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Israel has known huge demonstrations—usually surrounding geopolitical issues.  But the Occupy rallies of 2011 were the largest Israel has ever seen.  Elsewhere, Occupy movements lacked a certain coherence and have since petered out.  In Israel, by contrast, one particular sector spoke out about one specific issue, and that issue is today at the top of the country’s social agenda.  At the center of these demonstrations were men and women in their twenties and thirties protesting the skyrocketing prices of real estate and the inability of young couples to purchase apartments. 

Relevant Links
B'har: Liberty and the Jubilee  Michael Carasik, Jewish Ideas Daily. This week’s reading, though little more than a single chapter, deals with two separate topics: first, the sabbatical year; second, the obligations of family members to a relative in economic distress. What links them is a focus, unusual for the Torah, on macroeconomics.
Doing Social Justice  Yehudah Mirsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. Is “social justice” anything other than window dressing for pre-existing political predilections? Is talk of tikkun olam a way to raise Jewish consciousness, or just to change the subject?

Occupy Tel Aviv was a protest against a fundamental breach in the unwritten Israeli social contract.  For more than 60 years, young people in Israel had effectively been given an unstated but understood promise: if you finish your matriculation exams, spend three years honorably serving in the defense of your country, go on to complete a college degree, and marry a spouse who has done the same, you will be rewarded: you will have an apartment that is your very own, not because the government issues you one but because economic forces will enable you to obtain one.  You will take out a steep mortgage; to make the down payment you, your brother, and your long-lost uncle will all need to scrape it together; but you will marry and immediately purchase a home.  Put differently, the "Israeli social contract" proffered the hope to Israel's youth that if they did their part they would become owners and full shareholders in the Zionist enterprise.  To own a property in Israel is to have returned home in the most profound historical sense.  To rent is to continue as the wandering Jew. 

But over the last several years, real estate prices in Israel have skyrocketed.  A young couple that has "paid its dues" has little hope of being able to make the down payment on an apartment.  A couple that rents for many years does not develop equity in an owned home.  Within a generation, when not everyone can afford to purchase a home, a bifurcation is created between owners and renters.  Owners are full shareholders in the Zionist enterprise.  Renters are participants with only secondary status.  For many younger Israelis the high cost of real estate breeds resentment and alienation, because someone has suddenly changed the rules mid-game.  It is no wonder that some of the Occupy movement’s leaders are now newly elected Knesset members and that affordable housing is at the top of government's social agenda. 

I came to this understanding of Occupy Tel Aviv through my work on political thought in the Bible.  We think of the Torah as a religious document, but the Torah also provides us with history's first blueprint for a society dedicated to attenuating hierarchy and stratification.  To be sure, the Torah mentions multiple classes of individuals within the Israelite polity and prescribes an order that cannot be termed egalitarian in the full sense of the word.  It speaks of those with entitlements and privileges, such as the king, priests, and Levites.  Yet the control of society’s resources enjoyed by these groups was quite limited compared to the authority wielded by the rulers of the surrounding civilizations of the ancient Near East.  Most significant, the Torah rejects the divide between the class that imposes tribute, concentrating economic and political power in its hands, and an even larger class of those who pay the tribute.  Instead, it calls for a new social, political, and religious order founded on the idea of a society whose core is a single, uniformly empowered, homogeneous class.  

One of the primary areas in which this is seen involves the Torah's economic prescriptions.  In the ancient world, the commoner was in perpetual danger of slipping into economic distress.  Famine, war, or illness would quickly lead to a spiral of economic enslavement.  Loans at high interest required that a man sell his belongings, property, and even family, with little hope of ever again becoming self-sufficient. 

The Torah alters a number of economic practices and institutions that were known across the ancient Near East, but none of these innovations was as significant as its reform of land tenure.  In strictly economic terms, the apportioning of the land of Israel among its tribes and sub-clans meant that every Israelite family would be afforded a means of support.  The laws of the jubilee meant that even when a commoner fell on hard times and lost his land, the property would eventually revert to his family, allowing for a renewal of economic self-sufficiency.  The Torah's reform of land tenure, however, bears political wisdom as well.  The great Chicago sociologist Edward Shils noted that the more inegalitarian a society, the less likely it is that the masses, who inhabit the social periphery of that society, will intensely affirm the value system that has empowered those above them.  Shils points out that in contrast to more steeply hierarchical societies, the masses in the modern liberal society generally feel that the central value system of the society is their very own.  They have a strong sense of participation in its institutions of power. 

Shils' insight is everywhere evident in the Torah's vision of land tenure.  From an economic perspective, land tenure and the jubilee laws envisioned economic security for all Israelites.  But these reforms were as much political as they were economic.  They offered Israelites the chance to escape extreme marginalization as serfs and to share as central partners—as owners—in the new order and stand at its focus.  Put differently, these reforms gave the people a stake in what was being established in the hope that they would be capable of rising to the challenge. 

As I looked at the young couples in Tel Aviv protesting the inaccessibility of housing they could call their own, I thought of the land tenure reforms of Leviticus and the lessons of Edward Shils.  These couples were, no doubt, calling for an opportunity to build equity.  But more deeply they were clamoring to feel like part-owners of the country in which they lived and served.  Former Harvard president and U.S. treasury secretary Lawrence Summers once quipped, "No man has ever washed a car he has rented."  To be relegated to life-long rental is to be marginalized.  Not to own your own home is to be un-invested in the collective enterprise.  In line with authentic biblical teachings, land reform in Israel will ensure that its younger citizens remain invested in the country's future. 

 Joshua Berman is a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and Shalem College, Jerusalem.  He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, a National Jewish Book Award Finalist for Scholarship.

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Salomon on May 13, 2013 at 11:08 am (Reply)
People want cheaper houses in Tel-Aviv and surroundings. But Tel-Aviv and surroundings are finite and delimited, and the availability and value depends on the offer. That´s the law of the market. No government can change it. Those who want to buy a house or to lend according to their income should look for developing towns and the government should facilitate (as fiscal incentives to the investors) the implementation of modern facilities like public libraries, hospitals, entertaiment and shopping centers
Elise Ronan on May 13, 2013 at 11:29 am (Reply)
I think the author mixes apples and oranges. "The Land" in the Torah was necessary for survival. It was how you fed your family. To equate that with a sociologist view of property ownership is disingenuous. Furthermore to say that if you rent you are forever an outlier is also nonsensical. By that standard every citizen of every country should be able to own property anywhere they want.

If the young couples cannot afford to live in the hip sections of TA then as they do here in the US they move to the outer-areas. It's called being a grownup. Some of us in the States actually commute over an hour to work to be able to afford to buy a home.

And as far as Larry Summers is concerned...yes those of us who rent our cars (I lease) do wash them. We take care of them and we respect ourselves by taking care of where we lived when we rented too. Only a pig lives in a sty.
Jerry Blaz on May 13, 2013 at 10:01 pm (Reply)
While Biblically land was allocated in perpetuity to a household and its progeny, apartments never were regarded under these laws. These laws were for agricultural land only. There is no Jubilee year for apartments. But once there was affordability. The income has not kept up with the escalating real estate prices, and today people no longer can afford to buy with the money they make. While it isn't just an Israeli problem, it seems that the cost of capitalism cannot afford to offer its workers a pay commensurate with the expenses of living without taking a deep dip in one's living standard. But it is the cost of capitalism, a phrase that can easily raise hackles? Or is it the greed of owners? Any system that distributes too much of its prizes to too few participants, and leaves most of its participants unable to live a decent middle-class life should not be surprized if changes are coerced upon it.
Adam on May 13, 2013 at 11:31 pm (Reply)
Thank you for the article. This analysis is exactly what needs to happen more often. Whether the argument is valid or flawed, we should be continuously asking ourselves by what standards we're operating.

Land ownership is important; it grounds you in a place with loyalty running deeper than with a lease contract. Elise I think your correct as well, though if that is the case the State should offer greater incentives for ownership in new suburbs.
Dan Feigelson on May 14, 2013 at 10:02 am (Reply)
Say what? I live in Israel and was here in throughout the summer of 2011; not once did I hear the protests here referred to as part of the "occupy" protest movement in the USA. Can you say "revisionist history"?
    shaul on May 14, 2013 at 1:42 pm (Reply)
    It was probobly in order help the american readers. The protest movment accually got its causes from the European protest movments (it wanted to effect the economy and maybe to overthrow the current government in an election, not to cgange the system of government) ant its intensity from the Arab spring movments
    George on May 15, 2013 at 7:53 am (Reply)
    Dan is correct. I live in Israel as well. The "Occupy" term started September 17 of that year, whereas the last major protest in Israel that summer was September 3.
Troy Zukowski on May 14, 2013 at 11:53 am (Reply)
The problem is exacerbated by so many young people wanting to relocate to Tel Aviv. It is seen as the "hot" city to reside in. There are areas in the interior of Israel(such as in the Galilee) where the cost of living is much more affordable. Young people should be encouraged to settle in those areas, as well. Israel needs a reasonable, population distribution balance.
Joshua Berman on May 19, 2013 at 3:17 am (Reply)
A number of readers mistakenly identify the protests as that of "spoiled" yuppies who are willing to live only in Tel-Aviv. That is a gross misunderstanding of the issue. The housing crisis in Israel is real, and it is everywhere. The arrival of a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union was not met with a commensurate plan to build for an expanded population. The Israel Land Authority is woefully slow to release land for development. Because demand so outstrips supply, prices have skyrocketed. To check those prices artificially, the Bank of Israel will not permit a mortgage to be taken unless the purchaser can put up 35% downpayment - that's where the real bite is. Very few young people (and their parents) can come up with that kind of cash up front.

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