My Word: Poor protesters

Parisians protest with style. In Jerusalem, revolutions are on a very different scale and subject.

Handicapped protesters 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Handicapped protesters 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The French have that certain “je ne sais quoi.”
Even when they protest. I have vague childhood memories of the 1968 student demonstrations that swept across France and much of Western Europe. Most summers my family snatched a two-week holiday across the English Channel. There we met the French in the middle of a month or two of their grandes vacances.
At some point in the 1970s, I had a French teacher on an exchange program in England. I’ve no idea what the French pupils made of the teacher they received, but I think my school probably got more than it bargained for: a passionate, left-leaning Frenchwoman who was more interested in teaching us social philosophy than French grammar. To this day, I can sing by heart most of the lyrics of Maxime le Forestier’s Mon Frère album, protest songs and all.
It came out in 1973.
Israel was otherwise engaged that year.
In fact, most years Israel has been a little preoccupied, which is the reason why the French fight for their rights (as if there was no threat from al-Qaida) while Israelis are still fighting for their existence (as if social ills were no threat).
“To see the French – and be filled with envy,” declared the headline of an opinion piece by Ma’ariv’s Ofer Shelach last week. Shelach was jealous of the way the French took to the streets to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform which would raise their retirement age to 62. It wouldn’t require them to work more than 35 hours a week and, naturellement, does not stop them from taking off for all of August and more. The French demonstrated even though they knew Sarkozy was right, Shelach pointed out. And even though the president stood his ground. “I wish it could happen here,” Shelach opined.
Vive la différence! I’d be satisfied if Israel could finally officially move over to a five-day week. Or as we say in Hebrew “dayenu.”
The French, ultimately, are not protesting the lack of free time. They are demonstrating out of fear that the change in the pension age reflects a new way of thinking. As Uriel Lynn pointed out in an op-ed in Yisrael Hayom, they are fighting against the right of the state to touch their work conditions.
In Israel, you’re more likely to have a rally supporting the right to work.
Following fierce opposition and threats of a strike from workers at Makhteshim Agan, the major producer of crop-protection chemicals, Koor, a subsidiary of IDB, announced that the negotiations over the sale to a Chinese company would be temporarily frozen to allow for discussions with the workers’ committee.
PROVING THAT the global village is a strange place indeed, Koor, which owns 44.1 percent of Makhteshim Agan, announced earlier this month that it has been approached by China National Chemical Corporation (ChemChina) to turn Makhteshim Agan into Chinese-run private company.
Who would have thought that Koor – once owned by the Histadrut trade union federation – would find a partner in an eager-to-privatize China? Addressing the fears of the 1,800 workers, Koor chairman Ami Erel told the Knesset Finance Committee: “There is no danger that the Makhteshim Agan factories in Ashdod and Beersheba will be closed. We intend to continue the operations at these factories and protect the company and its workers.”
Most media attention has focused on the threat to jobs involved in such a deal. A footnote has been the concern that Israeli workers would suddenly have to abide by Chinese-style work practices.
Both are legitimate fears.
Somewhat overlooked is the question of whether an Israeli company dealing in natural resources should be able to sell the control over these assets to a foreign body, which can then sell them to whoever it wants and so on.
“There is no sale of Israel’s natural treasures involved in this deal,” Erel told the committee, according to Post economics reporter Sharon Wrobel. But methinks he doth protest too much.
WHILE THE South has been concerned with chemical crop-protection producers, the North has been occupied with offshore resources. Israel has not struck oil, but it has discovered huge natural gas reserves. When I say “Israel,” however, there are some who would say it is Yitzhak Tshuva, head of the Delek Group Ltd., one of the owners of the well, who has struck gold.
Obviously the country in its state of non-splendid isolation will benefit from having a ready source of energy just off its northern coast. The question is: Who reaps the financial benefits? A heated discussion is now taking place over the percentage of the revenue that the company should pay the state. Just as the gas could help solve the energy crisis in the near future, so could the revenue help solve some of the pressing social problems, the argument goes.
For, on a much smaller scale than in France, there are social protests in Israel. Just this week the disabled and the blind gathered in separate events seeking greater financial benefits. And there was much grumbling over the increasing costs of housing and mortgage terms (and who really gains from major land sale deals).
Even the students – well, some students – took to the streets. For an hour. This was no Tea Party – more like the bitter Turkish coffee known locally as “botz.” Its very name means “mud.”
The brief demonstration by the students was a very Israeli one. It wasn’t about the cost of university studies. It was against the so-called “yeshiva students bill” which would give married yeshiva students with at least three children and who are not home owners (and subject to certain other restrictions) a small monthly grant, as indeed has been the case throughout the years. The university students argue that those who meet the same criteria – most of whom also work and do military reserve duty – should receive a similar stipend.
And, of course, there is also a call for more haredim to join the workforce – which ignores the central problem – that they cannot leave their yeshivot to work without first being called up for army service. Here you’re getting into a completely different discussion: Taking the average yeshiva bocher out of Bnei Brak and plonking him down in a regular IDF base is not likely to do much to enhance either national security or the rookie’s spiritual well-being. There should at least be a system of alternative civilian national service.
Soldiers don’t have the right to strike. Neither do policemen – which is a pity, because not only are they overworked and underpaid, they seem to be physically under attack at most protests.
Perhaps the only way in which the French demonstrations and the Israeli ones are similar is that the police, for some reason, end up as the target.
A social worker friend told me recently that her union was on the verge of striking. “But, unfortunately,” she said, “nobody cares. After all, we’re dealing with the poor, the elderly, the infirm and those unable to take care of themselves. If nobody worries about them, nobody is going to care if we stop looking after them.
“It’s not like when the teachers go on strike and everyone sits up and takes notice because their kids aren’t going to school.”
Ironically, some social workers earn less than the “welfare cases” they handle, and work hours that would have the French sharpening the guillotines of old.
On behalf of the police, nurses, social workers and others so busy with their jobs and trying to make ends meet that they don’t have a chance to publicly complain, I protest.

The writer is editor of the International Jerusalem Post.