Yesterday I visited Rav Avraham Isaac Kook’s home, an extraordinary “Museum of Psalms” adjacent to it with 150 paintings representing the 150 Psalms based on the Zohar by the Holocaust survivor Moshe Tzvi Halevi Berger (who I met and spent some time with – a sweet lovely 90 year old sage), the home of the famed Hebrew poetess Rachel, the home of her physician Dr. Elana Kagan who treated Jewish and Arab children in the 1910-40s, the home of the wacko “Father of Modern Hebrew” Eliezer Ben Yehuda, and the home of Dr. Avraham and Anna Ticho. Dr. Ticho’s opthamological practice saved hundreds of Jews and Arabs from blindness in the 1920s-50s. His wife Anna was a gifted artist and their home was a cultural meeting center that attracked the likes of Martin Buber and Marc Chagall.

All these sites are situated all along Rechov Hanevi-im (“Prophets Street”) in the heart of Jerusalem. 

This 3-hour tour was part of my ulpan program, and I was privileged to spend it one on one (in Hebrew, of course) with one of my ulpan teachers, a lovely, bright and cultured 27 year-old daughter of Yemenite Jews who were part of the airlift from Yemen to Israel in 1949  called “Operation Magic Carpet.” Those Yemenite Jews thought the plane on which they flew was the eagle referenced in Prophets that would carry the people to the land of Israel in the time of the Messiah.

As I walked back to my hotel on Keren Hayesod in 40 degree weather I was thinking of these modern-day prophets whose homes I had just visited. I then heard chanting that grew louder and louder as I approached the Labor Department courthouse. About 200 energized Israeli workers were protesting the government on this first day of a national strike for higher wages and benefits.  

As usual, Rabbi Dow Marmur offers a consise overview of what this strike is all about, and I offer here with his permission.

Once again I am reminded that this is a land of prophets, ancient and modern.

A CASE FOR SOLIDARITY

I think of Ofer Eini, the Head ofIsrael’s Histadrut Labour Federation, as one of the most seasoned and balanced public figures in Israel. I was, therefore, at first surprised by his recent display of seeming uncompromising militancy on behalf of employees of contractors to whom government and other work is often outsourced.

Though he has good reason to be indignant about the low wages and inadequate working conditions to which these women and men are subjected, it’s such a common practice all over the capitalist world that even the enlightened and socially progressive Scandinavians are said to tolerate it. It may make sense to negotiate with the private employers for better conditions for their unskilled workers, but to try to punish the government for trying to keep costs down by outsourcing services seems excessive and perhaps uncharacteristic of the pragmatic and conciliatory Eini.

So why did he do it? Cynical and seemingly persuasive speculations suggest that because there’re going to be elections in the Histadrut and Eini has been accused by his opponents of being too soft on employers and government, this is his way of showing that he can be tough and therefore deserves to be re-elected.

It has already resulted in a general strike that affects many ordinary citizens. As is often the case in such situation, Eini may end up alienating the general public, perhaps even Histadrut members: an illustration of the vagaries of political life and the possibility of one ambitious person to distort the situation and cause havoc.

That’s the cynical view. But I’ve also heard another opinion forcefully expressed by Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of the Labour Party in the Knesset. Speaking at the Hartman Institute on the first day of the strike – that was also Tu Bishvat, the New Year of Trees which has become in Israel not only a day of tree planting and a reminder of our global ecological responsibilities, but also a day of rededication to social action – she insisted that the strike is a wholesome expression of solidarity with the have-nots.

This may mean that the cynics got it wrong and that the pessimists who fear that the public will turn against Eini are in error. Because the plight of the million or so workers who are employed by contract companies at minimum wage and under appalling conditions, social justice demands firm action. While the government chooses to turn a blind eye in the misguided effort to save money by robbing citizens of basic rights, the Labour Federation is championing the cause of the poor and the disadvantaged.

The two seemingly mutually exclusive scenarios reflect the tensions in Israeli society. The government is prone to sweep social problems under the carpet by claiming security as its priority and even using the Iranian threat as an alibi. Trade unions and the many organizations dedicated to social justice assert repeatedly that unless the ever growing economic and social gap in Israeli society is bridged, its security will be greatly compromised because the citizens are being demoralized.

So it largely depends on where you are on the Right-Left political spectrum. It will determine whether you believe the cynics who seek to discredit Eini or those who affirm solidarity with the downtrodden as a national priority. No reader of the above need to be surprised that I’m on the side of the latter. My faith in Ofer Eini hasn’t been shaken. He addresses one of the urgent issues in Israeli society for which he deserves praise.

Jerusalem 8.2.12  –  Rabbi Dow Marmur

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