Posted by Bob Goldfarb
As governments are being overturned by massive protests across the Arab world, another kind of movement is being shaped elsewhere—by members of the middle class. In India, frustrated by politicians who seem out of touch and arrogant and corrupt, they’re taking to the streets and calling for economic reform. A well-respected 74-year-old political leader named Anna Hazare has been fasting for more than 11 days and has become the focal point of the campaign against pervasive government corruption. Meanwhile, in Brazil, the middle class has mobilized because “prices of meat and petrol have doubled, highway tolls have risen, and eating out or buying property have become prohibitively expensive”.
Counterintuitively, the declining standard of living for some of the Brazilian middle class is a side-effect of the growing literacy and financial success of a population segment that used to be poor. The middle-class’s cause may well deserve sympathy since their financial challenges are all too real, but it isn’t exactly a question of social justice as we usually think of it. Their situation is a side effect of a greater equalization of opportunity, not from corruption or a declining economy.
Here in Israel there are protests too, of course, and not just the ones involving tents along city streets. Facebook says that 4,499 people are “attending” a week-long boycott of the Shufersal (also called SuperSol) Supermarkets starting tomorrow. It’s called שבוע ללא שופרסל, A Week Without SuperSol. The argument is that SuperSol has a 37% market share and they set their prices a lot higher than those at other supermarkets. Those dry statistics are colored by recent accusations that SuperSol unfairly pressured its suppliers for preferential treatment over their competitors. Many consumers also resent the fact that SuperSol’s profits enrich billionaire Nochi Dankner, whose IDB Holdings is the largest shareholder in SuperSol. The bottom line is that the protesters want lower prices.
Over the past month hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel have rallied under the banner The People Seek Social Justice!, inspiring hopes that Israeli idealism has finally reawakened in the tent cities across the country. At the same time, Haaretz columnist Aviad Kissos waggishly wrote last week that he would glad support “the protest of the people whose therapists go on vacation at really bad times” and “the protest of the people whose friends are going to Greece next week while they have to stay here and work.” Are the tent-city protesters selflessly seeking social change? Or are they looking for a conveniently located apartment at a lower rent? As in any popular movement, motives are mingled.
UPDATE: Anna Hazare has now ended his fast.
Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, lives in Jerusalem.
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August 6, 2011 | 1:24 pm
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
In Friday’s English-language edition of Haaretz Op-Ed columnist Nehemia Shtrasler takes Amos Oz to task for his recollections of Israel’s first thirty years. “I didn’t know that Israel was once a paradise,” he writes, and offers facts and figures to prove it:
* In order to work during those happy years, you had to have a red membership book from the Histadrut labor federation.And Oz’s egalitarian society distributed beautiful apartments at half price only to “those who are close to us” while in the low-income neighborhoods people wallowed in terrible conditions.
* 250,000 people did not have health insurance because they did not pay dues to the Histadrut.
But Amos Oz is a novelist, not an economist. He was talking about values rather than statistics, about the consequences of shifting from a tightly knit, mutually supportive society to one that favors individual initiative. His book Scenes from Village Life, just out in the UK in English and due for publication in America in October, evokes those changes with extraordinary emotional power.
In one story a former Knesset member named Pesach Kedem at first seems bitter, but he is a romantic when he recalls the old days. (His name is an explicit reference to the liturgical phrase חדש ימנו כקדם–Chadesh yameinu k’kedem, “Renew our days as of old.”) Reflecting on his past and his old enemies in internecine left-wing political battles, he tells his daughter, in Nicholas de Lange’s superb translation, “We dreamed of improving ourselves, the whole world. We loved the hills and valleys. How did we get here? A long time ago some people liked each other a bit. Now all the hearts are dead.”
Another story in the book makes a similar point through music. A group of villagers meets for a community sing-along and begin with pioneer tunes and songs from the Palmach and the War of Independence like “The Song of Friendship.” By evening’s end they are singing “Why did you lie to me, faraway lights,” and “Can you hear my voice, distant one?” The sense of solidarity, friendship, and shared destiny has been replaced by a distancing individualism.
Shtrasler is of course right in saying that the standard of living in Israel is far better for most people now than it was thirty years ago, but he is wrong when he says Oz has made a “mistake.” Amos Oz sees the improvements but mourns what has been lost in getting them. The great writer is less interested in material gains than in the price paid by the soul.
Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, also reviews books for Jewish Book World, published by the Jewish Book Council.
August 2, 2011 | 10:19 am
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
Five years ago the JCCs of North America, the umbrella organization for Jewish Community Centers, added a new component to its summertime athletic competition, the JCC Maccabi Games. Called ArtsFest, it provides a way for artistically talented teens to have shared experiences like the ones enjoyed by their sports-minded friends. This year the Games took place in Israel for the first time since their founding in 1982, and ArtsFest was more prominent than ever.
For its participants it was not only a chance to create and collaborate, it was a true encounter with Israel. ArtsFest seamlessly integrated Israeli themes, music, and cuisine into its workshops. The Artists-in-Residence—the teachers—were Israeli. And it all took place amid the beautiful landscape of the Upper Galilee region.
From the beginning ArtsFest has held to a very high standard. Participants are selected through competitive auditions, and they work with a cadre of top-notch teachers. Whether in rock bands or a cappella singing, dance or acting, photography or visual arts, cooking or journalism, they not only learn—they create something together. ArtsFest’s closing ceremony Sunday night in Jerusalem showcased some of their work. Here’s a short highlights video:
Remarkably, the ArtsFest kids weren’t cast in the shadow of the more numerous athletes. All the teenagers ate their meals together, relaxed with one another between events, and were equally recognized for their achievements. In fact the central location for the participants in both the Games and ArtsFest, a high school in the north of Israel called Har v’Gay (Mountain and Valley), was chosen because it specializes in the arts. It’s a reflection of the importance of the arts component in the Maccabi events.
Local Jewish Community Centers have played a big role in sustaining Jewish culture in the US and Canada for decades. Now, thanks to JCCs of North America and their commitment to ArtsFest, another generation is discovering how the arts can help them learn more about being Jewish, and about themselves.
Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, also blogs regularly for eJewishPhilanthropy.com.