Fasten your seatbelts – it’s gonna be a bumpy post. This week’s parasha, Shoftim, starts out with a fairly familiar phrase, “Justice, justice you shall pursue”, but that’s not the end of it. It continues, “that you shall thrive and occupy the land that God has given you.”
Justice is tied directly to thriving in the land, and occupying the land. There are hundreds of thousands of people right now in Israel who think that thriving is not exactly what describes their lives, and that justice is in short supply in Israeli society. I’m not talking about the Palestinian/Israeli “matzav” (situation), I’m talking about the social uprising manifesting itself in the tent cities all around Israel. It started in Tel Aviv this summer, with one woman pitching a tent on one of the most upscale streets in Tel Aviv, Rothschild, because she couldn’t afford to live in her apartment anymore.
Wealth is highly concentrated in a few hands. The gap between those who make extremely high salaries, and those who can barely get by is getting bigger. American economic reports started sounding alarms when the US gap approached ratios over 10:1. Israel has one of the biggest in the world – an astounding 14:1 ratio (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report). More children are living in poor homes, in fact, one in 3 children and one in four adults are living below the poverty line. Food that is actually grown in Israel and exported abroad is more expensive at home.
Last week’s article in Jweekly.com writes: “Consumer goods and services costs are nearly double those in the United States, and owning a car can run about six times as much relative to one’s salary. So how do Israelis make it? Israeli retailers and banks offer easy credit on everything from big-ticket items (like summer vacations) to everyday purchases (like groceries); all can be paid in monthly installments.” The result is that most Israelis are in hock up to their noses, constantly living deep in debt, across the entire society. (Check out this week’s Jerusalem Report, and the Sept. 2 issue of The Jewish Daily Forward)
This is a recipe for disaster, as anyone who actually tries to pay their bills in Israel will tell you. Rents and mortgages have almost doubled in the last two years. The housing market fiasco has its own multiple factors. Jews in the UK and US buy apartments they rarely inhabit, driving prices up in areas of town that Israelis want to live in, but now can’t afford. The government used to subsidize housing all over the country, especially in the cities, but there has been so much support of housing in the West Bank settlements, there is less money to subsidize construction in other areas of the country. There is some building going on, but not where most people live, and not where the jobs are. Perhaps the government shouldn’t be subsidizing altogether, and that the “socialist” ways of the founders should fade away, but that’s not the entire point. Rather, part of the problem is the government using housing subsidizing as a clear political policy action in the West Bank. We’ll stop subsidizing….except for here, except for these people, because they fill our political ideological niche. And at the same time housing has gone up, the homes that are built are too big and expensive for first-home buyer, and the ones people need aren’t being built at all.
So, back to Shoftim. “Justice, justice, you shall pursue so you may thrive and occupy the land.” Justice isn’t just a goal or a nice ideal or vision. It’s alive and evasive. It takes pursuit: active, intense, and continual. Justice is just out of reach, not wanting to get “caught”, but must be pursued nevertheless. This pursuit is what will make our living in the Land worthy. The society we were told to build there is what will ensure God’s presence there, keeping God’s end of the contract, as it were.
But is Israel keeping its end of the contract? No, I don’t think so. You can make the argument that Israel has been busy pursuing an end to existential threats, and that is true. But the 300,000+ people across Israel would say that their government has taken its eye off the target on their behalf, too. They’ve established deep and lucrative friendships with the very wealthy, and as one placard depicting an empty pieplate expressed it, “There’s nothing left for me.” Israelis across the ideological spectrum really are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. They’re not talking about overthrowing the government. They just want to be heard and heeded. Israel was built on the promise and premise of a just society. Justice is far ahead and no one seems to be in hot pursuit. Hear, O Hear, Israel.