Protests reveal rift in understanding democracy

Analysts say democracy is stable, but the political structure needs work: "The majority of Israelis have no idea what democracy is."

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN & FELICE FRIEDSON / THE MEDIA
August 16, 2011 20:50
Tel Aviv housing tent protesters

Tel Aviv housing tent protesters 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

The social justice movement that has rocked Israel in recent weeks has clearly shaken off years of apathy by the public and brought hundreds of thousands to the streets. People have set up tent camps protesting the high food costs, out-of-reach prices for housing and eroding health care.

What’s different about these protests is that this time, the lower and middle classes have refused to play according to the script of previous public discontent that often called for bringing down the government and holding new elections. They want to see the present government stay and change its policies and stop its capitalistic erosion of the Israeli welfare state.

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“We don’t need elections now. It costs a lot and is a big mess,” says Nufar Kaplan, one of the student organizers of the protests in Jerusalem. “What we need is to speak with the present government and get some results.”

“We have democracy but it is just not a very good one,” she adds.

Israel has always prided itself as a democracy, the only true democracy in the Middle East. Nothing would seem to manifest this more than public debate and free speech. Still, people are starting to question whether this democracy has eroded.

“This country is not democratic. It is turning out to be very dictatorial, very much so. We as citizens have no rights. What we want we don’t get. The government does whatever it wants. We vote, but everything is corrupt,” says Rani Gytya, a pub owner who pauses to contemplate the struggle to make a shekel these days.

Israel’s economy is among the fastest growing in the developed world, with gross domestic product expanding at a 4.6% annual rate in the first quarter, while the jobless rate– 5.8%, compared with 9.2% in the US - is the lowest in more than two decades. But wage growth has been stagnant while prices for everything from humus to houses are high by Western standards. The gap between Israel’s rich and poor has never been so wide.

“The majority of Israelis have no idea what democracy is because the average Israeli sees it as going to elections every 3 or 4 years. They don’t understand that those elected have to keep their promises,” says businessman Amos Givon, sipping an espresso on Jerusalem’s Hillel Street. “The French are a good example of democracy. They haven’t forgotten what a guillotine is. A politician who forgot his promises is not forgiven. Israelis don’t understand that yet but they are starting to learn.”

Prof. Yedidia Stern, Vice President of the Israel Democracy Institute, says that Israel has a strong democracy, but the political structure was not stable. There is not the call for elections now because the public protest is against all governments - not just the one presently in power.

“The economic social order of Israel was very much capitalistic. It was oriented to privatization and some of the people are against this agenda which is the agenda of all past governments in the last two decades so replacing this government will not change much,” Prof. Stern tells The Media Line.

The regional unrest in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya notwithstanding, Israel is going through a relatively quiet and peaceful time. No wars are looming with its neighbors and the Palestinians, too, are enjoying a prosperity that has reduced the propensity for violence.

The major issue on most people’s minds today in Israel is not security or the peace process.

“For the first time, I see a huge debate about an issue that has nothing to do with security and foreign policy, which is a new phenomenon in Israel. I think this is very good for us. I do believe that the government is listening to the people right now and we are starting to see some kind of negotiations that will lead to a new social contract,” Stern says.

But Givon is more skeptical. He says the fundamental epiphany by the general public that elections are not going to solve problems was “very deep and significant.” But he worries that this could be reversed if conflict broke out.

“If there will be a little war it seems everything will return back to what it was and that appears to be just what the government wants,” he says.

What experts believe Israeli society really needs is a good civics lesson.

“The truth is we teach our kids not enough civics studies. I served as the chair of the civics studies in Israel and my feeling is we have to invest much more in this specific field of knowledge,” Prof. Stern says.

The Citizen’s Empowerment Center in Israel is working to improve civics and debate among Israeli high schoolers. They have also been pushing for reforming the political structure in Israel to have more constituency voting.

“The main problem today in Israel is how to change the political structure and to build a new leadership in Israel,” Lipkin tells The Media Line, adding they have set up debate clubs in over 100 high schools and that their civics curriculum is an on-line school program that aims to empower citizens with a better understanding of their rights and obligations in order to encourage greater civic involvement in the community and in the future of the country.

“After our campaign the youth will take it to Facebook, Twitter and web sites. We need to take it one step forward and to explain to them how it will affect their lives, and the beds in the hospitals and the house prices. If we change the political structure we can change a lot.”


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