In order to make this briefing user-friendly and bring many people into the conversation about the current situation inIsrael, we have selected a few of the core claims that are commonly heard on the Israeli scene. Each of these claims represents a different voice from aroundIsraelthat relates to the current protests. We will explore the current issues from a variety of perspectives.
1. Claim: There is an unreasonable gap between Israelis’ salaries, and the cost of living inIsrael, particularly the cost of housing – Heard from Israeli protesters across social sectors (supported by mainstream Israeli citizens)
This claim is perhaps the underlying drive of the entire protest. There is a deep socioeconomic gap across all social sectors (with the exception of fewer than 20 extremely wealthy families). Israelis are simply unable to make ends meet. Even the top 10 percentile ofIsrael’s earners report struggling to meet their mortgage payments each month.
- a. Background: Israel’s economic history:
- Israelwas first established as a social democratic welfare state. This, in part, helped enable the youngIsraelto establish itself and realize its goal of absorbing large numbers of immigrants. While nurturing its new society,Israelalso faced constant security threats.
- This welfare state included highly subsidized education, healthcare, welfare, services, and even cultural institutions.
- At the same time, the government and its institutional bodies were highly involved in financial regulation and were characterized as highly bureaucratic, and all the public services (including commercial services such as telephone and gas companies) were deeply intertwined with the government system.
- In the mid-1980s, following a recession, a revolution took place inIsrael’s economy, with rapid increased privatization in the neo-liberal spirit, particularly in the realm of government services.
- This change eventually led to the New Economic Plan of 2003, led by Binyamin Netanyahu (then finance minister), which on the one hand made the country wealthier and financially stable, but on the other hand resulted in decreased stipends for the elderly, the handicapped, children, and single mothers.
- Naturally, the first population affected by the shift from welfare to free-market state was the lower class. By 2008, Israelhad managed to become among the leading countries in the developed world on the GINI inequality index (39.2), with one of the widest gaps between rich and poor.
- The second group affected by this was the middle class. While the average salary in Israelhas remained relatively stagnant, there has been a sharp increase in the cost of living of most basic necessities: gas, education, food, and housing (with a 50% increase in housing prices in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in just 3 years). At the same time, the middle class has borne the burden of taxes. Research has also shown that the lower-middle class pays the highest percentage of indirect taxes from their income (18%).
- Israel exhibited poor strategic and civil planning, particularly following the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. This immigration increased Israel’s population by about 20%, and yet the relevant planning for population growth (particularly in the area of housing) was neglected.
- It may be noted that due to the unstable political system in Israel which features frequent turnover of governments, political leaders have tended to focus their energies on goals with “low-hanging fruit” in order to display results to the public — at the expense of effective long-term planning
- Israeli politics have traditionally over-emphasized security issues, particularly during elections, at the expense of focusing on economic and social ones.
- Many political parties were set up to serve specific sectarian needs (for example, the National Religious parties, Israeli-Arab parties, Sephardic-Ultra-Orthodox parties, and others). Thus the political discourse remains focused on limited sectarian issues, rather than being open to the broad sorts of changes that the current protests are asking for.
The World Bank estimates that 1/4 of financial activity inIsrael is not reported to the tax authorities, one of the highest percentages in the Western World. This finding would suggest that efforts to alleviate the current situation should focus on taxing those who are currently evading the authorities, rather than increasing the taxes for those who already pay them.
- b. Current: Recent middle-class protests in light of the above:
Mothers’ Protest: Based on the Law of Mandatory Education in Israel, the government pays for education from age 5 to 18, overlooking early childhood education. Mothers who must work to support their households pay nearly their full salaries in early childhood education costs. Parallel protests include the Doctors’ Strike, and Social Workers’ Strike. The frustration expressed in these protests stems from a growing burden of expenses that the government once subsidized but has since retreated from. The middle class fears that they have no financial safety net, and they are simply not making ends meet.
- c. Possible Solutions:
- A dominant faction of the active protesters is made up of socialist youth movements and organizations, using the protest to promote their agenda that Israel should move towards its former welfare state structure, with a more highly government-regulated market.
- On the other end, the capitalist powers claim that the current system is on the right track, but not yet efficient enough. The government should promote more competition, lower bureaucracy, and fight against the monopolization of capital. (See “Jews and Capitalism”)
- A third, middle-ground solution: a mixed economy or social democracy. This approach acknowledges that perhaps the government needs to distinguish between public needs and public wants. Needs might include products such as diapers, bread, dairy products, and shelter, and these prices would be set and controlled by the government. Wants, on the other hand, which might include technological products, arts consumption, travel abroad, and brand-name products, would be left to the free market, which would be truly free from monopoly and corruption.
2. Claim: “What’s the problem, Israel‘s economy is one of the strongest in the world”– By the leaders of Israel’s economic market (both private as well as governmental), neo-liberal/capitalist perspective
Since the early 1990’s, Israelhas prospered and grown economically and proven itself as a real player in the global economic forum, particularly in the realm of high-tech. This can be seen in the steady increase in Israel’s GDP, in Israel’s recent inclusion in the OECD, as well as how during the two most recent financial crises (2000 and 2009) Israel not only survived but continued to thrive. As a result, Israelis’ quality of life has steadily improved. Israelis typically buy brand-name products, travel abroad, use technology, eat at nice restaurants, and so forth.
- b. Current:
In light of the recent recession in the United States and around the world, as well as the growing fear of another global economic crisis (and the crashes of economies in countries like Greece and Spain), the last priority in Israel right now is to extend its expenses by taking on new social projects which might risk Israel’s economic stability.
c. Possible solutions:
- Israel should wait patiently, allowing the free market to do what a healthy market will do: improve itself.
- That said, these players are in agreement that the major monopolies stand in the way of Israel having a truly free market, and they need to be removed.
- In addition, some believe that the Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations should be encouraged to enter the workforce to help the process along (as well as to help address their own communal poverty).
3. Claim: Israel’s public systems are seen as untrustworthy, not transparent, and not serving the public good. – By the Israeli public
4. Claim: This protest is just a front for a political campaign – by select groups who are reluctant to get involved in protests
Although the protest aims to represent the needs of a cross section of the middle class, many sectors of the Israeli public are feeling alienated and intimidated by the movement. These include the ultra-Orthodox, the National Religious sector (including settlers), and the large community of Russian speakers from the FSU.
These sectors, and many other individuals who are against the protest, claim that the basic motive of the protesters is political, with the main aim being to overthrow the current right-wing government led by Binyamin Netanyahu. The current protest is being supported and subsidized by groups traditionally identified with the left, such as the New Israel Fund and Shatil. The protests also involve several far-left anarchists who have come into physical confrontation with right-wing protesters. The protests have been used as a platform for left-wing activists to spread fear and conspiracy theory targeted at the right.
Although many, if not most, of these opposing groups identify with the rhetoric of the protest, they fear that the ultimate result of the protest might be a political change that will undermine their own ideological values. For each of these groups, such a political change would risk the values and interests of the sector. For example, a left-wing government might mean the disengagement from Judea andSamaria, the stopping of funds for the Ultra-Orthodox community, and so forth.
5. Claim: This movement is an opportunity for increased social solidarity towards an “Exemplary Society” – by visionaries among the activists, as well as analysts of the current situation
Many classical Zionist voices, as varied as Herzl, Rav Kook, Borochov and Jabotinsky, had visions of Israel as an exemplary society where social solidarity was championed to create a new reality for the Jewish People under the conditions of sovereignty. In the early State years, social solidarity was perceived as quite high. Yet, as the welfare state dissolved into a free market, this sense of solidarity gradually broke down and has since only really expressed itself during times of national crisis (such as wars or attacks).
- These current protests present an opportunity to bolster social solidarity in a way that is not driven by crisis, but a desire to build together an Exemplary Society.
- After years of deep social and cultural divide between sectors in Israeli society, which perhaps reached its peak of alienation and distrust at Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination and the disengagement from Gush Katif, many people who joined the protest feel that there is a new sense of social solidarity and mutual responsibility that is growing around these economic issues.
- The strategic decision of the protestors to avoid an overt political affiliation and to avoid major political disputes (such as the Arab-Israeli conflict) created a new inclusive space for sectors in society which are normally at odds with each other.
- In addition, many individuals who had previously only been concerned with their private lives are suddenly getting involved in a collective movement. Activists who initially got involved in protests for their own financial benefit are finding themselves in this new social space, realizing that the struggle is much larger and more value-driven than previously expected.
- The recent use of Israel’s Declaration of Independence as an inspiration in the movement’s large rallies speaks of the deeper values at play, particularly highlighting that this is not an anti-national movement, but rather one stemming from a deep commitment to Zionism and the desire to work towards a betterIsrael.
- Protestors wearing traditional mourning sacks as they read LamentationsThe secular Israeli society has been in a confused ideological state (characteristic of post-modernism and escapism) over recent past decades. The national and patriotic spirit that so characterized the early decades of Israel’s establishment has faded and gradually changed, as society became more individualistic and materialistic in nature. This process created a situation known as the “Tel-Aviv State,” a space where sophisticated young professionals live indifferent to the larger national issues and entirely preoccupied with their own private lives, ignoring the collective. In light of this, the current protests can be seen as a counter-movement to these trends, providing a new set of values for an entire sector and generation of young Israelis to grab hold of. These values are based on social solidarity, collective responsibility, social justice and activism.
- Nevertheless, the prominent involvement of Tzohar (an organization of modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel), the different voices emerging among settlers, and the images of Lamentations (איכה) being read in the tents on the Ninth of Av, would suggest that the initial disconnect between the secular and religious is gradually being bridged.