English Speakers Make Their Presence Felt in Israel's Tent Protests

'I think there’s a lot of support in the Anglo community. It’s probably not 80 per cent it’s probably 65 per cent,' says Orthodox Rabbi Micha Odenheimer

As the cost-of-living protest movement approaches the one-month mark, North Americans and Europeans in Israel dot the tented landscape, with at least a couple taking on stepped up levels of participation.

Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman has been active at the Tel Aviv tent encampment on Nordau Boulevard, just down the street from the Yakar Study Center, where he teaches. “About a week and a half ago, I was thinking, I shouldn’t just talk about social justice in synagogue,” says Engelman. “I should put my money where my mouth is.” Inspired, he promptly established a presence among the other temporary shelters that have sprung up along the North Tel Aviv promenade. His new neighbors have asked him to teach Torah and lead the camp community in Kabbalat Shabbat prayer services tonight.

David Sheen -Tent protester - 12082011
David Sheen

While they may not be represented in the tents in proportion to their actual numbers in society, Engelman, who immigrated to Israel from London decades ago, believes that many of his fellow Anglos share the tent-dwellers’ sentiments. Talking from his tent, Engelman says that many Anglos he knows came to Israel with greater expectations of social justice. “My sense from conversations is, many Anglo-Saxons feel a certain disappointment when they come to Israel, hoping it would be a more just society, a more egalitarian society.”

Adam Bernstein, 25 and single, didn’t come to Israel to change society but rather to accept a job offer in engineering. He says he arrived from the San Francisco Bay Area two years ago, and is staying because he wants to explore his Jewish cultural connection to Israel and the Middle East.

Although he himself isn’t suffering financially he works in high-tech, one of the few fields in which salaries are comparable to the United States he says he is acutely aware of the high cost of living in Israel, and that many of his friends who work in other areas have a hard time making ends meet.

When some of those friends decided to take a stand and pitched a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, Bernstein joined them in solidarity.

Esther Witt’s reasons for setting up a tent in Jerusalem’s Independence Park are much more personal. Witt, 32, originally from Holland, moved to Israel in 1997 at the age of 19, and is now married with two children. She is a special education teacher, and although she and her husband both work, she says that after pooling their salaries, they have to spend half of it just to keep a roof over their heads.

“Of course I struggle to pay rent. Our overdraft grows bigger and bigger every month. I think that’s something that most people in this country face, I don’t think I’m special in that sense at all,” she says, noting the widespread nature of the problem. “The thing is that I’m a government worker, and it’s very interesting that even the government workers, they don’t get salaries that makes sense, in terms of the cost of living.”

Bernstein says he believes that his colleagues do not empathize with the grievances of the protesters at least in part because they are in a much higher tax bracket and do not share the same economic concerns. “They criticize the protests, when I tell them that I have a tent, and I have really interesting conversations, and I’m out there, and they should come, too, they criticize. They laugh,” he said.

So Bernstein encourages them to bring their criticisms to the nightly street meetings. “I tell them, this is rare, this doesn’t happen all the time. I have never seen this in America before, so you should go, you have the opportunity now, go and make your voice heard,” he said.

Esther Witt in Jerusalem - David Sheen - August 2011
David Sheen

Revolutionary mixing

Witt says she’s focused her efforts on consolidating the diffuse communities that make up Jerusalem’s Independence Park tent camp secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi and laying the foundations for cross-cultural dialogue. “People in Israel are very socially and politically aware, in the sense that everybody talks about it. But many people only talk with people that share their points of view,” says Witt. “The thing that is new here is that within the tents, people meet people that normally they wouldn’t meet by default.”

Witt recalled a recent Friday night prayer service that brought together people from different communities. “We’ve had a Kabbalat Shabbat here that was led by people from the Conservative movement, including a woman saying kiddush [benediction], including musical instruments. It was before Shabbat actually came in [when playing musical instruments is restricted], but there were people from ultra-Orthodox communities that were here, and were participating, which I think is revolutionary.”

Witt walks across the grassy field with her daughter draped on her shoulders, a reminder of her familial obligations, but she believes so strongly in the possibilities of the movement that she has taken on responsibility for organizing social and educational activities at the camp. “When I saw that there was an awakening, and people were starting to get together and discuss things, I wanted to be there,” says Witt. “It wasn’t easy we both have jobs, we have two children. But I felt that I had to.”

Orthodox Rabbi Micha Odenheimer is the founding director of Tevel b’Tzedek, an NGO that works to promote social and environmental justice globally. He says he has been to every protest march so far. “To me, this is the greatest strengthening of Jewish peoplehood that I’ve seen in 25 years, since the Russian and Ethiopian Jews came to Israel,” said the California native. “I feel its great, I feel its fantastic, I’m so happy.”

Odenheimer says he believes the reasons behind the English-speaking community’s muted involvement are three-fold: Anglos tend to be more wealthy, more religious, and more right-wing on issues of defense and diplomacy than other Israelis. “All these factors probably make the support in the Anglo community less, though I think there’s a lot of support in the Anglo community. It’s probably not 80 per cent it’s probably 65 per cent,” he said.