

Automatically become self-righteous? Is this your first Liel Liebowitz article?

yevka says:

Tablet gave scant acknowledgment to J14 last summer. Of course I’ve come to expect little searching or probing reporting from what is of sort of a glossy mag that doesn’t aim for much insight or hard news.

rocky2345 says:

At the top end of the economic spectrum, Israel has more millionaires per capita than Canada does, according to a recent Forbes article. Israel has more billionaires than Australia, Italy, France and Spain according to a wikipedia survey. At the bottom, it has a large and rapidly growing religious class that for the most part does not want to work or serve in the military. The defense aid that Israel gets from the US, frees up billions of Israeli tax dollars for Haredi subsidies. Too bad for the Occupy Tel Aviv young people. There is not much government help for them. No wonder more and more young people with job skills are going abroad. Once the US has its own financial crisis, the jig will be up.

Yep, the police are a bunch of low lives. A bunch of sadistic thugs that act with inpunity.

Perlade says:

Daily updates are available in English on The Israeli Social Movement’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/moveisrael Thank you for a very important piece.

Perlade says:

According to a friend who was at all of the demos, the brutality was instigated by the city workers and the police. Two damaged bank windows and one ATM machine by a handful of disgruntled protestors out of 6 or 7000 does not justify the extreme violence used evidently to intimidate the protestors. Have you noted that no charges have been filed! When 69% of Israelis said they supported the protests, Netanyahu immediately cancelled his plans to hike taxes on the poor and middle class. I think there is something more going on than many are willing to admit.

brynababy says:

What a bunch of hooey! Last year’s demonstrations were effective. There are other ways for those Israelis (in Israel) legitimately interested in keeping up the momentum, to continue with positive and practical suggestions and actions aimed at the government, without creating chaos, garbage, traffic tie-ups and other infringements on the rights of others! Americans should go to Israel, but not to participate in negative and busybody, uninformed tactics. They should go to discover all that’s good and beautiful about Israel and it’s people and to try to discern what might not be good, by actually talking to a real variety of Israelis (Arab and Jew).

UryV says:

I am not going to touch the issues at the heart of the demonstrations
currently under way in Tel Aviv, or the manner in which the
demonstrations are and will be conducted. This is something that those
of us living in Israel should deal with.

This is an impassioned plea to all non-Israelis to please stop using our
country as a playground or as a jousting ground or whatever. Yes,
Israel is yours too – so much so that, if you’re a Jew pursuant to the
very lax criteria of the Law of Return you just land here, and when you
walk out of the airport you’re a full-fledged citizen.

But you’re not a citizen till you’ve done that! So please stop jetting
over here to play at backing the settlements, or at protesting them; to
bait Palestinians, or to support them; to root for the IDF, or to pile
extra work on our boys and girls in uniform by helping out rioters.
Coming to visit Israel is not a self-evident right, for Jews and
non-Jews alike. Actually, visiting any country is not a right for
foreigners anywhere. Think: how would Home Security officials at JFK
react to a tourist declaring “I’m here to Occupy Wall Street!”. Or,
“I’m here to riot in front of an abortion clinic”. That tourist would be
lucky to find himself on the first plane home. You come here, behave
nicely. Go anywhere, talk to anyone. But please, as long as you’re a
visitor, don’t rearrange the furniture.

mahatmacoatmabag says:

once again tonight the left wing scum bags ran riot on the streets in Tel Aviv & Jerusalem.
The people of Israel do not support the rioters, who are Paid agitators, funded by foreign Govts, ones hostile to Israel ( Arab & EUSSR states plus KGB master spy Soros ) via NGO’s & other communist front groups. These cruds can riot all night since unlike the rest of us who have to work for a living they do not !

UryV says:

Once and for all, let’s put to rest the myth of American “largesse” towards Israel.

a) American aid (which as noted elsewhere is mostly military hardware, and generates jobs in the USA) is $3 billion per year, and hasn’t changed in at least 25 years.

b) The US military and arms manufacturers enjoy the benefits of user feedback from a sophisticated customer – the IDF.

c) Israel has supplied valuable information on Russia to the US at least since 1956, when Israel obtained Khrushchev’s secret speech at the 20th Congress of the CP of the USSR and gave it to the CIA to publish as its own triumph. And especially after 1967, Israel became a fount of military intelligence on the USSR – hardware, combat doctrine, you name it. $3 bill is a good deal, trust me. There’s a reason the Russians hate us.

aradi says:

Exactly. My “ask” is: Please *dont* help us help ourselves. We’re pretty decent at doing that on our own. It’s patronizing to suggest people who live half the world away know better what’s good for Israelis then Israelis themselves.

If you want to fight for equality and social justice, how about starting with Medicare?

aradi says:

Exactly. My “ask” is: Please *dont* help us help ourselves. We’re pretty decent at doing that on our own. It’s patronizing to suggest people who live half the world away know better what’s good for Israelis then Israelis themselves.

If you want to fight for equality and social justice, how about starting with Medicare?

Perlade says:

I can understand how Israeli Jews would be upset at American Jews who think we “know it all,” but that doesn’t mean we don’t back those Israelis who we agree with without “taking over.” When I was in Israel in summer 2011, I saw tremendous sparks of hope from diverse Israeli family when the demonstrations started. I was hopeful that they would succeed and be a “light unto the nations” including my own U.S. where income inequality and social mobility are at an all time high. I was specifically asked by Israeli family members to support their efforts and to let my U.S. family and friends know about what was going on. Income inequality, privatization of government services, etc. is a worldwide problem and the fact that Israelis are leading some of the most innovative approaches to address it deserves my support.

Could it be that Ron Huldai is under pressure from his constituency (damn democracy always getting in the way!) to keep the protestors from once more turning part of Tel Aviv into a zoo? It has already been said, but I will say it again: the leaders of the demonstrations have adopted a dangerous ANTI-DEMOCRATIC rhetoric that talks about “overthrowing” the government rather than winning at the ballot box. They constantly talk as if they were living in Mubarak’s Egypt rather than under a democratically elected Israeli government. As usual, the Israeli press gives them a free pass. After PM Rabin’s assassination, people of the right lived under a microscope for years, constantly living under the threat of being accused of “incitement”. Now the protest leadership has already pushed one person over the brink, convincing him to borrow the tactic of self-immolation from the playbook of the Arab spring. How many times will they talk about the necessity of overthrowing the government before some poor fool takes them at their word and we will have another Yigal Amir on our hands? .

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Helping Israel Help Itself

Supporters want to know how to assist the Jewish state. Here’s a way: Back Tel Aviv’s tent city protesters.

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