Israel’s social protesters don’t need May Day
Instead of putting itself in a May 1 box, Israel’s social justice movement should aim for a diverse and committed conversation.
As the summer draws near, memories of last year’s tent protests return. Hope and belief in the possibility of a better society was in the air, and I sensed something almost spiritual as thousands of people came together to proclaim that shared belief. With May 1 this week, we have seen the first signs of the re-awakening dormant masses, with posters announcing protests under the banner of International Workers Day. Here I find myself challenged.
I do not claim that the ideological connections between the traditional marching day of the socialist left and the core values of the tent movement are completely unrelated. The summer protests did give voice to a struggle of a working middle class that feels disenfranchised from setting Israel’s priorities. Many “tent dwellers” saw a common enemy in the upper class, those with privileged relationships in the halls of power. Nonetheless I am concerned by the overt identification implied by these posters.
What excited me last summer was the manner in which this youthful and irreverent movement recast the conversation in whole new ways. The protests cut across historic party lines, creating surprising juxtapositions of religious and secular folks, voters from the Israeli left and right, rich and poor social groups, Asheknazim and Sephardim. I was hopeful that the fresh combinations of ideas and ideals may also give birth to fresh perspectives and solutions to the issues at hand. The revolution could perhaps enable an evolution toward a stronger and broader common ground.
When we look back at world history, the image of May 1 has itself evolved. What began in 1886 with labor protests that simply marked the struggle of the working class later came to be associated with the communist movement. Thus the United States has maintained its focus on the alternative “Labor Day” in September. For the religious among us, this day is challenging. Marx and Lenin both considered religion an oppressive vehicle serving the interests of feudalism and capitalism. In Israel, of course, the socialist movement Hashomer Hatzair is notorious for its historic anti-religious views.
With the deeply entrenched historic patterns of our highly polarized society, it would be easy for the social justice movement to regress to past assumptions and definitions. The equation will be presented an obvious choice: communism or capitalism, choose your sides. Those of us wearing kipot will be assigned our official niche as the enemies of progressive ideas, regardless of our economic ideology. The claims and fears voiced about the protests by some in the Israeli right will be realized as the protests are leveraged to strengthen the traditional left wing parties. It will not be long before the numbers of religious protester diminish. Fear of political fallout will run high if this turns into an election year. And in any case, who wants to feel unwelcome?
The global challenge before us - from occupied Wall Street to Rothschild tents - is that every historic economic system has erred in one way or another. A new balance is needed, and the creative juices needed to forge any kind of breakthrough vision are best fueled by a diverse and committed conversation – the broader the better. May Day, with its pagan roots, its socialist evolution, its communist expression and its leftist Zionist history, has changed over time. If it is to have meaningful significance in our current reality, we must be prepared to allow it to change once again. Otherwise it is best “left” behind.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.