Social protesters, not socialists

Majority of survey respondents want to maintain capitalist system with government fixes.

protester 521 (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
protester 521
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
What does economic suffering mean to Israelis? The new Jerusalem Report survey shows that more Israelis perceive the wealth distribution in their country to be unfair than the citizens of most other countries.
Nearly one year after the largest social protest in Israel’s history, a vast majority of Jewish respondents – 81 percent – say the distribution of burdens and benefits in the Israeli economy is either not fair (39 percent) or not at all fair (42 percent).
Of 22 countries surveyed in a 2012 BBC poll asking the exact same question, only two – Russia and Spain – had a higher percentage who rated the wealth distribution as “very unfair.”
Spain and France were the only two countries with more discontent than Israel – and in both places their leaders were recently ousted in elections. So why is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only still in charge but now governing with a newly enriched coalition? Shlomo Maital argues in this edition of The Report that there might be a gap between the Israeli reality and Israelis’ perceptions. He outlines bold steps that have been taken to create a more just economic culture in Israel since the protests of 2011. These measures go further than those in many other countries and could be one reason for the high stability of Netanyahu’s government. Maybe Israelis habitually complain, but take note of the responsive government actions.
But a second question in our survey gives further insight. We asked respondents to consider three different approaches to the free-market capitalist economic system: reject and replace it; maintain it with some government restrictions; or let it run completely unfettered.
An absolute majority of 57 percent chose to retain the capitalist system with some government fixes, rather than either of the two other options. Younger people and those who aren’t married – the kind who started the protests – were somewhat more likely to support unrestricted free market capitalism. Nearly three times as many 18-29-yearolds preferred the freest open markets (20%), compared to just 7% of respondents aged 50 and over.
In other words, when people demanded “social justice” they didn’t mean socialism.
That finding contradicts years of polling by the Israel Democracy Institute showing that the large majority of Israelis consistently support a “socialist rather than a capitalist economic outlook.” Maybe those terms have become labels, rather than a reflection of true knowledge about what they mean.
But the question about lack of fairness reveals a genuine and desperate desire for reforms to the existing system.
And there are serious reasons. Prior to the government’s reforms since July 2011, Israel had one of the highest inequality measures among the OECD , which it so proudly joined in 2010. It suffers from a pathological concentration of wealth, and an unholy alliance between the military, government and business. Government action has been late, incipient and remedial. No one’s rent is falling. The price of cottage cheese – the issue that sparked last year’s summer of discontent – dropped by about one shekel a tub. Electricity, gasoline and water costs have soared over the last year. Since these are basic commodities, the result is basically a tax on the poor.
The high levels of perceived unfairness predated the social protests. In late 2007, the BBC conducted a similar survey including Israel that showed the exact same results as our survey in 2012. People have been angry for years, and it will take more than a snap of the fingers to change perceptions.
Further, it’s not just actual prices, but the sense among Israelis that “fairness” is missing in general from their lives. The social protests rang with cries that “we pay taxes, serve in the IDF , and they don’t even notice us!” Israelis feel they work hard, live in a tough reality and give to the state endlessly, but they are cheated out of the normal rewards.
Interestingly, religious people were somewhat less likely to view the current economic distribution as unfair: only two-thirds of religious and ultra-Orthodox, compared to an 84% average for secular and traditional respondents. Only 25% of religious people said the current situation is “very unfair,” compared to 50% of the secular population.
So the more right-leaning populations are not quite as angry, and the rest are angry for change, rather than total transformation.
That’s why the protest slogan “The answer to privatization? Re-vo-lu-tion!” was misleading, and the words “Bibi go home!” were rarely heard.
There’s another possible reason why, despite such discontent, there has been little demand for the king’s head. Social protest leaders feared that attacking the current right-wing government would have been perceived as championing the left. “Left” in Israel is associated with being soft on the Palestinians, and no one wants to be stuck with that label. Mainstream Israel feels that the right-wing government’s approach to the conflict is the correct one.
Israelis weren’t protesting for a new dawn; mainly, they wanted to be heard. And to pay lower rent.