Shiny Las Vegas offers mirror on social justice efforts

While representing the New Israel Fund at the TribeFest conference in Las Vegas, where more than 1,500 young adults gathered in late March to connect and learn, I had the opportunity to reflect on the way our Jewish community understands its relationship to social justice work.

In planning a session about Jewish social justice strategies, titled “How Do You Tikkun?,” I worked with several colleagues from organizations (Repair the World, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, American Jewish World Service) doing just that crucial work. There was much to celebrate.

Still, celebration of the Jewish community’s place within social justice movements can eclipse important self-critique, as well as reminders of the great work yet to be done.

On the first day of the conference, which was put on by the Jewish Federations of North America, I was sitting in a hotel suite with representatives of JFNA from Jerusalem and the American Zionist Movement in New York, waiting for the arrival of Stav Shaffir, a leader of Israel’s tent protests last summer. We were putting final touches on another session, about the protests and how they fit into a global context, into a world where things — at least in some arenas — seem to be tipping toward the power of crowds, of the voices of many, rather than those of a privileged few.

When Stav walked into the suite, we immediately began talking about Las Vegas. She was wondering about the workers at the conference hotel — where they were, and how they were treated. She felt they were invisible in all the extravagance of the enormous restaurants, bars, never-ending casinos and fake canals of the hotel.

Stav’s observation pointed to a significant incongruence at TribeFest. I, for one, felt uncomfortable talking about social justice work among the casinos and extravagant yet cheap-looking hotels. Like Stav, I wondered about the negative socio-economic impact of the casinos and how we as a community might be participating in it.

At the New Israel Fund, our work does not affect workers’ rights in Las Vegas. We have, however, been deeply engaged for more than 30 years in issues of workers’ rights — and other issues of socio-economic justice — in Israel.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence enshrines democracy and equality for all people, regardless of race, religion or gender. It is a beautiful document, but its values — as is true of the U.S. declaration — have not been so easily translated into reality. There is a contradiction between this written commitment and the reality of the lives of immigrants, women, Palestinian citizens of Israel and, as the tent protests affirmed, of all Israelis.

Israel’s social safety net has been severely compromised by policies of privatization, dramatic subsidies for the ultra-Orthodox and funding for the settlement enterprise. There are immense challenges, not only for groups that traditionally have less power and privilege but for everyone living in Israel. That is why Stav and other young leaders like her organized the first protest. That is why Israelis pitched their tents and marched through the streets in staggering, inspiring numbers.

In both Israel and the United States, if we do not look deeply into ourselves and see the extent of the work that needs to be done, if we focus too heavily on celebration, we face a real danger. If we celebrate too much, we won’t take to the streets.

In Israel there is a great deal to celebrate. The incredibly moving protests of last summer and their continuation through Stav’s organization, the Israeli Social Movement, reminded me of that. And there is so, so much needed in Israel — repairing the gutted social safety net, protecting and furthering religious pluralism, fighting for environmental justice and working toward more true and complete equal rights for women, immigrants and Palestinian citizens of Israel. This is the work of the New Israel Fund.

We should celebrate our communal accomplishments. We should be proud. And TribeFest offered an essential opportunity — for speakers and attendees, lay leaders and young Jewish professionals — to do both. But TribeFest also was a reminder of how our Jewish community needs to talk more about the ways we are implicated in the injustices we speak out against, and how we can do better.

Penina Eilberg-Schwartz is director of New Generations in the San Francisco office of the New Israel Fund.