By Israel Inside Out
August 3, 2011
There is an Israeli Summer happening right now – and I am not talking about the weather (although it is exceptionally hot) but about social protest and Israel's version of the Arab Spring. A citizen driven Facebook powered protest movement.
It started a few weeks back, with the Great Israeli Cottage Cheese Revolt – a somewhat esoteric beginning for a revolution; but nonetheless a successful one. The cheese manufacturers did reverse price increases bringing the supermarket price somewhat more in line with other countries and more importantly in line with the cost of the same Israeli cottage cheese sold in Manhattan (which was apparently cheaper than in Israel - for the same tub!) We all smiled at the success of the revolution and as Zionists we were delighted that the most important news item and revolutionary tendency was cottage cheese!
However, it didn't stop there – to date we have a doctor's strike, a threatened strike from the dairy herders, protests from families about the cost of nappies and huge tent villages in most of Israel's cities and towns. All this against an Israeli economy that seems to have weathered the recent global turmoil relatively well and to be in reasonable shape at the macro level (or so we keep hearing anyway.) This is middle class revolution, although interestingly enough even some of the tycoons and captains of industry are supporting the protests. Frankly a little confusing...
The other evening I met up with some friends - all of them Sabras from a variety of backgrounds (although we are all engineers) and we started to talk about what's happening in Israel. All of a sudden it started to make sense.
The largest protest is about the cost of housing and the squeeze on the middle class who are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. We all know the old joke about how you live in Israel on a small fortune – make aliya with a large fortune! But the protest is about what happens if you are an honest hard working, army serving wannabe middle class – somehow or other the overall happy economic situation does not help you to survive. Food and nappies and housing and education and health are all expensive – according to some figures (and widely believed by the public) disproportionally to the level of income. Taxation here is perceived to be high. All in all its a squeeze.
Free education as every Israeli parent knows is free apart from a few thousands of shekalim a year in “optional” contributions. "True," I said – "but health care here is far superior to my family's experiences in for example the UK." Here my friends corrected me – I live in Jerusalem and my wife has a senior position at one of the famous Jerusalem hospitals – its not like that if you live elsewhere. Here I am not so sure – I think we do enjoy a good service with committed staff and a generally life and patient centric approach – but I accept that the levels of service do vary.
So what is the protest really about? As we talked a few things became clear – firstly it isn't about Bibi – but this is happening on his watch and he has very clear monetarist economic policies and so is very much in the hot seat. It isn't even just about housing (although everybody agrees – that something needs to be done). After all we all know that housing prices can't be solved instantaneously.
My friends explained that it is now about the social contract between the state and the citizen. We accept that defence spending is high and necessary – those threats haven't evaporated in the heat of the summer. However, it is now about the rights of citizens to work hard, get on in life and see their needs taken seriously and significantly solved by the state – especially, because of the high taxation. In many ways a consumer movement American style to drive prices low with better competition combined with a European style social democratic movement.
What is the correct level of taxation? What are the state's obligations to educating all the children? What level of health care should we expect? Should consumer prices be controlled or should we let natural competition drive prices lower (or like with the cottage cheese agree on a higher price almost cartel like)?
However, the potential impact runs much further – in order to fund these changes – or even have a meaningful discussion about them; then policies as the economics of settlements, Haredim and other special interests will come under focus. What are our priorities and what are should the social contract be with different groups within our society?
In short the debate about the social democratic nature of Israel is also about the national agenda and Zionist policies. Of course, these are not black and white issues – one can support a certain lifestyle and still wish for a lower cost of living and more social justice. Alternatively, one can be leftist on security issues whilst rejecting the social agenda. However, the power of the national debate seems to put everything on the table.
So what of the politicians? As I mentioned Bibi is in the driver's seat. Our opinions were divided as to how much he gets it – does he really understand the potential. A veteran politician Benyamin Ben Eliezer has commented that this is one of the most challenging times since 1948 – and believes that the debate could even impact our society under a clear, present and immediate security threat. (We normally assume that under external threats we unite and forget our differences.) We certainly hope that this just political dramatisation – it does not bear thinking about if he is even a little bit correct.
Supposedly the protests are grass roots, but, the political parties and the Histadrut union are circling around and are apparently involved to some extent. (I would think it safe to assume that they are involved and that this is at the very least a happy political coincidence from their point of view.) It is hard to identify an existing political party with the same agenda as the protestors. Should a new party or parties be born in the midst of the protests then they will have to survive the cut throat reality of the Israeli political system and not just advance a social democratic economic agenda. How they could do that will depend at least in part on the span of the underlying social debate and upheaval.
So is a new social democratic agenda feasible and advisable for Israel? Different friends have different views – strongly in favour to nodding their heads sadly about the attempt to turn the clock 40 years back to the future.
I take no public position and leave that for each reader to decide for themselves. To me it seems encouraging that Israeli society is debating its future in parallel to the ever present and important existential debate. What is for certain is that we are in for an interesting (and hot) Israeli summer.
Jonathan is a Mancunian and now a Jerusalemite. He writes frequently on the beautiful life in Israel and on Israeli tourism on the popular In Israel Blog on http://www.IsraelInsideOut.com