Shelly Yachimovich is the Chair of the Israeli Labor Party and the Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset. In May she addressed the Jewish Agency. The text of her speech follows.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak here today. This is my first time at the Jewish Agency Assembly. It is a really, special privilege.
Your work on behalf of Israel society has a lot in common with my vision for Israel, as head of the Labor Party, and leader of the Knesset opposition.
Your work aims to inspire Jews around the world, to connect with Israel, and to help make Israel a country, that we can all be proud of.
My vision is to promote major socioeconomic change to make Israel a better country for its citizens, which Jews around the world will support with pride.
We have so much to be proud of already.
A vibrant culture, an innovative business sector, a developed high-tech industry, a strong army, a good healthcare system—that still works well.
Of course we face great challenges such as the peace process, preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and developments in the Middle East.
In Egypt, we have just witnessed the first democratic election. I am encouraged by the first statements by Egypt’s president-elect Muhammad Morsi, that he intends to uphold the peace agreements. The peace with Egypt is an important interest for both of our countries.
These are all major issues.
But I believe the solutions to our biggest problems begin at home. Israel is going through deep changes, which I will talk about in a minute.
Let’s start with some good news. A few weeks ago, the attorney general decided to allow Reform and Conservative rabbis to receive salaries from regional councils in some communities. I have great respect for Orthodox Judaism, yet, I also believe that the State of Israel must allow expression for all streams of Judaism. This decision was a great achievement for liberal streams of Judaism.
It is not enough, but it is an important step, that will bolster the bond between Israel and Diaspora Jews. It is a victory for freedom of religion and for all people who want Israel to become a more tolerant, open, and just, society.
And of course, Judaism is the ultimate source of social justice.
The concepts of tikkun olam—repairing the world—and tzedakah—charity—are at the heart of our cultural and religious heritage and should guide us today as we seek to fix Israeli society.
Tzedaka is important—but tzedek, justice —is even more important. A country with real tzedek—justice—will not need a lot of tzedaka.
Let me tell you why we need socioeconomic change. You may know that Israel was accepted to the OECD—the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. And this makes us part of the world’s developed countries. But Israel has the worst level of income inequality and the worst poverty rates in the OECD.
I know it sounds unbelievable. But we have a small group of very wealthy people who are getting richer. And we have 1.5 million poor people in Israel. Half of the workforce doesn’t earn enough to pay taxes. Millions of Israelis live in a world that has nothing to do with the Start-Up Nation
A CEO, can earn 1.5 million shekels a month while his office cleaner takes home 20 shekels an hour. We cannot tolerate this, not in Israel. Because in Israel the CEO’s child and the cleaner’s child will go on to serve in the same army. Our security doesn’t only come from sophisticated weapons systems. It comes from good education, the excellence of our soldiers and their feeling of mutual responsibility.
This solidarity will be damaged if we don’t make Israel a more just place. The good news is that Israelis want to fix these problems. Last year, hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets and camped out in tents, demanding social justice. I believe we can fix our government, our economy and our education system by balancing free market competition on one hand and the state’s responsibility for its citizens on the other.
I’ve focused on these issues for many years, first as a journalist and in the last six years in politics.
In the Knesset, I have legislated 40 laws to promote socioeconomic change by improving the day-to-day lives of ordinary Israelis. The goal is to foster more equality between men and women; between Arabs and Jews; between immigrants and veteran Israelis.
So, as you can see, I am a proud social democrat. I know that in the U.S. “socialism” is not a nice word. But we built Israel on Labor Party values – Zionism and social fairness.
David Ben-Gurion understood this when he established free education, even without having a budget to pay for it.
Yitzhak Rabin understood this when he allocated huge sums to education, even though he was a military man.
And so do you. You have brought millions of olim to Israel, including my parents. Polish Holocaust survivors who made aliyah after their parents perished.
Did you bring them, and the Yemenite Jews, Iraqi Jews, Russian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Ethiopian Jews to Israel to aspire to earn 20 shekels an hour—the minimum wage—as a cleaner, or a social worker, or even a teacher?
Of course not.
You brought them here to build a new life of freedom, equal opportunity, to enrich Israel and to be enriched- by Israel.
Social justice will make our society stronger so that it will be able to take bold steps to make peace with our Palestinian neighbors based on the formula of two states for two nations.
Why? What is the connection?
It is very simple, and it is not even unique to Israel:
Poverty and social gaps, foster ignorance and racism on both sides. So in a society with huge gaps and deep poverty, the flowers of peace will never bloom.
Over the last year, the Labor Party has been gaining more support every day. The citizens of Israel understand that we will only have the power, ability and courage to face the challenges, from Iran, the Palestinians and across the region if we will be a strong society.
My goal is to build a better society, rooted in social justice with a government that is responsible for its citizens. We need an economy that shares its resources fairly and where wealth and prosperity really trickles down.
If we create meaningful change, Israel will be the best example of tikkun olam and Jews around the world will always be proud to call Israel their real homeland. May I conclude by saying thank you for what you are doing for the State of Israel and its people.
I look forward to working with you in the future on our common mission.