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A smug, bourgeois Israeli 'social protest'

Despite the wishes of many — if not most — of the people in the streets, the masses who identify with the ‘social protest’ are callous to those whose complaints are so much more urgent than theirs.  

Even though I’ve always agreed with the stated goal of the “social protest” – to redistribute Israel’s wealth more equitably – I can no longer sympathize with it. While many if not most of the people in the streets would like to turn the movement against the occupation and not only against “swinish capitalism,” this hasn’t happened after two years of protest. It’s not going to happen, either, because the moment it does, the social protest loses its legitimacy to speak in the name of “the people,” because “the people” of Israel couldn’t care less about the Palestinians. This was clear to everyone from the beginning; left-wingers hoped that what began as a demand for economic justice would extend to a demand for justice for the Palestinians, but that hope remains as hollow today as it did in the summer of 2011.

Regardless of the politics of the street protesters and the organizers, the masses at home who identified with the cost-of-living protests two years ago, and who identify today with the protests against the new budget, are dominated politically by the Jewish middle-class and their concerns. Those concerns not only exclude the Palestinians, they exclude the Arab citizens of Israel – and they largely exclude the genuinely poor Jews of this country, too. While many middle-class demands happen to coincide with those of the poor – for instance, opposition to higher consumption taxes and to cuts in education – the poor are hangers-on in this movement. (Again, I’m not talking about the protests in the street, but the wave of popular discontent over the economic policies of Finance Minister Yair Lapid and the government.)

The days when poor Jews from the urban slums and peripheral “development towns’ could mount an attention-getting protest in this country are over. (For Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, of course, they never began.) Those days ended in the early-to-mid 2000s when then-finance minister Netanyahu outlasted the single mothers’ hunger strike led by Vikki Knafo. At the same time, he was slashing aid to the poor amid the worst recession and terrorism in the country’s history, which in turn expanded poverty and economic inequality to levels never before seen here and which have not diminished since. But because overall economic growth returned (based largely on the vast enrichment of the prosperous minority) and unemployment went down (while a giant class of “working poor” was created), the consensus today is that Netanyahu, in his years as finance minister, saved the Israeli economy.

With this sort of thinking taking over the country in the last decade, the poor and their problems are no longer a national concern: if they’re not working, it’s because they don’t want to; if their schools are lousy, it’s because of the parents; if their neighborhoods are slums, let them earn the money to move out. Poverty and poor people haven’t been an issue in Israeli politics since the 1999 election campaign, when Ehud Barak made effective use of the image of “the old lady lying on a gurney in the corridor of Nahariya hospital.” By now, the only economic victims anybody wants to hear about are the middle class, and their problems are the only ones that count – not homelessness or unemployment or “food insecurity,” but rather high prices and, now, slightly rising taxes.

In line with this mentality, the “social protest” began over the high price of cottage cheese, moved on to problem of high rents in Tel Aviv, then to the high cost of daycare for working moms. If there is a poster family of the social protest, it is the young, college-educated, hard-working couple in their late 20s with a kid or two, and who don’t know how they’re going to afford to buy their own home in the center of the country with housing prices going up like they’ve been. People of the middle-class who are finding it hard to hold onto their standard of living, and whose grown children are finding it even harder to attain it – these are the voices of economic protest that count today. Whether they’re in the streets or not, these are the masses who make the “social protest” the powerful mass movement that it is.

These people’s greatest moment during the last government was the lowering of the price of cellphones; that it was accomplished by a communications minister who was a hardline Likudnik (Moshe Kahlon), did not stop “the people” from hero-worshipping him. Likewise, the Israeli masses’ greatest moment during the current government was the “open skies” agreement that will soon lower the price of airline flights to and from Europe; that it was carried out by a vicious Arab-hating transportation minister, Yisrael Katz, didn’t hurt him a bit, either. Lapid, too, was a hero regardless of his newfound allegiance to the settlers and disparagement of the “Zoabis.” Only now that the middle-class is coming in for some budgetary pain is he in trouble; when Lapid was showing nothing but callousness to the Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and Jewish poor, he was an Israeli middle-class hero, and the chief political beneficiary of the social protest.

If this is a social protest, it’s about the most smug, bourgeois one I’ve ever heard of. It’s a social protest that shows contempt for this society’s No. 1 victims, the Palestinians, and No. 2 victims, Israeli Arabs, while showing indifference to its No. 3 victims, the Jewish poor.

When the masses behind this mass movement don’t give a damn about people here who have it so much worse than they do – and in the case of the Palestinians, who live under their country’s military dictatorship – why should anyone give a damn about them? When they are deaf to complaints ranging from poverty to tyranny, why should anyone listen to their middle-class blues?


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    1. XYZ

      Would you please explain your opening statement:
      “Even though I’ve always agreed with the stated goal of the “social protest” – to redistribute Israel’s wealth more equitably”.

      Are you saying that everyone in the country should have the same income? That those who have more money, because they worked hard for it, are expected to give it away to someone with a lesser income because that is your idea of being “fair”? Of course everyone agrees that people with higher incomes should pay higher taxes, but who says all the money and property in the state belongs to the state and it is the state’s right to take it away from those who have it and to give it to those who are more “deserving” whom, history has proven, are always the friends and relatives of those in power?

      Who says the natural gas Mr Teshuva found in the sea “belongs to the people” even though “the people” wouldn’t have knows that it exists if Mr Teshuva hadn’t gambled millions of shekels on risky exploration projects (naturally, he should pay his fair share of taxes, but why isn’t the gas his? IN the US, the oil companies own the oil fields they discover).
      I don’t understand you socialists. Where do you get these bizarre, authoritarian ideas?

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ, I write “more equitably” and you read “everybody the same.” What can I do?

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          It amounts to the same thing. You are saying the state has the right to confiscate one’s property if they, by some criterion, decide he has “too much” and give it to someone who has “too little”. On what basis? By what right? OF COURSE, society has an obligation to see that everyone has a basic minimum (roof over his or her head, food, medical care) but this is far from what you are calling “more equitable” which is a pretty arbitrary designation.

          Reply to Comment
          • Oriol2

            The resurgence of anti-Communist paranoia during the last years is remarkable,especially in an international context in which Communism is so weak. Traditional Social-Democratic discourse and demands that not so many years ago were matter-of-course in Northwestern Europe are suddenly equated to Leninism. If it were a purely Israeli phaenomenon, we could explain it through the especial conditions of Israeli politics, but it also happens in Europe.

            Reply to Comment
          • Philos

            Oriol2, what do you expect after three-decades of indoctrination? Since the late 70s early 80s the people of Western Europe (and to a certain extend, the people North of the Rio Grande in North America) have been subjected to a relentless propaganda campaign. You can’t even have a regular cooking show anymore (I remember these between the kids shows and the 6pm news) that isn’t some kind of competition. And the sad fact is that the indoctrination is paying off. During Thatcher only 36% of British people felt that poor people were entirely responsible for their condition; in 2013 the figure is 58%. In an economy with 2.5 million unemployed a majority of people think that if you don’t have a job it’s because you’re lazy not because there aren’t any around. A staggering 50-odd percent think that child poverty in Britain (which has grown to millions since 2010) is because their parents are at fault. The callousness is staggering. But, we must recall, it serves a purpose. A callous society will lack cohesion and solidarity, and be less likely to demand things like employment laws, weekends, health care and so on. It’s not just an Israeli phenomenon. It’s global in scope and entirely ideological. The Capitalist Great Leap Forward with all the attendant misery, death and environmental destruction that analogy entails.

            Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            Funny you should mention “environmental destruction” which you attribut to capitalism. A neighbor of mine is an environmental engineer who was invited to go to the former East Germany after the fall of the Communist regime. She was appalled at how bad the environmental situation was there, toxic wastes dumped all over the place, poorly built buildings and facilities in a state of collapse and the like. This occurred in an anti-capitalist country. Also the death and misery were far more prevalent in the “progressive” Soviet and Chinese communist blocs than in the Capitalist world, and in fact, the environemental movement began in the capitalist world.

            Reply to Comment
          • Philos

            You seem to confuse anti-capitalism with pro-Sovietism, XYZ. The massive die-off of songbirds in the last 20-years is in “capitalist” Europe. The wholesale destruction of rain forest throughout the world began in the 60s and continues to this day to satiate capitalist modes of production for timber and agricultural products (eg, palm oil). As for death and destruction? Well, where do we start? The Atlantic Slave Trade that provided the financial capital necessary for the Industrial Revolution to take place in Britain, or, perhaps, the Opium Wars that ruined China in the 19th Century? No? What about the “blood rubber” of the Congo? Still too early in history? Hmm, maybe the near genocidal massacres in Indonesia in the 50s? No? OK, how about Honduras? Nobody on this site will claim that there is anything admirable in what the USSR or Communist China have done, and expressing criticism of capitalism does not mean endorsing either of those two systems. But then again you live in the binary world of an ultra-conservative so my simple logic probably boggles your mind.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Philos

      I couldn’t agree more, Larry, however, I would say that most of the protesters of last week and yesterday (Saturday) were also smug bourgeois.

      Long queues for the ATM so that they could join longer queues for the AMPM to buy beer. A veritable fashion show of trendy “hipster” styles from H&M and elsewhere. Items of clothing that cost anywhere from 3 times (for a fedora hat) to 25 times (for a pair of skinny jeans).

      I felt a great sense of Schadenfreude when I saw that yesterday’s “protest” was less than a quarter in size of the previous week. Good.

      There were no Ethiopian faces, no Palestinian-Israeli faces, no Mizrachi faces, no Haradei faces in this great “social struggle” of the middle-class Ashkenazi and their Ashkenazied Mizrahi friends.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Aaron Gross

      This was one of the main reasons – there are so many! – that I hated Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party from the beginning. Lapid’s whole pitch was to tell the middle class, “You’re the greatest people in the world, but you’re being shortchanged. You must fight this injustice. You deserve more money!”

      Maybe he’s even right, I don’t know, but I agree with Larry here. If people aren’t getting what they deserve, first take care of the poor, then take care of the middle class.

      I was disgusted by the contrast of Yesh Atid’s political ads with those of some of the smaller religious parties. Lapid’s party was talking about more money for the middle class. Those small religious parties were talking about the price of a loaf of bread so their constituents could afford food.

      Reply to Comment
    4. daniel

      Its seems larry wasn’t really in one of the demos. althought I agree the radical left has to be skeptical about the social protest if it can’t overcome it’s national hermeneutics, but I wouldn’t dismiss it completely. I heard slogans like: “tel-aviv, ramallah, the same revolution” and I would claim there is a lively representation in the social protest of mizrahi and jewish poor activists. zionism, militarism and israeli nationalism will think we should acknowledge the cracks it got in the recent years and work on making them bigger till it falls in pieces.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Aaron Gross

      By the way, I do disagree with one thing Larry suggested. In talk about a just distribution of wealth, Palestinians under occupation should not be compared to Israelis, whether to Israeli Jews, Arabs, or others.

      Israel has a moral and legal obligation to enable the Palestinian economy to function, but Israel has no moral or legal obligation to bring them to a standard of living comparable to that of Israeli Arabs and Jews. So in the absence of some kind of crisis like a famine in the territories, Israel’s first welfare obligation should be to its poor, Jews and Arabs alike.

      Reply to Comment
    6. rk

      You say that “For Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, of course, they [the days of attention-getting protests] never began”

      I remember the 1976 land protests in the Arab towns against land confiscations in order to “Judaize” the Galilee (yes, “Judaization” was the official government term for that policy), today commemorated as “Day of the Land”. Boy, did they ever grab attention. Not to mention the mid 80’s intifada. That one also grabbed a lot of attention.

      Reply to Comment
    7. XYZ

      Regarding your lament that “the people of Israel don’t care about the Palestinians”, well, how are you any different. One of the worst acute human rights problems in the world today is Syria, where up to 90,000 people have been killed, many of them civilians. The Isrraeli and Jewish “progressives” are doing everything to ignore it. Your “progressive” allies in the HADASH party are even supporting Assad’s killing machine because he babbles “progressive” propaganda. Has any “progressive” organized a demonstration outside the Russian or Chinese embassies demanding BDS against those countries until they stop supporting the killing machine? You “progressives” have a soft spot for the Palestinians for reasons I can speculate about, but other, terrible human rights problems don’t interest you, so why are you surprised when other people don’t share your worries about the Palestinians? Why do you assume everything you think and the issues that bother you affect everyone else the same way? Who appointed you the “concience of humankind?

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ, you have made these arguments multiple times on multiple points, so I won’t address them in full. I can only point out that Israel is enforcing military law on Palestinians, not on Syrians or Russians or Chinese; and Israeli citizens such as yourself shape what happens to Palestinians through the ballot box – and through the sheer indifference that makes it possible to sit in Tel Aviv and not even know what your own army is doing in Nablus. It’s not that ‘other people don’t share worries about the Palestinians’, it’s that people who are directly complicit in what’s happening to them are not lifting one finger to change it. In some cases this is because they genuinely don’t know much about what’s going on; I’ve discovered that for many Israelis ‘the occupation’ is this vague abstract concept, and they can’t give concrete examples of what it looks like in action. But you don’t fall into that category. You know that a major Palestinian residential street and marketplace were completely shut down after the Goldstein massacre, that families broke up because the elderly members couldn’t manage to climb in and out of their own houses using ladders and back windows, that people’s businesses were strangled out of existence – and you have defended this loss of livelihood, repeatedly, by saying that Arabs have got the rest of Hebron, what’s one street? You know that people’s homes are demolished and that there is a government plan afoot to forcibly transfer all Area C’s 27000 Bedouin into A and B following the destruction of their communities. You know that the army arrests kids young enough to be your grandchildren and that it doesn’t guarantee them any of the protections that should be accorded to minors in custody. If you were to meet the father of one of those kids, would you be trying to tell him to look at Syria instead? Is this what you would expect me to tell you if an army ever came after your children? But these are moot questions, because the army isn’t going to arrest your kids and you will never meet such a parent. In the suburbs of Tel Aviv you have the luxury of avoiding such encounters, even though through your vote and your actions (or lack of them) you help to determine how they and their children live. I’m not trying to be anyone’s conscience by pointing this out: your complicity in all of this is yours to deal with, and if saying to yourself ‘Syria is far worse’ privately satisfies your sense of ethics, then there is nothing anybody can do about it. Just don’t expect this argument/rationalisation to go unchallenged if you make it public.

        Reply to Comment
        • Philos

          Well said Vicky. I will remember these points

          Reply to Comment
    8. Daniel Gavron

      Why do you spoil an otherwise excellent piece by failing to spell it out? Some of the poor Jews are indeed Mizrachim, but what about the Haredim? Like most on the left, I am not a lover of the Haredim, but fair is fair: they arfe smong the poorest in the country and a protest should include them (specifically–not just “poor Jews) along with the other groups yopu so rightly mention,

      Reply to Comment
      • Thanks, Danny, nice to hear from you. I didn’t mention the haredim because most of them, unlike the rest of the country’s poor people, choose to be poor and insist on being supported by the state.

        Reply to Comment