Two phone calls and a letter that I received a week ago reveal as much about the financial state of the country as they do about my own finances.
The first was from my bank. There’s something about a phone call from the bank that makes you automatically feel guilty, like a schoolchild called to the principal’s office without knowing the reason.
Maybe it was part of some kind of deep psychological strategy, to try to get me to agree to something I did not need, out of pure relief that I was not in trouble. My account was not overdrawn, but the pleasant voice of a teller I have known for years asked me kindly if I’d like a loan for the religious holiday season.
My first reaction was to wonder why then? Why not the school summer vacation period, when expenses rocket? My second reaction was to realize that, in any case, it was not a question she should be asking.
It’s hard to trust your bank when instead of encouraging you to save, it is trying to push a loan you cannot afford and have not requested.
And it wasn’t just this bank either: The mortgage bank didn’t call – it sent a lovely letter suggesting a loan to help cover the cost of renovations that I’d been thinking of.
Actually, I hadn’t been thinking of renovations but it wasn’t a bad guess: Renovating kitchens and bathrooms is almost a national pastime in Israel.
The second call that got me thinking was from a Tel Aviv investment company whose name I didn’t catch because I was laughing too much.
The young man at the other end of the line – obviously more used to being greeted by anger or stony silence – was taken aback by the sound of a woman assuring him that he had the proverbial wrong number. My idea of investing at the moment consists of spending money to fix my computer.
The disturbing aspect of these phone calls and the seductive letter from the mortgage bank is that they were aimed at encouraging me to live at a level that I could not afford. True, the economy relies on consumers, well, consuming; but the bank loan is not in my best interests. If anything, my bank (and not some unknown investment house) should have been calling me to suggest investing (or at least saving) rather than urging me and other customers to live beyond our means.
And this seems indicative of a trend. On Saturday night last week, the social protesters were back – as everyone had predicted – marching in rallies in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.
“There are 5,000 people in [Tel Aviv’s] Ibn Gvirol Street: Where are you?” asked a colleague via the marvels of modern technology.
The answer was simple. I was at home trying to figure out not only what the protesters were really demanding but – even more importantly – who they were following. I didn’t quite fathom the answer to either question.
The call might be for social justice for all, but I couldn’t help feeling the aim was far more self-centered.
It was definitely more political than last year, too. In those heady summer months last year, with obvious exceptions, the bulk of the protesters really were pulling together for a greater cause. Last weekend, the slogans and placards left no doubt what the objective was: Removing the prime minister from power.
AS A student, I did rally for various relevant issues – against proposed hikes in tuition or dormitory fees, for example. But – and I know I’m showing my age – in those days not only were our means modest, so were our lifestyles. We shared dorm rooms; few students had cars; and today’s expensive communications and computer equipment was undreamed of (in fact, access to a phone of any kind was the dream of most students and my ownership of an English typewriter provided me with an occasional job).
When did it change? The protesters are calling for “social justice” – a catchphrase with undeniable appeal. I can sympathize with the yearning for affordable housing; free or greatly subsidized day care (a major expense for those with young children); and a more even distribution of the burden of taxes. They lose my sympathy, however, with their demands for a lifestyle they think they deserve, rather than what the country can live with.
The social protest movement has raised some important issues and has chalked up some achievements, not just in raising public awareness but changing the atmosphere. The decision last week by outgoing Bank Leumi CEO Galia Maor to forgo a hefty bonus of NIS 3.25 million was undoubtedly taken with public opinion in mind.
The monopolistic pyramids that control many fields of Israeli life are being disbanded, gradually – witness the change in the cellphone companies, which are finally as a result of enforced healthier competition bringing prices down (although on the flip side, people are consequently losing their jobs).
I support the social protesters’ right to rally – even though I chose not to exercise my right to join them. In fact, I am proud of the fact that they can demonstrate.
Many talkbackers rhetorically (and viciously) asked the demonstrators questions about their presumed fate had they been protesting in Israel’s neighboring countries.
This is hardly the point: Thank heavens we can still have rallies, good-natured ones; demonstrations where the greatest suffering endured is a self-inflicted headache from the noise.
More relevant is the situation in other Mediterranean countries like Greece and Spain. These economies are more melt-down nation than start-up nation – and it’s easier to see how they got in this state than to figure out how to successfully remedy it.
They got into the ugly situation they now find themselves by following a dream – one they were being sold. You can’t borrow and borrow without knowing how to pay back tomorrow. My bank should know that, and probably does, which is why its policy is so disturbing.
If you only have a certain level of income, then you can’t go above a certain level of expenditure. It’s true for the average household struggling to make it from one payday to the next; and it’s true of countries.
It should also hold for those unfondly known as “The Tycoons” – the few who control the purse strings of the rest of us. The same bank which would undoubtedly phone me for a far less pleasant conversation had I been even a few thousand shekels overdrawn continues to lend money to the chosen few even when they are millions in debt. I don’t know who is laughing all the way to the bank and who will have the last laugh. I just hope it doesn’t end in tears.
OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria during a visit to Israel last week praised the local economy but, in my opinion – humble, like my lifestyle – we still need to be careful.
We cannot afford to give up on our dreams but we will never realize them if we continue to buy illusions.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.