Jerusalem protestors are not what you think

By Nathan Jeffay, August 25, 2011

The cost of living demonstrations have caught the nation's imagination in Israel. Weekly rallies have attracted as many as 300,000 people and polling puts public support at close to 90 percent.

But British Jews seem to have greeted the new movement with at best a shrug and at worst criticism. I have been amazed when speaking to Brits, many of whom are so keen to end deprivation in Israel that they donate generously to charities, at their attitude to this gutsy attempt to address inequality.

It is trite to read about the protests and remark that times are tough, goods and housing are expensive everywhere, Israelis are complaining about high cost of living - but hey, that's life. My friend Miriam Shaviv, writing last week, claimed that "protestors do not realise how lucky they are collectively."

But this argument does not add up. Don't take my word or the protestors' word for it; refer instead to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was cock-a-hoop when Israel was admitted to the OECD just over a year ago, saying it was an international "seal of approval." But that membership also blew out of the water the myth that his version of Thatcherite economics, ushered in during his stint as finance minister from 2003 to 2005, isn't hurting normal Israelis.

Israelis have had enough of having the worst of both worlds

OECD league tables show that poverty is almost twice as widespread in Israel than the OECD average: 19.9 per cent of the Israeli population, compared to 10.9 per cent. The gap between the overall standard of living in Israel and that of the lowest tenth of the population is three times higher than the OECD average. Some 39 per cent of Israelis find it "difficult" or "very difficult" to live on their current incomes, well above the OECD average of 24 per cent.

In short, Israel is not just a country feeling tough times like others but, rather, a country built on robust welfare programmes and economic policy that protects the weak watching these legacies slip away. And watching home ownership become the preserve of the privileged.

Miriam wrote critically of the protestors' "sense of entitlement." I say that if they believe that buying a house should be a realistic aspiration for normal citizens, good for them. House prices have risen 29 per cent more than salaries in the last two decades. The housing market has accentuated inequality over this period. For the richest tenth of the population, the relative cost of their housing has only increased by 13.6 per cent, while for the lowest tenth it has increased by 56.7 per cent.

The protestors have focused heavily on Tel Aviv and other areas in central Israel, prompting the criticism that they are spoiled kids who have the unrealistic expectation that they should live in prime locations. As Miriam put it: "No one has the right to live in the most desirable areas; few Englishmen expect to live in central London."

But likening Israel to the UK does not work. Israel is, to an extreme degree, a country of "centre" and "periphery." The centre is where the job opportunities are concentrated; in the periphery unemployment is high and opportunities few. In terms of economics and job opportunities, Israel is two countries in one. For young people, choosing Tel Aviv or other areas in central Israel is not indulgent but pragmatic.

So why not commute? Brits are seasoned commuters, and have a transport infrastructure that supports this lifestyle. But after decades of low investment Israel's transport infrastructure is poor. If a district of Israel seems like a bargain, it most likely lacks good transport links; good commuter belt is paid for in the price of a home.

One moment Israeli youngsters are told they must give everything, even their lives if necessary, to the collective. Then as soon as they have served their two or three compulsory years in the military they are told that this is the country of the individual and they are on their own. Until, that is, the country demands they drop whatever they are doing for the nation's good whenever called for reserve duty.

Israelis have had enough of having the worst of both worlds.

The protest tents are full of youngsters who have put their professional and economic development on hold to defend Israel - not only as their country but also as the country of all Jews, which will absorb any Diaspora Jew who wants or needs to come at a moment's notice.

These young men and women deserve a hero's welcome to civilian life but they are not asking for anything like that - just for prospects.

The country they served owes them reform.

And the Diaspora they served owes them support.

Last updated: 10:55am, August 25 2011