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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.

Liel Leibovitz
June 28, 2012
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)
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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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.