The formal political process isn’t always the best way to effect social change

Published on Left Foot Forward, by YIGAL SHTAYIM, October 2, 2013.

… The group we created, ‘Marak Levinsky’ (Levinsky Soup), embedded itself more deeply into Israeli society and the mass media than the ‘Group of 400’, which has since been almost forgotten. The Marak Levinsky venture has become an emblem for social initiatives which empower citizens to stand up and do something. For more than 500 days we have managed daily shifts in the park to distribute food and clothing for hundreds of refugees who were unemployed and arrived from prison (where they were held after crossing the border into Israel) with few clothes and sometimes barefoot or only with flip-flops. 

We were refused assistance from the municipality, who had earlier that year closed the soup kitchen for Africans. But we got help from aid organisations including the Red Cross and connected with older Israeli organisations that were here long before us, and together with them and the help of Facebook, directed this whole system in open and closed groups. All the Israeli media, and many from around the world, have come to witness this phenomenon: Israelis bringing food and clothing from all over the country. At first they questioned how long we’d last, but after 500 days, the answer is no longer in doubt: until there are no more refugees in the park. Even in Israel, where people do not tend to rise up, perhaps because most of us passed through military service, there is an answer to the question: what can I do, when the state and the municipality ignore the problems?

What made me do all this? I guess there is significance to the fact that like most Jews, I am the descendant of refugees. I am the first child of my family born in Israel after who knows how many generations. My parents and older brothers were born in Chile and Ecuador, my grandparents were born in Germany on one side and Russia on the other. It is with such a family history it would be sad if I could not empathise with people fleeing their homeland when it was burning.

Of course we took a lot of poison and fire from right-wing elements in power, as well as from the southern neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv, and of course in the virtual town square: Facebook. There were many who did not like the assistance we were giving to the new poor people in the southern neighbourhoods of the city. A Knesset member from the right-wing Likud party – Miri Regev – stood on a stage in the town square and shouted words that are unthinkable to Jewish ears: ‘The Sudanese are cancer.’

No wonder that a Molotov Cocktail was then thrown at a nearby kindergarten for refugee children.

This terrible act led volunteers from Marak Levinsky to establish an organisation that focuses exclusively on supporting kindergartens for refugees – an appropriate response to those who discriminates against children because of the colour of their skin or civil status, and who deny refugee status to refugees.

But all this has not led me to become a politician. I was invited by the left-wing Meretz party in Tel Aviv to participate in their primaries to stand for municipal elections, and at first I agreed. Meretz is the party I have voted for since I had the right to vote but I could not, in the short time I spent thinking about the idea of running for city council, see how this could be a tool to advance human rights in Tel Aviv. I know how it can work theoretically. You could, for example, see to it that all municipal soup kitchens stop closing their doors to hungry refugees. But it is likely the state will undermine any attempt to guarantee the refugees human rights in the city, while thousands are imprisoned without trial for up to three years … //

… (full text).

(Yigal Shtayim is an artist and activist living in Tel Aviv. This article first appeared in the 2013 Fabian Society’s Fathom pamphlet Reflection and Renewal: where next for the left in Israel).


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