What is social justice and what makes a nation? Viki Vaanunu, public housing activist, speech given at the Sapir conference, January, 2012.

I was asked to talk about two topics – what is social justice and what makes a nation. I want to clarify that I am going to talk about these issues from my personal perspective and from the experience I have gained in the course of my participation in the struggle for public housing over the past six months.

Viki Vanunu

Viki Vanunu

Before I address these topics, I want to tell you a bit about myself. I was born and raised in the Katamonim neighborhood in Jerusalem and am today a single mother to a four year-old girl. My grandparents came to Israel from Egypt without money or property and without knowing the language. Their lives were very difficult – after immigrating to Israel they lived in a maabara (transitory camps where Jewish immigrants were settled in the 50’s) and worked in low paying jobs that didn't pay enough to provide for the basic needs of their family, let alone to live with dignity.

This sad story repeated itself with my mother who worked as a cleaner to support me and my two brothers on a salary that was far below what she needed in order to get an education or learn a profession. Sadly, I find myself caught in the same vicious cycle. I work as a care-taker through a manpower company, I make much less than I deserve, and my salary doesn’t cover the basic needs of me and my daughter. Being caught in this place – the inability to live with dignity and take my daughter out of the cycle of poverty and hardship – is what drove me to stand up and protest; to change reality so that my daughter will not be the fourth generation in my family to live a life of poverty and hardship. I’ve also joined this struggle for the people around me. Everywhere I look in my neighborhood I see a lack: of housing, of food, of education

And now after talking about my life experiences, I would like to address the issues I was asked to talk about: For me, the question of what is a nation and what is social justice flows from all that I described to you earlier

My people are those who work hard all their lives and get a wage that doesn’t allow them to live with dignity. My people are my friends who are sleeping in the streets now because the state doesn’t give them another option. My people are those who work in the jobs that keep the economy alive, and are asked to sacrifice constantly while other people get rich at their expense. My people are the ones that love this country, and want to be a part of it and to generate real change – those are my people!

The establishment wants me to believe that my people are the Jewish nation, but if there are Jews that exploit me and like me, and who do not allow us to live a normative life, then this definition is not satisfactory and I do not agree with it. My people are all those who are oppressed like me: Jews, Arabs, refugees. All those who are exploited by the establishment.

My definition of social justice derives from my definition of people/nation. Social justice happens when all the groups I mentioned take responsibility for changing their reality. When we stop relying on the establishment to change our situation. Social justice is those people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for change and justice. Social justice is understanding that when the law is illegal, it calls for civil disobedience.

It is unacceptable that there are empty buildings in Israel when people are homeless. It is unacceptable that the state evicts people from their homes. It is unacceptable that the state serves one group of people – the thin layer of elites – at the expense of all of us.

I want to take the opportunity to comment on the things Shlomo Maoz said yesterday1. Before I started to protest I didn’t understand why people say that there is discrimination against mizrachi Jews. Now I see how rampant that discrimination is. All the people I know who are poor are mizrachi. I know that there are also ashkenazis who suffer hardship, but it seems that most of the people suffering economically are mizrachi. A small example – as a mizrachi woman, my chances of going to university are much smaller than those of an ashkenazi woman. In that sense, I agree with most of the things that Shlomo Maoz said. There has been discrimination against mizrachi Jews, and that discrimination continues to this day. But unlike Maoz, I do not see the protesters from Rothschild as our enemies. I think that aschenazi Jews also have an interest in changing the system and building a society built on justice and equality.

I want to end with what is to me the heart of the struggle – the issue of public housing. There has been no new construction of public housing in the past twenty years. The public housing law has been frozen time and again as part of the law of hesderim2. The state has been selling the public housing apartments at a huge profit – 3 billion NIS – but has not used this money to build additional public housing as required by law. The money has been used to fund other projects instead.

A house is stability. A house is security for us and for our children. A house is the possibility to live a normal life. From here I call upon the decision makers in Israel –re-enact the public housing law! Stop throwing people to the street and demolishing houses! Build houses for those who need them! The first stone has yet to be thrown in our struggle, but if the state continues to ignore us, continues to silence us with the police, our struggle will escalate. We are ready to fight for our future and the future or our children.

Viki Vaanunu, public housing activist, speech given at the Sapir conference, January, 2012

Translated from Hebrew by Inbal Arnon and Arik Moran.

First published at the Hamaabara

[1]Shlomo Maoz was fired from his role as chief economist at Excellence Nessuah after giving a speech where he spoke out about the continuing discrimination of Mizrachi Jews by the Ashkenazi elite.
[2]An amendment to the government budget that is used to 'correct' the budget by transferring funds to various departments and activities. In practice, these annually re-formulated laws are used to appease those pressure groups needed to sustain political stability at the expense of the broad, long-term policies that are so desperately lacking in annual budget programs.