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Stirring up a neurotic nation

I was out of Israel when the social protest movement began and, deep in post-vacation blues, I haven’t managed to come to grips with it since my return. The following piece was written by Chanan Kubitsky.

What can drive an Israeli to leave the confines of her comfortable air-conditioned home and take to the sweaty Tel Aviv streets one day in July?

Not having one.

Four weeks ago, Daphne Leef, a video editor aged 25, lost her apartment to an outrageously high demand for rent. So she pitched a tent in the middle of Rothschild Boulevard. Pretty soon other tents popped up with some more disgruntled renters. They sleep over, brush their teeth in the garden fountain, shower at the gym, and go to work.

Evenings are spent cooking up a protest against high rents, apartment prices that are out of reach, a ballooning cost of groceries, high taxes, and the question that is asked repeatedly, Where has the middle class gone?

It took a few days, and these young people were joined by the student union, dairy farmers (this is an interesting story), psychology interns (my daughter Yael is active there), a parade of young mothers with strollers, striking public hospital doctors, a few West Bank settlers, a university professor who holds reception hours in his tent, and smaller tent villages in Jerusalem, Beer Sheva, Haifa, Kfar Sava, and in some in Arab and Druze villages.

I read in the paper today that a phone call came in from a serious gangster doing time, asserting that all the prisoners and their families stand behind the protest one hundred percent. How’s that for a broad common denominator.

A couple of weeks ago, after Shabat, a street demonstration was called. People headed for the streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva, Yeroham, Kiriat Shmone, and other cities. The young women leading the protest were conspicuous at the podiums. It was an impressive demonstration, but it only scratched the surface. A week later an even more invigorated crowd turned out, estimated at 300,000 all over the country. It turned out to be the largest civil protest in our history.

This movement is apparently receiving scant coverage in world press. How can this dog-bite-man story compete with the London riots? It is a civilized protest that with energies of inclusion, apparently short on big egos. No violence, no altercations, no professional politicians. Police officers guarding the crowd feel that they are a part of it too.

What is happening?

The Israeli economy is considered relatively strong. We weathered the financial crisis quite well, banks are stable, employment numbers are high, cafés and restaurants are full. Economic indicators bid us well.

I don’t trust economic indicators.

For the past 30 years we’ve been following the American example implementing what many think are sane capitalist measures. True, the Israeli government of the early 80’s was bloated and inefficient and needed some trimming. This was done consistently over these years by most prime ministers who knew anything about economics.

Come Benjamin Netanyahu as Minister of Finance in 2003. In one fell swoop he slashed spending and cut taxes. With the zeal of a born-again he recites Neocon principles promoting trickle-down economy, privatization at all cost, outsourcing of critical government functions – the works.

How did we fare? Yes, the economy grew, but mostly at the top. The promised trickle-down effect turned out to trickle up. Income lost to tax cuts was made up for in indirect taxes, making the system ever so regressive. Haphazard privatization created a thin layer of oligarchs (fondly known here as “tycoons”) . Sloppy deregulation gave rise to sap-sucking oligopolies: cell phone service, bank service for households (as opposed to their preferential treatment of tycoons),  full price retail supermarket chains, dairy product manufacturers, and so on.

I must remark here that it’s a funny thing about preachers of small government (“government is the problem”) who get voted into office. In a self-fulfilling prophecy they take license to botch up the job handsomely.

A disturbing related item is the doctors’ strike, that has been going on for over 140 days. Thousands of doctors are protesting interns’ long hours and meager pay, and the general deterioration the public health system through prolonged neglect. Negotiations are being held amicably, in the pace and rigor fitting of an octogenarians’ golf tournament. Not even did the hunger strike undertaken by the head of the Israeli Medical Association, the intrepid Dr. Leonid Edelman, hold any sway over government negotiators.

The bottom line is that young people are having a harder time setting up homes and making ends meet at the grocers. Their middle class parents are having a harder time helping them out. One sign that I saw at Nordau Boulevard sums it all: “The invisible hand gave me the finger”.

How fares the protest?

As of today, in mid-August, people are still euphoric. There are an estimated 2,000 tents in Rothschild Boulevard, and a total of over 3,300 all over the country. This Saturday night demonstrations are planned in several towns in the periphery, in an attempt to dispel the notion that this protest is limited to elitist consumers of sushi and exotic smokeware.

Out of a newfound sense of unity emerges an open discussion on social policy and priorities. The budgetary and fiscal policies are discussed in detail, and the even the bloated defense budget (long regarded a divine bovine) is being questioned. For once in a long time these discussions are dignified and dispassionate, and do not resemble the shouting matches usually hosted in this land.

The Netantahu government, after several prolonged days of denial, initiated a round table discussion. Their side is staffed with a broad panel of politicians and professionals. The protest leaders, all too aware of their limited experience, enlisted their own experts – mostly leading professors of economics and political science who are volunteering their services. The committee’s charter calls for reaching conclusions in a matter of weeks. We shall wait and see.

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Lots of things can go wrong with this genuine, grassroots protest. There is no question that the protest will fold once the smallest security-related incident comes about. The heretofore patient and understanding police chiefs and city mayors will have eviction notices served in an instant. There is a good chance that the overloaded Netanyahu committee will come up with nothing much to show for (that’s how committees are usually used). The admirable young protest leaders may make tactical errors that could alienate chunks of the population.

With all this in mind, this newfound energy is likely to linger. There is a renewed solidarity, the kind that once emerged only when we faced  external threats. Today’s young people, who follow the “me” generation, are on the lookout for the common good. Selfless volunteerism gained a new appreciation. The raw energy of protest must transform into political influence, and this neurotic nation must learn the value of patient evolution.