On Root / Taking the Protests at Their Word

Israel’s social-justice protests are loosely united by a slogan, but what does it really mean?

A full year after the start of last summer’s social protests, we are still debating what they were all about. Were they just bourgeois youth protesting the cost of living? Or were other elements with a broader social agenda involved? Were the protests too political – or not political enough? This summer's stirrings raise new questions. Will there be a mass return to the tents? Will large public demonstrations erupt? Will more be achieved?

Amid the din of this debate, one slogan rang out last summer: Ha'am doresh tzedek chevrati, meaning something like, “The people demand social justice.” Pithy, and with catchy iambic pentameter, this slogan quickly became the watchword of the protests, brandished on placards and chanted with gusto.

As straightforward as it appears, the slogan actually conceals more than it reveals, and so is an ideal candidate for some linguistic analysis. Let's do as the second word suggests and doresh, “interpret,” it.

The shortest and seemingly simplest word in the slogan is also the first. Ha'am means, “the people” or '”the nation.” But which is it? The corresponding verb, doresh, is singular. In English “the people” always takes a plural verb, as in “the people demand social justice.” So perhaps a better rendering would be "the nation demands social justice."

This small grammatical point raises a deeper political question: Just who is doing the demanding? Has a survey been taken telling us that most or all of the people are making a demand? Or is it some vague collective will of “the nation”?

And which nation are we talking about? The word 'am goes back to the Bible and the idea of 'am Yisrael, "the people [or nation] of Israel" – the Jews. But the protesters weren't referring to the Jews of the Diaspora and surely meant to include Arabs, Druze and other non-Jewish citizens of Israel.

When the protestors "reclaimed" – or depending on your viewpoint, commandeered or squatted in – an abandoned building in Tel Aviv, they idealistically called it Beit Ha'am, a “public house of assembly.” They hoped to use the space to further their vision of giving voice to the will of 'am ha-Yisraelim, “the nation of Israelis.” But one of the biggest issues in the debate over Zionism and the Jewish State is that there is no clear Israeli 'am. When we start asking who’s in and who’s out, the seemingly simple word becomes quite fraught.

And what does the ‘am want? That’s easier right? The protestors demand tzedek chevrati, “social justice.” Much is made of the fact that the Hebrew equivalent of charity is tzedaka, which is an obligatory act of tzedek, “justice,” not a voluntary act of caritas, “love,” as the Latin root of “charity” suggests. But an oft-repeated criticism is that Israel needs tzedek velo tzedaka, “justice and not charity.”

Looked at this way, the protesters have a broader, more political agenda. They advocate not only individual acts of justice, but game-changing, systemic changes. While each of us should strive to be a tzadik, a “righteous person,” policy too must be tzodek, “just” and “right.”

The “social” part of “social justice” comes from one of the more fruitful roots in Hebrew, ch-v-r, which basically means, “join.” If you join a club, or a kibbutz, you become a chaver or chavera, depending on your gender. And if you were living in the former Soviet Union, you would address your “comrade” as chaver.

More generally, any two people who “join together” can be chaverim, friends. But to be called a chaver can be an honor. Who can forget former President Clinton's moving two-word farewell to assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, "Shalom, chaver"?

When it comes to romance, if a girl calls a boy her chaver or a boy calls a girl his chavera, they mean “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” Boys and girls who are “just friends” use the words yedid and yedida. The noun form of the root, chaverut, can refer to all three kinds of relationships: friendship, dating and membership.

When a group of people joins together – especially in a formal way – it creates a chevrah, “company” or "society."

The adjective is chevrati, which appears in tzedek chevrati, “social justice,” and also gets to modify trendy words, like reshet, “network,” and the lo'azi, "foreign," word medyah, “media” – as in social network and social media.

While English adds syllables to go from “society” to a process like “socialization,” Hebrew just changes the vowels. From chevrah and chevrati we get chivrut, “socialization,” and lechavret, “to socialize” or “to habituate.” This is of course different than simply enjoying someone's chevrah tovah, “good company.”

Those familiar with the American Jewish world have probably heard of the chavura movement, which consists of decentralized, informal prayer communities. Two Jews may or may not be friends, but if they study together, they become a chevruta, “Talmudic study buddies,” of sorts. For sacral tasks related to the deceased, the organization known as "the holy society," the chevrah kadisha, does the carrying and burying.

To connect people and places we have tachburah ("b" and "v" alternate), “transportation,” whether public, private or a whole system. And to connect words in a sentence, we have tachbir, “syntax,” which you should apply when writing a chibur, “composition,” in your machberet, “notebook.”

All these words may or may not help you lehitchaber, “to connect,” to the meaning of social justice. But as mentioned at the beginning, the whole idea needs explication. This is appropriate since doresh means not only “demand,” but also “inquire” or “interpret.” For instance, in Genesis 25:22, Rebecca goes to “inquire” to God about the commotion in her womb.

From this meaning of the word come the literary terms midrash, the story-like homilies based on Jewish scripture, and derasha, “sermon.”

One of the unambiguous achievements of the protests is that they have spawned many conversations about just what social justice is and how we should go about promoting it. So, at least in one sense, they have realized their slogan. Ha'am doresh tzedek chevrati, “The people inquire about social justice.”

Let us hope that the 'am, "the people," heed the aphorism, Na'eh doresh, na'eh mekayem, “One who talks the talk should walk the walk.” In other words, may those who expound in a way that is na'eh, “beautiful” or “pleasing” and demand the right things, be able to mekayem, “realize” or “sustain,” them.

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