My Word: The Frearson Principle

I would caution those who seek an instant revolution that you never know what the end result will be.

toilet man 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
toilet man 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
You have to hand it to the tent city protesters: From their extremely humble abodes on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, Jerusalem’s “Horse Park” and elsewhere, they have made their voices known.
This is no longer a Facebook revolution start-up but a face-down for (much needed) social change.
They have even managed to put together a (pretty reasonable) list of requests. This includes: free day care from the age of three months; halting privatization of the health, education and welfare systems; creating more apartments for long-term rent or affordable purchase; greater financial assistance for housing; and less VAT.
The middle class has united, although it’s not quite clear behind whom.
Among the most important lessons I learned in my schooldays, long ago, was the problems of leadership. One wintry day – particularly cold even by London standards – the window in our classroom broke. I was appointed by my classmates as the representative who should ask the principal that it be fixed, as we were having trouble concentrating during lessons. Actually, some of us were having trouble stopping our teeth from chattering.
I set off on my own down the long corridor (which probably to this day echoes with the call: “No running, girls!”). Along the way I was joined, or at least trailed, by an ever-growing number of pupils, each urging me to raise another demand (that we be allowed to wear trousers rather than skirts during the cold spell; that we be allowed home early; and other conditions which I’ve forgotten).
By the time I had reached the principal’s office there was quite a crowd – I think her word was “rabble” – some of whom probably had no idea of my original mission.
“What are all you girls doing here?” asked Miss Frearson in her most English-headmistressy voice, and at once they all disappeared, surprisingly fast, considering the no-running rule.
“Why did you bring so many girls with you to my office?” asked the headmistress when we were alone. I explained that it had been something like a snowball effect.
“Aah,” sighed the former history teacher. “Let that be a lesson to you.
When you start a revolution, you never know who will join you on the way, or what the end result will be.”
I don’t remember if we got the window fixed that day, but Miss Frearson’s warning has remained with me.
That’s why, with all my sympathy for the original aims of the tent-city protesters, I wonder where it is heading and what will happen on the way.
Clearly, revolutions are easier when they focus not only on one issue but also on one clear and common enemy.
At the moment, the Israeli protesters are dividing their attention among many topics – housing, education, the fate of the striking doctors, and conditions of those employed through manpower agencies in the public sector.
All issues with which I can identify.
But during last week’s debate on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s expedited construction program, Miss Frearson’s words came back to me with particular force. On the one hand, the protesters have created an atmosphere which the prime minister could not afford to ignore; on the other, it has led to a law which, while facilitating the building of more housing, is likely to have social and environmental implications that will have the next generation out on the streets in protests, too.
The common enemy appears to be Netanyahu, although I suspect that it is not Netanyahu of 2011, rather it is the Netanyahu who spearheaded the privatization process during his first term in office in the 1990s.
That’s why I was more irritated than surprised to hear opposition leader Tzipi Livni so shrilly heckling the premier.
The official Knesset website still lists her first important position in the category of public activities as head of the Government Companies Authority (1996-1999), “in charge of the privatization of government corporations and monopolies.” Not a follower, but appointed by Netanyahu himself to be an active participant in the outsourcing obsession which led to a decline in basic social services, salaries and conditions, and the loss of national assets.
I was also not surprised to hear Livni call for the Knesset summer recess to be canceled in view of the social unrest. But I don’t remember then-foreign minister Livni calling for the recess to be canceled five years ago, when Lebanon II broke out on Kadima’s watch.
Whatever has been going on in Israel these past few weeks, it is not war. On the contrary, past experience shows that during wartime, demonstrations are not about social issues, and the atmosphere in protest tents is not of a sleep-away summer camp.
Tahrir is not here, thank heavens, because the situation of the middle class in Israel is not like that of the average Egyptian.
For a start, we’ve been free to protest all along.
I am also concerned by what I have come to think of as the Frearson Principle in this case, too. Demanding the removal of Hosni Mubarak, without considering who – and what kind of regime – is going to replace him was the easy part. Mubarak’s sickbed show trial might make some Egyptians feel better, but it’s not going to cure all the country’s social ills.
Neither can Israelis’ economic woes be compared to those of, say, Greeks, rioting just across the Mediterranean.
And might I note that the growing number of middle-class Israelis who travel to the Greek islands on vacation, boycotting belligerent Turkey, cannot be considered completely needy.
The economy is doing even better than America’s (although the state of the economy there should have set off certain warning bells, and didn’t, for a free-market fanatic like Netanyahu).
All is not collapsing.
When I mentioned the Cottage Cheese Rebellion to a New Zealandbased journalist in an e-mail last week, he amiably replied: “Down here it’s the price of milk that’s upset a few folk.”
We have a country – free but not cheap – with its own peculiar problems, but I’m always wary of slogans containing catch-all terms like “The People,” particularly when combined with a verb like “demand.”
When chanted by a crowd which has no idea whom it is following, even the chant: “Ha’am doresh tzedek hevrati,” “The People demand social justice,” sounds menacing.
Priorities need to be changed – but that includes, also, the priorities and expectations of the middle class itself.
Changing the social order and creating a fairer society is necessary. Changing the government is also a possibility – but for that we have elections. Seeking free-for-all, instant gratification is the way to anarchy, not a better society.
With the Frearson Principle in mind, I would caution those who seek a revolution that you never know what the end result will be. True change takes time and planning. And government reforms cost money, which has to come from somewhere – dream on if you think it will be from the deep pockets of a local tycoon.
The social protests are an important step; I just hope they’re heading in the right direction. And, by the way, even in the corridors of power, it’s not wise to run.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. [email protected]