Protesting too much?

Some say that the social-justice movement correctly put the economy back on the agenda, but its ideology no longer resonates with mainstream Israelis.

Daphni Leef at social protest 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Daphni Leef at social protest 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sitting around a picnic table in a small park a short walk from Tel Aviv’s Azrieli towers, symbols of the success of Israel’s transition from socialism to capitalism, a number of down-and-outs complain bitterly about falling through the cracks of the system. These men and women, all of whom requested that their names not be published, are members of a homeless encampment that represents the remnants of last summer’s social justice movement.
While Israelis of all ethnic backgrounds, religious denominations and ages got together in 2011 to occupy Rothschild Boulevard, later returning home to their jobs and studies, these campers had nowhere to return to.
Short on shower facilities, some of them appear dirty and unkempt, and the subtle scent of body odor is apparent when they congregate.
While their collection of tents bears a superficial resemblance to last year’s assemblage on Rothschild, with banners with slogans calling for social justice and the ouster of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wherever one looks, there is a significant difference between the ideology espoused here and the proposals put forth by the leaders of the 2011 movement.
As the talk around the table gets more and more heated, one of the participants, an unshaven, potbellied man, explains that what Israel needs now is for its citizens to emulate the Egyptians and bring “Tahrir Square” to Tel Aviv. As his compatriots nod and murmur agreement, another thought is voiced: that street violence cannot be far away.
“We have to occupy the banks,” one of the homeless protesters enthuses, while another announces that the only answer is “smashing windows” and “throwing Molotov cocktails.”
The protesters do not have a specific party ideology, they say – excepting one man who says that as a lifelong Likud voter he is angry with the prime minister’s policies – and are unable to put forward any constructive solutions for the nation’s inequalities short of saying that violence seems more likely.
However, this radical fringe’s views bear little resemblance to those of mainstream Israelis or the leaders of the social justice campaign, although a spokeswoman for the movement did point out that in any cause you will find radicals.
The violent rhetoric and professed extremism of the remaining protesters only serves to highlight the fact that the social protesters have moved on to a new phase in their campaign, and that it is increasingly hard to mobilize mainstream Israelis to come out and spend their time in tents in the streets of Tel Aviv.
Or, as political commentator Shmuel Rosner wrote, “Israelis have moved on.”
Rosner believes that as with the “occupy” movement in the United States, the “protesters’ demands were somewhat vague. They called for social justice, but seemed less concerned with the poor and those lagging behind than with the young, educated middle class.” Moreover, he theorizes, “the protest movement is now struggling to get its message across [because] the government rose to the challenge last year.”
Among the reforms initiated by the Netanyahu government were a plan to provide free preschool from the age of three and an increase of sales of state lands to encourage development of new and cheaper homes. This in turn, he believes, meant that the message of continued street action “didn’t resonate” with mainstream Israelis.
“Most Israelis wanted improvements, not revolution,” he wrote.
One of the features of the social justice movement, which is apparent when speaking either with leaders of the movement itself or with the remnants calling for violence, is a nostalgia for the days of Israeli socialism. It is ironic that in a city like Tel Aviv that has wholeheartedly jumped on the bandwagon of the capitalist, hitech economy, such a nostalgia remains, but it is an undeniable fact.
Speaking with Metro, Rosner posits that “Israelis – like most other people – want to have it all: the prosperity and comfort of the capitalist world, and the safety net of the more socially minded systems. Those youngsters longing for Israel’s past of collectivism were not yet born when Israel was at that stage,” he says, “and could hardly remember how less appealing and less comfortable it was. I think that the so-called ‘movement’ had no viable alternative to offer to the current system, and that Israelis by-and-large would like the system to remain in place but with necessary corrections – chief among them the halting of extra funds to special-needs communities such as haredim and settlers.”
THE BELIEF that the leaders of the protest movement are offering a populist message with little substance is one that is shared by some of Israel’s free-market advocates as well.
Robert Sauer, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, also asserts that a large part of the protest movement’s fire is being fed by nostalgia for Israel’s socialist past.
“The nostalgia for socialism among Israelis, including the intelligentsia, which is also composed of Israeli academic economists, derives from a historical aversion to capitalism and cognitive dissonance,” he says. “During the time of the Enlightenment, when the Jews left the ghettos in Europe, it was the Left in Europe that embraced the Jews and welcomed them into public life. The Right was anti-Semitic to a much larger extent.
“The European Left eventually became committed to the utopian ideals of communism and socialism, and hence the Jews became partners, and even leaders, in that struggle.
Jews throughout the world are still suffering from these historical aversions.
When confronted with the empirical fact that capitalism has produced the most incredible increase in wealth that the world has ever seen (even the poor today are infinitely better off than they were before capitalism took hold), cognitive dissonance begins to set in.”
However, he believes, protest leaders such as Daphni Leef have “served an important social purpose.” The social-justice movement, he says, “has initiated, for the first time, a serious conversation in our country about the deep problems in our economy, the high cost of living, and the direction of our economic future.”
This, he asserts, is a step in the right direction, even as he disagrees with Leef’s proposals, saying that they have “little intellectual appeal.”
“I do not believe that the leaders and supporters of the social-justice movement truly understand basic economics. It is very difficult to grasp the concept that markets, without central direction, can actually produce better social outcomes than an economy that is under command and control. It is somewhat juvenile to think that bureaucrats and politicians are capable of directing resources to their most valued uses. It didn’t work in the former Soviet Union, and the slightly less benign expression of central planning practiced in Europe and elsewhere [e.g., Portugal, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Spain and of course Israel] is not working either.”
Dr. Steven Plaut, an associate professor of business at the University of Haifa and an American-trained economist, agrees with Sauer that many young Israelis take the wealth generated by capitalism for granted, having not grown up under the previous socialist governments and the resultant economic malaise in which even applying for a landline telephone meant a wait of several years.
Young people “take the prosperity and wealth generated by capitalism for granted, as a given and as an entitlement,” Plaut says. He has harsh words for the protesters, saying that they “go to their anti-globalization, anti-capitalism rallies wearing their Nike shoes, their designer jeans, carrying their smartphones and MP3s, and take comfort breaks from their rallies sipping lattes in bistros.”
Railing against what he sees as untrammeled populism, Plaut bemoans the fact that, in his eyes, the protesters “certainly do not want to invest the time and effort into mastering economics, policy analysis, statistics and cost-benefit methodologies, things that could equip them to analyze real social problems and seek solutions.”
There is a dichotomy, a “cognitive dissonance,” if you will, within the Israeli mind, continues Plaut, that accounts for the concurrent acceptance and rejection of capitalism.
“On the one hand, Israelis are probably the most individualistic and entrepreneurial population on the planet,” he says, praising them for their nation’s economic resurgence.
“They are better equipped than any other group in the world to take advantage of the opportunities presented and generated by market economics.
In their practice and in their daily lives, they are the epitome of Homo Economicus.” However, he says, “in their ideologies, they dream about a nonexistent past in which everyone was equal and happy in some sort of socialist utopia.”
Glamorization of the early days of the socialist-Zionist pioneers is a big part of the Israeli ethos and this, Plaut asserts, plays into the nostalgia for the socialism of Israel’s “heroic” period.
“The problem is that idyllic past is fictional. People were ‘equal’ in the early Israel only in the sense that they were equally impoverished and reduced to waiting in lines for consumer goods in shortage, a bit like the bad old days of the Soviet empire.
Where material comfort could only be achieved via senior rank in the socialist party.”
Plaut came out strongly against any discussion of economic policy not grounded on careful study and instead relying on populist appeals.
“The social-justice protests are a form of summer recreation – cheaper than water parks – events in which those Israelis not traveling outside the country can participate,” he comments acidly. “They seem to believe that under ‘socialism’ they will not have to work very hard and they will have lots of friends. They seem to think that if people are ‘equal,’ then it will be easier for them to make friends and find dates. I really do not think that there is anything deeper to their ‘thinking’ than that.
“The only countries that have ‘equality’ are those where everyone is equally destitute. Societies in which people have comforts (even the poor) are those in which there are wide disparities in income and wealth. Those disparities are an unavoidable byproduct of growth and prosperity. Nostalgic, bleeding-heart Israelis think that people are happier under Third World ‘socialism.’ This is a bit ironic because everyone living in Third World socialism wants to escape to First World capitalism.
How many Israelis or other Westerners are trying to infiltrate Sudan to live the life of equality there? How many poor Americans steal boats to escape to Cuba?” NOT ONLY critics of the social justice movement such as Sauer and Plaut agree that the movement’s days of populist street rallies and tent cities are largely over. Talking about the future of the movement, founder Daphni Leef expressed her agreement that it is entering a new phase.
While this summer did see protests and even a few acts of self-immolation which fueled further action, it could not, on the whole, compare with last year’s massive turnout. It seems that such actions are not sustainable and that movements such as Leef’s must grow and move on. Currently, she says, she is working on a new initiative, to be unveiled in the coming weeks, and studying to increase her knowledge base in order to deal effectively with contentious social and economic issues.
“I have been working very hard in the past six, seven months studying and building something in order to push change to come,” she says.
Leef addressed accusations that she, and the movement she founded, are socialist head-on, saying, “people really love to call me a socialist. But I think I am more of a capitalist than people think. I think that what we need is balance. I think that what we need is a free market and the market, especially in Israel, is not free at all.
It’s not a democratic market at all, and the monopolies here are just atrocious. It is as if there is this small mob that is in control of every part of money-making business here.”
However, she continues, “at the same time we need welfare policy. I am not saying that everybody is equal. I’m a city girl. I was born and raised in Jerusalem, so I don’t have the mentality of a kibbutz. But at the same time I think that we need equal opportunity and I think that that balance is not really real. There are different models in this world, that you can see work.”
However, she declined to give an economic model that she believes would work for Israel, saying that Israel is “special” and that Israelis are “on a journey of discovering what Israel wants to be from the bottom up.”
While she says that she “can’t comment” on the nostalgia for Israel’s socialist days present during the summer protests as she “wasn’t alive then,” she did explain that one important component of the social j u s t i c e movement was restoring a sense of community that, she says, disappeared with the advent of Israeli capitalism.
“I can tell you this,” Leef explains.
“I am part of a generation that was already born into neo-liberalism. We have been asked since the age of five what we want to do as a career when we grow up, and we live in competition with one another in [terms of] grades, status and materialism from a very early stage. I think that in a way, in Israel we have been sold the American dream from childhood on, and for me, and I think for the people my of age group, that didn’t drain the swamps... This is our swamp; basically, we need to drain it.
“I think that this is a very patriotic year for my generation because by going out in the streets we [understand] neo-liberalism and this sort of dog-eat-dog world that was created around us and that we were educated to be a part of took away community life from us. For this we are homeless.
So I feel that until July 13 [when she set up her tent] I didn’t belong anywhere because society has been teaching me, as it has many others: ‘Don’t put your roots down anywhere, because you need to keep your options open.’” While most of the protesters have gone home, even Leef’s detractors admit that she has managed to put the economy back on the agenda.
While she is unwilling to say at this point what the next stage of her struggle will look like, she was emphatic that the movement is “not about” her and that “anything you set your mind to you can achieve.”
However, Leef’s efforts do not satisfy all of the residents of the last protest/homeless camp in Tel Aviv.
“It will come to violence,” says one of the residents, who asks to remain anonymous.
It probably won’t, and most of the protesters will likely not come back to the streets of Tel Aviv in last year’s numbers, but at least, agree Leef, Plaut and Sauer, the issue of Israel’s economy is now back on the agenda.