Shortly after the surprising announcement of a new alliance in the Israeli Knesset – the result of quick and clandestine negotiations that produced a mega-coalition between Israel’s major political parties – the murmurings of social protest began to emerge yet again. Stav Shaffir, one of the faces and voices of the massive protests in Israel last summer, ominously tweeted that “if this new government does not fall, we will take it down.”
The 2011 protests, characterized by tent camps throughout the country, focused initially on issues of cost of living and especially housing. Inevitably, though, some of the animus in the protests was directed at the government itself, the political process, and the general social order. The energy in the protests – together with their kin in the American “Occupy” movement – embodied a political pluralism ranging from activists genuinely alarmed by the rising price of food and rent all the way to anarchists for whom the fomenting rebellion signaled an opportunity to challenge basic societal norms.
I understand where the extremism comes from. The instinct to act on behalf of justice is often borne out of a sense of deep brokenness, and the belief that the prevailing structures of power and authority are fundamentally misguided. Accordingly, it is believed that to promote incremental policy change without redressing the basic infrastructure that underlies the fabric of our societies – even if it creates temporarily better conditions – will not lead to societal transformation.
But this political pluralism, in turn, makes the work of justice a tough sell across the political divide. The iconoclasm of extremism creates fear in the mainstream about the work of justice, even when its goals may accord with mainstream ethical sensibilities.
I believe that there is important work to be done in bringing about justice in this world, both on concrete issues and in more conceptual ways; I also recognize that there are still times when justice can only be pursued through systemic, revolutionary overhaul. But I am skeptical of the instincts in America and in Israel to do this urgent work of today against – rather than in concert with – the existing social and political infrastructure. This week’s twin Torah portions of Behar and Behukotai – which together conclude the book of Leviticus – implicitly challenge the impulse to frame social activism over and against normative legal policies.
The two portions are held together by a unifying frame, with the opening and closing verses reminding us that these texts were a part of God’s revelation to Moses at Mount Sinai. In between these verses, however, is the stuff not of otherworldly spirituality, but the earthly rules by which a society is made just.
The Sabbatical laws both free the land from agrarian domination and institutionalize ethical work practices for those whose livelihoods are controlled by others. The Jubilee laws then go one step further in attempting to prevent the transmission of poverty across multiple generations. Even if inequity will inevitably emerge from the marketplace, the Jubilee creates a once-every-50-years assurance that the system cannot perpetuate it forever.