Rattling the Cage: While Israel slept

Until this government comes to grips with their grievances, those grievances will still be there. And so will the social justice movement.

August 3, 2011 22:46
Protesters call for social justice across Israel

Social Justice Rally 465 8. (photo credit: REUTERS)

To think that three weeks ago, Israel was the “start-up nation.” The economic envy of America, Europe, the whole world, it seemed. The “Sabra Tiger,” you could say. The peace process was stalled ominously, we were heading for a collision with the Palestinians, the world was glaring at us, but the economy – ah, the economy! A light unto the nations.

That was three weeks ago, before some young Tel Aviv rent victims pitched their tents on Rothschild Boulevard. Today, there’s virtually unanimous agreement that the Israeli economy is sick – that it has gaping, agonizing abscesses that have to be cured, or at least start being cured, right now.

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How did everyone fail to notice? How could Israelis, myself included, have been so wrong, so out of touch with reality, these last few years? Before, the subject of economic inequality, of increasingly hard times for the have-nots alongside the rising fortunes of the haves, was a constant, mobilizing issue. Not, of course, like the issue of war and peace, but way up there, tied for second place, let’s say, with the issue of religion, or what’s called the “culture war.”

There were angry protests and hunger strikes, there were headlines, politicians were compelled to say something about poverty, about children suffering from “food insecurity,” about the “working poor,” about the “income gap” that was larger here than in any other economically advanced country except the US.

Then, about five years ago, all this began to fade as a national concern, until in the last two to three years it vanished, and when anybody suggested that for all the wealth and glowing statistics, the diseases of the economy hadn’t been been cured, and some had gotten worse, nobody, myself included, was interested.

I used to write a lot about the economy and those on the losing end of it; in the last few years, hardly ever. Occasionally I would wonder, why aren’t there any protests, why isn’t anybody talking about this anymore? Are all those people who were frustrated and angry suddenly content? Have their problems been solved? But this was never more than a fleeting thought. Until these protests spread from the issue of rents in Tel Aviv to the issue of social democracy in Israel.

What happened? How did this society go to sleep for so long before being shocked awake to realize that the Sabra Tiger had left most of its brood behind, unequipped to survive in the jungle?

To begin with, we got used to the situation being bad and staying bad, because at least it had stopped getting worse. During the first half of the 2000s, when the intifada begat the recession and then-finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s welfare cuts created a new industry of soup kitchens and clothing charities, poverty spread and stuck out like never before. The government didn’t do anything except make it much worse, but at least people noticed.

By the second half of the 2000s, though, the intifada was over, the dot-com crash was over, Israel came out of its recession and poverty stopped getting worse, settling instead into “critical but stable” condition. The story wasn’t going anywhere anymore, people didn’t want to watch another mother and her children crying for food; “compassion fatigue” set in. Also, mainstream opinion-makers kept repeating that poverty here was mainly a problem of the haredim and Arabs, until the public concluded that it wasn’t much of a problem at all.

With their eyes off the economy’s dark side, opinion-makers and the public turned all of their attention to the bright side – growth, or the way the country as a whole was making more money from year to year; the booming hi-tech sector; crowded shopping malls and vacation flights abroad, big new cars and 4x4s; new-generation gadgetry in everyone’s hands and homes; highrises; the way inflation was staying low; the way unemployment kept getting lower.

Then, beginning in late 2008 when Wall Street crashed, the US and Europe and other prosperous countries went into financial crisis – but not Israel, whose strict regulations on bank loans are said to have been the economy’s immune system. So the bright side here shone even brighter by comparison to what was going on abroad; Israelis were reminded constantly by Netanyahu and his team how lucky they were to be living here instead of in the West, where they’d be going bankrupt.

An economic light unto the nations we were. If fundamentalist capitalism had failed in the US and Europe, it sure hadn’t in Israel, or so it seemed. There was no voice strong enough to get people to look beneath the shining surface, especially when the country’s greatest salesman of fundamentalist capitalism was the prime minister, one who effectively had no opposition.

What lay under the shining surface was poverty that hadn’t eased at all, that still afflicted nearly one out of three children in this country, the most widespread poverty in the economically advanced world. The problem of the “working poor,” which is what’s driving these protests, had gotten continually worse, especially for people in their mid-20s to early-30s whose wages were low and stagnant, who had limited prospects in the companies where they worked, who didn’t have the money to start their own businesses, who couldn’t afford to either buy apartments or pay rent with housing prices skyrocketing. These were the unseen, unheard members of the lower-middle class who didn’t drive 4x4s or vacation overseas, who weren’t making it, and who were falling further behind while the upper-middle-class and rich couldn’t spend their money fast enough.

Israeli society was blind. For a whole series of reasons, we didn’t see the underside of the start-up nation. But what amazes me is that we did see that the schools were overburdened and under-resourced, that the same was true of the health system, and we didn’t demand an answer to the question: If the Israeli economy is the envy of the world, why are our children’s test scores such a disgrace? If growth is high and inflation and unemployment are low, why is good, dependable healthcare affordable only to the one out of three “haves,” not the two out of three “have-nots”?

The new social justice movement is not going away. Even if the Knesset ducks out for the summer, even if the Right tries to brand the organizers as anarchists, even if the organizers get overconfident and make tactical errors, even after the tents are folded.

There are millions of people in this country who are failing economically, and most of them are working, and a lot of them are just starting families and they’re full of energy. Fundamentalist capitalism has failed them, they know it, they’re shouting it in the streets and talking about it at home – and they will not accept more of the same, which is what Bibi seems to have in mind for them.

“[T]he government must encourage competition, but there is no need to limit the individual’s freedom,” he said this week. He still believes in the divinity of the free market and the evil of governmental wealth redistribution. He still believes that with individual economic freedom, social justice will take care of itself, and if it doesn’t, the answer isn’t more wealth redistribution, God forbid, it’s more individual freedom.

Until three weeks ago, Bibi could preach this sermon to a silent, nodding congregation. No more. Too many people in this country know personally, from their own day-to-day working lives during these “boom” years, that it’s a crock.

The prime minister, the finance minister and the other shepherds of the start-up nation have a real problem: They love to brag and brag and quote statistics about how successful the economy is, especially in relation to the West. This used to be a winning message, but now it’s backfiring on them. The more they talk about the health and strength of Israel’s economy, the more they piss off the literally millions of Israelis, especially those starting out, whose own household economies are sickly and deteriorating.

These people know the truth now, and those who’d forgotten it have been reminded, and that truth is stronger than any spin. Until this government – or another government – comes to grips with their grievances, those grievances will still be there. And so will the social justice movement.

The writer blogs at Israel Reconsidered (www.israelleft.com).

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