The contrasts are striking between Israel''s month of demonstrations in behalf of social justice, and what is happening in other countries of the Middle East and Britain.
Britain looks pretty much like urban America in the 1960s. A lumpen proletariat, with nothing to lose, is rampaging in vandalism and pillaging their own neighborhoods. As in the US, a single trigger--in this case the death of a young man shot by police, with or without good reason--unleashed a mass of energy pent up by generations of unemployment, poverty, and feelings of hopelessness. Different from the American experience, these British riots appear to be less racially or ethnically based than class based. Whites are participating along with people having backgrounds in South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. So far the authorities are responding with something akin to understatement. They are using staves and shields, debating the use of plastic bullets (usually non-lethal) , but so far not armed with deadly weapons, and not calling in the army.
Syria and Libya are the Arab uprisings currently in the headlines, with Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen at various degrees of old news although not yet arrived at new realities. Why a NATO intervention in Libya and not Syria, with both atrocious in the killing of civilians? The greater importance of oil in Libya, or simply that Libya was the first up. NATO governments are wary of involvement in yet another war against Muslims, at least not before they learn how to bring Libya to a desirable closure.
Opps. It''s not about Islam.
Switch to Israel.
Two to three hundred thousand participants in demonstrations as peaceful as the gathering of many fewer of the same people in our living room. No reports of injury, and a government gearing up to respond with changes in taxation, regulations, and/or public services.
Our impressions of an upper-middle class crowd seen on television have been confirmed by a company claiming to assess socio-economic traits on the basis of scanning the use of cell phones during the demonstration, and assessing the home addresses of those using the phones. More than half the crowd was in the three upper deciles of family income, and only 15 percent in the lower four deciles. While all ages were visible, the vast majority were in their 20s and 30s.
In other words, recent graduates of universities and colleges, better behaved than boozed up American counterparts on a football weekend. Television coverage showed the crowd shuffling for an hour or so from a point of assembly toward a main square. The numbers made it impossible to walk normally. People talked while they moved, some carrying signs expressing their wants. Three of the country''s most notable singers entertained between the speeches. The musical styles of Shlomo Artzi, Yehudit Ravitz, and Rita are closer to American folk music of the 1970s than the raucous stuff that appeals to younger and less well educated Israelis. Absent was a rock star known for avoiding military service. This was a crowd that wanted change, but identified with national norms.
The story is far from over. The tents are still in place, although the Tel Aviv Municipality has indicated that public order and sanitation will require their early removal. Demands continue to increase, as more groups recognize that this is the time to put their wants on the table. It may be some time before there is another opportunity. In recent days we''ve heard that the Ministry of Education should not change the school books so often, because families want to buy second hand books or to pass them on from older to younger pupils. A marginal fruit packing plant has announced the layoff of 50 workers, and they are joining demands for justice. There are calls to control the prices of gasoline and electricity, both under pressure from international factors. Working class protesters who made names for themselves in the 1970s and 1990s have come out of retirement, either in search of their own past glory, or invited by organizers wanting to expand the reach to other social classes. People demanding more housing for young couples are pressing claims that criteria for government assistance should shift away from those favoring the large families of the ultra-Orthodox. Leaders of Jewish settlers in the West Bank have signed on to the protests. They also have claims, and say that they should not be targeted as enemies.
Those claiming to be protest leaders have decided not to hold another mass demonstration this coming weekend. Best not to risk a decline in attendance. However, there will be demonstrations in outlying locales that will attract media attention.
Prominent figures in the protests are saying that they have passed the stage of getting the government''s attention, and now is the time to join officials in defining precise goals capable of being achieved.
In comments like this, one hears young people maneuvering for position to join the national leadership. Student politics is one of the ways to the top. Ehud Olmert is the most striking example of a national leader who moved from that base to the back bench of the Knesset, then to minor and major ministerial appointments. Currently he is on trial for various kinds of corruption. Tsakhi Hanegbi is another former minister who began in student politics. His recent headlines have also dealt with charges of corruption. The leadership of the present generation has reasons to be careful as well as something to emulate.
We can expect frictions and upticks in protests as the realities of defining priorities leave many of the claimants on the outside looking in. Most sensitive will be the issue of the ultra-Orthodox. Their leadership is noticeably quiet, perhaps hunkering down in anticipation of having to protect themselves from charges of being parasites who only take and do not contribute. Sixteen of their Knesset Members supporting the present government (and potential partners in any imaginable future coalition) are their main defense.
Israel''s demonstrations are stirring a political response, not yet clear in its outline, but as different from Syria and Libya as is day from night. Britain remains another story, with its Conservative power holders also worthy of attention.