Social Protest or Money Struggle?

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Shoftim 5771 – translated by R. Blumberg]

Does the protest against the high price of housing that has ballooned into a wider protest about the cost of living have any connection to the Torah? Certainly G-d enlightens our path in every matter affecting national affairs or social welfare, and all G-d has told us we must do and obey. The question is whether we have here a social protest or a money quarrel, a protest over life or a sectarian protest over luxuries.
Obviously, struggling for one’s interests is legitimate and permissible according to the Torah. One is allowed to fight to be rich. The Torah allows it, but doesn’t require it. What we are required to do is to prevent poverty, and what we’re allowed to do is to raise the standard of living. Preventing poverty is a duty that falls within the framework of charity. According to Jewish law, the individual must give charity and the public must mandate that. In other words, the community must provide for its poor. And all the more so the Jewish State. As is well-known, one’s life takes precedence over someone else’s life (Baba Metzia 62b), but one’s luxuries do not take precedence over one’s neighbor’s life.
For example, it cannot be that you will take a bath or water your garden if your neighbor has no water to drink (Nedarim 80b). And what is a poor person? It is someone who is lacking the bare minimum. As noted, raising the living standard is permissible, but one has no Torah obligation to join and abet such a struggle.
The protest in question has been defined by its leadership: The middle-class is collapsing, and is demanding of the government a larger piece of the pie, at the expense of other national needs (like security). Thus, we’re not talking about a real struggle on behalf of the poor.
True, some genuine poor have joined the protest, but they are a negligible minority. In fact, all sorts of other groups have joined, each with its own agenda: Some are fighting to stop the destruction of illegal Arab homes, others on behalf of illegal Bedouin towns, still others on behalf of immigrants and refugees, including some who are genuinely poor and homeless. Yet the main struggle is over the status of the middle class.
If we’re going to struggle over something, it should be over the abject state of the real poor. That is a Torah mitzvah. Yet the problem of genuine poverty isn’t so easy to solve either, because there is a limit on how much taxation you can legislate. In the economic reforms enacted by Prime Minister Netanyahu in his last term of office (ten years ago), he limited how much welfare money the government could allocate. The situation at the time was that ten percent of the nation was supporting the other ninety percent. There was a danger that the ten percent would get sick of this, and would move themselves or their factories abroad, or engage in a battle of wits, seeking legal loopholes around taxes.

The solution has to be a fight not against the rich, but on behalf of the genuine poor.

There are several practical solutions regarding housing costs. For example, an average apartment costs about 1,550,000 NIS (443,000 U.S. dollars). Out of that, 400,000 goes for construction, 150,,000 to the contractor, 150,000 for development. So far, a total of 700,000. The land costs 500,000, and various taxes cost 350,000. Thus, 850,000 shekels goes to the State. Such a sum can be collected from the rich, but it isn’t right to collect it from the poor. Yet truth be said, our Prime Minister has now suggested several solutions to solving the housing crunch, with most of them not new, but rather previous initiatives. Such things take time. That’s the rule. There are no miracle solutions.
It’s no secret that a lot of the power behind the protest saw a chance to attack the Prime Minister. One is allowed to fight to unseat the prime minister, but one must be honest and not hide a political war under the veil of a social struggle. In any event, the whole thing is moving farther and farther away from a Torah struggle. There is a lack of honesty here, as well, because the prime minister is precisely the one who has worked and toiled over these issues.
As stated, you can’t carry out economic revolutions overnight. Suppose the government stopped charging for land and construction taxes. Prices would, indeed, plummet, but those who bought before at the expensive rate would lose out unfairly.
Economic laws are complicated. Our sages say that G-d preferred to let a man, whose wife had died, sprout mammary glands so he could feed his infant milk, rather than produce money for him. Paternal milk is a private miracle, without ramifications on all of society, but introducing new money into the economy can have a pervasive effect. Maran Ha-Rav Kook explains in Ein Aya that G-d does not wish to hurt the laws of economics, even though they are harsh and cruel, because they keep the world going (Shabbat 53:5).
Let it be said to Israel’s credit that its economy is very stable, and that the harsh economic crisis that plagued America and Europe has spared us. Our Prime Minister’s profound reforms are slowly making our economic lives healthier. Sudden changes could cause economic crises, and those who will pay for it will be the poor, who depend on every penny. The various anarchists who sprout like crabgrass at those protests want to change everything, and they naively think that “we will destroy this old world, down to its foundations” (the Internationale), and out of the smoking embers of the old, rotten world will sprout the flowers of the future.
The presence of the Extreme Left at the protests is no blessing either. We’re not talking about a Social Left but about a Political Left, and in our case, we should be crying that nowadays there is no Social Left with proper party representation. Here it is noteworthy that the party that passed the most legislation to help the poor and the needy was the National Religious Party.
As far as the costliness of construction, the Political Left does not represent the Social Left, because in Judea and Samaria there is endless cheap land. When the views of the extreme, anti-security, political left find expression at a demonstration, our suspicions are aroused. Likewise, the funding of the protest by the New Israel Fund should also raise a lot of questions.
Let’s get back to the topic of construction being expensive. Another direction for a solution would be to speed up the construction process and simplify the process of attaining construction permits, which is painfully slow. After all, every year there are 50,000 more families, and the government permits the construction of only 40,000 housing units. Since demand surpasses supply, prices naturally rise.
In any event, the Jewish masses have not been present at these tent protests, and the numbers reported were blown out of proportion by four or five hundred percent. Only one sector of the nation was there, and as noted above, their struggle is legitimate, but it is not a struggle of Torah and justice, but a struggle over money. It’s an individualistic struggle rather than an idealistic struggle.
Let us be strong and courageous, and let us increase our genuine struggles on behalf of the poor and the weak.