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Carlo Strenger

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Rosh Hashana 5772: Hope and Israel's Social Justice Movement.

Posted: 09/29/11 11:32 AM ET

The Jewish year 5771 brought two diametrically opposed developments in Israel. One was the flood of anti-democratic laws passed and proposed in the Knesset. The other was the social justice protest movement, in which Israel's democracy suddenly came alive. On the eve of Rosh Hashana we should reflect on what these two phenomena tell us about Israel, and what they mean for the future.

The laws proposed by Zeev Elkin, Danny Danon and many others violate one of the deepest rationales of liberal democracy: to avoid what the great observer of Democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, called the danger of the tyranny of the majority; to protect open and critical discussion as well as the rights of minorities.

MK Zeev Elkin initiated the Boycott law and then proposed that a Knesset committee should be able to veto candidates for the Supreme Court. His justification was that the Supreme Court's values do not reflect the beliefs of Israel's majority. This was followed by the proposal that a Knesset committee investigate 'leftist non-government organizations' and finally Avi Dichter's proposal that Israel be defined as the land of the Jewish people, giving preponderance to Jewish law and make Hebrew Israel's only official language.

Elkin, Dichter, Lieberman and Danon want a democracy in which there is neither dissent nor criticism. Liberty, for them, is not a value in itself; neither is critical discussion. It is, in fact, a nuisance that doesn't allow government to do as it pleases. This is why they attack the institutions whose goal is to protect the human rights of all, including Israel's minorities. In doing so, the profoundly endanger Israel's liberal democracy.

As the twentieth century has shown dramatically, democracies can vote themselves out of existence. We now see the same process happening in Russia: His party politely applauded when Medvedev let them know that he won't run for the presidency in 2012, clearing the way for Putin to win virtually unopposed. Yes: on paper this process is democratic. De facto Putin will, by democratic means, become a dictator at least until the year 2024 -- for all intents and purposes probably Lieberman's model for Israel.

The obsession of Israel's current coalition with power and domination reflects a socio-political post-traumatic stress disorder induced by the terrible violence that Israel has experienced throughout its history. In 1948, 1967 and 1973 Israel's existence was endangered; losing one of these wars would have meant its obliteration and the death of many of its citizens. Israel's lesson was that only constant vigilance, military daring and power would keep the country alive. The other lesson was that dialogue was not a strategy that could lead to results.

The 1990s brought hope and the peace process with the Palestinians that literally exploded in Israeli faces during the second intifada. This was the moment when most Israelis retreated back into the hard shell that the country had donned during the decades of existential threat. Political hope was a luxury most Israelis no longer wanted to indulge in.

The essence of post-traumatic stress disorder is that the psyche is incapable of realizing that its defenses against past injuries are no longer useful in the present. By mid 2011 it seemed that Israeli society no longer had the regenerative powers to move away from its bunker mentality.

In the midst of this black flood pushing Israel towards illiberalism, on July 14th a miracle happened. A group of young people began to protest against social injustice in Israel. At first Likud MKs said that these were 'radical leftist elements,' 'anarchists' or 'just spoiled kids.' But the protest movement quickly evolved into unprecedented magnitude.

The media have mostly focused on the youngsters' demands, and the processes they have generated, like the Trajtenberg committee. I think the true miracle of this movement is its culture. You need to have been there to understand it: This movement developed a culture of respect; the possibility for citizens to speak and to be respected; a culture of true dialogue that doesn't try to shut down opposition by applying either physical or verbal power.

The movement's origin was in Tel Aviv, but it spread through the country like wildfire. In the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods of the country, citizens who had been taught that they can have an impact only through violence realized, that their pain, their hopes, their desires could get a fair hearing. They realized that they had a voice.

The social justice movement reminded all of us that behind the obsession with power expressed in the illiberal law proposals, there is a different Israel: people, young and old, who do not believe in trampling minorities, whether racial, religious, ethnic or political. That there are citizens of all ages who care for others, and most of all, are willing to listen.

The social justice movement is the beginning of a process of healing: the realization that political process can work through dialogue rather than by power alone; that humans who think differently or have different interest need not be trampled on but can be spoken to.

The social justice movement will need much stamina to keep this healing alive. Such processes do not happen overnight; they are slow. My deep fear is that this process will take too much time to influence Israel's political fate in the coming years; too much time for Israel's citizens to realize that they keep electing politicians that condemn Israel to ever deeper isolation; that the day will come where Israel's citizens will wake up to a reality in which Israel indeed will resemble Masada, a fortress with no friends, living on the sword alone.

But the social protest movement has already left its mark: the Trajtenberg committee, even if, at this point, it is not embraced by the protesters, is a turning point in Israeli political economy. The protests have changed the language of social and economic discourse. But most of all they have reminded Israelis and the world that behind the crust of myopic politics obsessed with dominance, Israel's human reality is vibrant, vital and capable of renewal.