Sukkah on wheels protest in front of the Sukka of Nir Barakat Jerusalem Mayor, HaMaabara. pic by Rabbi Arik Ascheraman
Removing a Corner of Skhakh and an Appeal to Na’amat:
Sukkot Thoughts 5773 on Stealing Hope and the Right to Housing
Spiritual Harvest 5773
Rabbi Arik Ascherman
Sukkot is known as “zman simkhateinu,” (The season of our joy), and we are commanded to be happy. It is for that reason that, on this harvest holiday I am including below our second annual “Spiritual harvest.” (When we first sent this by email, sent “Thoughts” and the “Spiritual harvest” together. On our website, they are separate. A.A.) Having been preoccupied since the first of Elul with sometimes harsh self criticism and kheshbon nefesh (soul searching), and hopefully having started the hard work to make a real change individually and communally, we deserve to take pride in our successes and in what is positive about our country.
At the same time, we are taught that the final decision on our fate for the year can still be altered up through Hoshanah Rabbah (The seventh day of Sukkot). I would therefore be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to make one more appeal. On Rosh HaShanah I wrote about Palestinian human rights, and on Yom Kippur I focused on the plight of African refugees in Israel. I now want to turn inwards and discuss internal social justice issues, and particularly to issue an appeal to Naamat, a women’s movement affiliated withIsrael’s largest labor union, the Histadrut: Don’t steal hope.
We are taught that it is forbidden to fulfill the command to wave branches and fruit from the four species of trees (Palm, willow, myrtle and etrog) on Sukkot, by using stolen goods. Similarly, it is forbidden to use a stolen sukkah (The booths we are commanded to live in during the holiday). Both are examples of Mitzvah ha’ba’ah b’ aveira (Talmud Sukkot 27b-29b) I don’t know how often this happens, although a few years ago a Palestinian farmer told us that he saw settlers from the Avigail outpost cutting branches from his olive trees to provide the skakh (thatching) for their sukkah. I also received an email just before the holiday from somebody distressed because they couldn’t find a lulav (The palm branch, but in English “Lulav” refers to all four species.) that didn’t come from a settlement in the Occupied Territories. It would be an interesting halakhic (Jewish legal) debate whether anything from the Occupied Territories is by definition stolen, or only if something comes from lands where settlers have taken over private Palestinian land. (The determination what is private land and what is state land being itself a matter of controversy.) And, the fact is that I had to give in this year and buy imported permanent roll out skhakh, rather than the palm fronds which I have always thought to be more in the spirit of the Torah (The thatching is supposed to come from trees/plants). After searching for two days, I wasn’t able to find fronds that didn’t come from the Occupied Territories.
However, this year I am also thinking about another sort of theft, the theft of joy and of hope. In the list below of this year’s spiritual harvest, I certainly include all of the initiatives that have emerged from last year’s tent protest movement. However, I can not ignore the fact that much of the hope engendered by that movement has been stolen. The government succeeded in “Committees the movement to death.” The Trachtenberg Committee was created to come up with a response to the movement’s demands. Only time will tell how many of the Committee’s recommendations will actually be carried out. According to a Bank of Israel study, the Israeli government has adopted somewhere between 68%-58% of the 117 recommendations, depending on how one defines “adoption.” (Others cite 138 recommendations) However, the progress towards implementation for many of the adopted recommendations is slow at best. There does seem to have some positive results in terms of stopping the reduction of taxes for the most wealthy and finally bringing about implementation of semi-free nursery schools.
Maybe more of the Trachtenberg committee recommendations will eventually be implemented, and improve the lives of middle class Israelis. That would be important, but far from sufficient. The Trachtenberg proposals offer almost no hope to the weakest and poorest Israelis.
I heard Professor Trachtenberg speak last March at the annual convention of Reform rabbis in Boston. He had no qualms about saying that his goal had been to meet the needs of his daughter and her middle class friends, who felt threatened by both the wealthy AND the poor. Professor Trachtenberg has made similar statements elsewhere. Fewer and fewer among the middle class believe that their protest a year ago will lead to significant change, and for the poorest and weakest Israelis there is no chance.
Hope has been stolen away.
Housing is a case in point. If implemented, the recommendations on public housing will lead to an increase in the supply of affordable housing for the middle class, but will do nothing for those in need of public housing. Even the way too modest proposal by Housing Minister Atias to require that 5% of the apartments in new housing projects be designated for public housing was rejected by the government. There has been a slight increase in the assistance for those who can’t afford to rent an apartment at market rates which does help those living in the periphery, but is not enough for many of those in need of public housing in urban centers to rent an apartment. There are families who live in an endless cycle of renting apartments they can’t afford, eviction, and starting over again. In the “Ma’abarah” alone (The Jerusalem housing collective RHR supports), there are at least 5 families or individuals who were able to rent because they received temporary additional assistance to end their protest, but soon face being back on the street because that assistance has ended.
There is nothing in the Trachtenberg proposals to end the huge dearth of public housing, or the waiting list of over 40,000, which would be much larger if the current criteria didn’t rule out many who are in genuine need. The proposals contain no hope for those in public housing apartments waiting for life threatening repairs, such as water running into electric outlets. There is much less holiday joy for those living in impossibly cramped conditions.
Just as with Palestinian home demolitions, the toll is heaviest on the children. In just about every family I know caught up in these vicious cycles, there is some level of trauma being suffered by the children. In some cases there are quite serious levels of attention and behavioral disorders, insecurity and fear. Imagine what it is like to grow up living in a car or a tent or moving from sofa to sofa. Just like with home demolitions, I know children who have lost respect and faith in their parents, who haven’t been able to provide them with what other children seem to take for granted. I have also seen miracle turn arounds when families have finally been able to create a stable environment, starting with stable shelter. I have seen children gain new respect for their parents when they realized that their parents were heroes in the eyes of others for daring to protest both for themselves and for all in need of decent public housing.
For those of us who know that change is a process that often takes a great deal of time, we remain invested in those initiatives to actualize the promise of the 2011 protests. RHR is the initiator and a leading member of a coalition working with members of Knesset to write laws to fix public housing, even as we continue to work at the grass roots level in Jerusalem,Haifa, Beit Shean and elsewhere. Although the MK’s we work with make it clear that we face a very uphill battle to get anything passed, we have won “impossible” battles in the past. We will do our best to ensure that thoseJerusalemfamilies, and many others, do not end up on the street. However, the truth is that, for many, the hopes raised by the protest movement have been stolen. Moshe Silman z”l immolated himself precisely because we could not convince him that there was any hope that his situation was going to change.
Many Hassidic masters taught that it is a spiritual goal to feel inner joy, no matter what our “objective” reality might be. This would be particularly true for the “Season of our Joy.” However, that doesn’t give us free reign to steal the hope and joy of others, to achieve joy at the expense of others, or to ignore the sadness of others.. Some members of our society are the thieves, and their holiday celebration is akin to waving a stolen lulav. However, it isn’t just a matter of “them.” Just as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” just as we remove drops of wine from our glass at the Passover seder when we recall the suffering of the Egyptians, and just as we break a glass at a wedding, our shared responsibility for stealing the joy of others ought to be a threat to our own joy. That shared responsibility might be very indirect, or simply we may have been good people who remained silent and did nothing. Has the sukkah fulfilled its purpose of making us thankful for shelter, if it does not heighten our awareness of those without stable shelter? Just as we cannot sit in a stolen sukkah, we ought not fully enjoy our Sukkah when others lack a roof over their heads, or are in danger of losing whatever they have.
What would be the Sukkot equivalent to removing drops of wine on Passover? I have initiated a new practice for myself this year. I symbolically remove the skhakh from a corner of my Sukkah while reciting the special Sukkot addition to the prayer after meals, “HaRakhaman yakim et sukat David hanofalet.” (May the Merciful One restore David’s fallen sukkah). As I replace the skhakh, I think about what I need to do to fight for public housing, to prevent home demolitions and to offer shelter to African refugees. (For those concerned with the environment, this also works for working to close the hole in our ozone layer.)
Beyond symbolic acts, we must mix joy with protest. For many years, the image of the sukkah (temporary booth) we live in for the 7 days of this holiday (eight days abroad) led me to think about the issue of administrative home demolitions. The frail sukkah has a roof that, according to Jewish law, must allow one to see the stars and must not keep out the rain. It teaches us to value both God’s protective Presence and physical shelter. For many years we demonstrated at the Jerusalemmayor’s reception in the Sukkah, reminding three successive mayors that, “For seven days we move out of our homes and live in a Sukkah, but victims of home demolitions have no home to return to.” The issue of home demolitions is still of great concern to us. Demolitions in Area C and in the Negev seem to be on the rise, while they are somewhat down in East Jerusalem. http://www.icahd.org/displacement-trends We are putting a great deal of effort into our High Court appeal which will hopefully end demolitions in Area C by returning planning for Palestinian communities in Area C to Palestinian hands.
However, on Tuesday we visited Mayor Barkat’s sukkah in Safra Square(and the Prime Minister, Housing Minister Atias, etc.,) with a “Sukkah on Wheels” along with our friends in the Ma’abarah in need of public housing. The message was practically the same message, “It is fun to spend 7 days in a sukkah, but there are Israelis who have no stable shelter all year ’round.” Shelter is a right according to international law, and on Yom Kippur we read Isaiah’s admonition that our fasting is meaningless if we do not bring the poor into our own homes. (Isaiah 58:7). Later that evening we joined Rachel Levy, who was evicted from her public housing apartment, in attempting to build herself a home. On Wednesday we participated in an extremely moving “People’s court” in Bat Yam on the subject of public housing. Even those who came themselves to testify came away shaken by the poverty, allegations of sexual exploitation in return for apartments, bureaucracy that overlooks human beings, and hard heartedness. After those three events, I returned to celebrating the holiday with my family.
So what does all of this have to do with Na’amat? This summer, the Ma’abarah took over a building that had stood empty for three years inJerusalem’s poverty stricken Katamonim neighborhood. (For the record, RHR does not support taking over buildings, but I do when we are talking about buildings the state leaves empty, while citizens are in need of housing. Even the Trachtenberg Committee recommended a tax on property owners who leave private apartments empty.) When it turned out that this building was not owned by the Jerusalem Municipality, as we had thought, but by Na’amat, we made it clear that we wished no fight with Na’amat. Many of us were willing to leave the building. Thankfully, we discovered that many in the leadership of Na’amat understood that our goals were there goals. Rather than moving to evict us, they indicated their interest in coming to an agreement that would allow us to use this building as a center for housing activism, especially for the good of women, who make up a large percentage of those in need of public housing and in our group. RHR agreed to sign a contract with Na’amat, seeing as the Ma’abarah is not an entity with a legal status. Up until a few weeks ago, we felt that this shared dream was taking shape. We were making many plans about how to use this center both for the good of the community and to involve the community in the struggle for public housing. Suspiciously soon after the Naamat leadership met with Mayor Barkat, the electricity was cut off in the building and we were informed that after Sukkot Naamat would be taking steps to evict us.
Hope has been stolen.
I certainly would like to call upon all of those in government, industry and among the general populace to heed the message of the sukkah. However, I would like to take this opportunity to make a special appeal to Naamat. It is true that each and every one of us must ask whether the stolen hope of others has in any way contributed to the means that allow us to celebrate. As we are reminded of God’s sheltering presence that is responsible for the gifts we enjoy, we all must renew our determination to emulate God as much as is humanly possible (But, as non hierarchically as possible).
However, you in Naamat have a unique opportunity. We do share the same goals and dreams. Rather than dashing hope and letting it die stillborn, let’s work together to make this building a center which embodies the commitment to housing for all that Sukkot is supposed to engender. Please remember the single parent women who helped found the Ma’abarah, and are disproportionately represented among those in need of public housing. Please remember the children so deeply traumatized by uncertainty, evictions, and sometimes literally living on the street. For those of you living in countries with Naamat affiliates, you might want to thank them for their willingness up until now to work together, and encourage them to stay the course.
When I think back over my holiday thoughts over the years, I am conscious of the fact that an increasingly present message is a sort of “Af al pi,” a sort of “Maintain hope, in spite of all of the reasons not to have hope.” On the one hand, I think that it is true that, with age, I confront the increasing likelihood that, in my lifetime, I will not correct every wrong that I have set out to correct. It is true that I increasingly think in terms of “Lo aleikha hamlakha ligmor,” our obligation to make our contribution to a grander tapestry that spreads over generations. However, I am not just trying to delude or console myself. This is precisely is why celebrating our spiritual harvest is so important. It would be wrong to look at our reality with rose colored glasses that ignore all that is left to be done. This morning I did symbolically removed the skhakh from a corner of my Sukkah while reciting “ Sukat David hanofalet.” (May the Merciful One restore David’s fallen sukkah). I have demonstrated this week for public housing, continued the work on our High Court appeal on planning, taught and will participate in the first olive harvest of the season. At the same time, recognizing what we have accomplished, sometimes against seemingly impossible odds, is part of what gives us strength and determination to continue. Part of what is allowing me to joyfully sit in the Sukkah this year is the realization that what I and we have done is real, meaningful, incredibly significant, and important. I have joy in the knowledge that the accomplishments of the past year are but an appetizer for what is yet to come, proving that change is possible. I have joy in my determination to continue to play my part as long as I am physically and mentally able, in partnership with my RHR family, and the wider community of those working for tikun olam. All this adds to the joy I have in my personal blessings and the blessings of family. I wish this joy for each of you as well.
Khag Sameakh - Wishing you a truly joyous holiday,
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