Israeli Society Has Wised Up

Israeli society has wised up. It’s no longer enough for us just to cast our ballots once every few years. The public is taking responsibility and will not allow any government to change the character of society without discussion or debate.

September 21, 2011 15:03
3 minute read.
March of the million in Jerusalem

March of the million Jerusalem 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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ON SATURDAY NIGHT, SEPTEMBER 3, MORE THAN 400,000 people demonstrated throughout Israel to demand social justice and feel that they are part of a newfound sense of change and hope.

Following the demonstrations, the tent camps in various cities are being taken down, to be replaced by informally scheduled Hyde Parklike happenings. Afew camps in the more economically distressed and socially deprived neighborhoods remain but the authorities have threatened to demolish them; a few homeless families squatted in an abandoned dormitory in Jerusalem belonging to the Hebrew University.

The Advisory Committee on Social Protest, hastily established by a panicky government and chaired by liberal economist Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg is convening public meetings and closed-session discussions as it prepares its recommendations. The informal “Alternative Committee,” headed by social activist Prof. Yossi Yonah, is meeting to finalize the protesters’ lists of demands.

It is unclear what the results of these protests and committees will be. Vested interests may try to offer social welfare crumbs, or to manipulate us into complacency, or to mollify us with gestures. Yet whether the government accedes to at least some of the protesters’ demands or not, whether the Trajtenberg Committee uses its mandate to institute real change or not, we can already point to some of the successes that the protest movement can claim to its credit.

A new cadre of young leadership has emerged, whose political skills are being honed by their activism and tempered by the mistakes they make. For more than six weeks, this leadership has succeeded in galvanizing a protest movement that never once deteriorated into violence or destruction.

There are many young women among these leaders and they’ve introduced a new language to the Israeli public. It’s a language that is more inclusive and empowering, less chauvinistic and hegemonic.

And it leads to a discourse that recognizes that the personal is political, that emotions have a place in public discussion and that the individual has a place in a collectivist society. The new language is already resonating in the media and on the street.

Israeli society has wised up. It’s no longer enough for us just to cast our ballots once every few years. The public is taking responsibility and will not allow any government to change the character of society without discussion or debate. The Trajtenberg Committee invited the public to submit suggestions – and received more than 1,200 separate policy statements. On websites and webcasts, through virtual media and teach-ins, individuals and groups are educating themselves about economic and social theory so that they can participate effectively in policy decisions.

Even the tensions that the protest sparked – between the poor and the middle class, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, center and periphery, Arabs and Jews, religious and secular, settlers and peaceniks – have contributed to a new awareness of class distinctions and animosities and to a new commitment to finally face these difficulties head-on. Critics accused the movement of being unfocused – yet by refusing to be bound by narrow demands, the protesters were able to draw attention to the real underlying question: We are still a young country.

We can still mold ourselves in our own model. What kind of a society do we want to be? Powers-that-be may try to confuse us with the old slogans and guilt us into a false unity based on external threats, as if these threats are the excuse for government corruption and economic exploitation. But this movement will be ultimately successful if we refuse to be distracted and if we all continue to speak, argue and dream in the new language, even if we’re only slowly learning to speak it.

In the summer of 2011, a majority of the public came to realize that we Israelis really can create a society that isn’t bound by jingoistic legislation, guilt and fear, but is rather united by compassionate social welfare and the values of decency and interdependence.

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