The middle-class youth have taken to the streets to effect betterment of the democracy and to protest against neoliberal policies that have made their lives bitter.
While the world's attention was riveted to the “Arab Spring” — the sweeping pro-democracy rebellions in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain — young people in Israel were also quietly getting ready to express their discontent.
Predictably, the protests which mobilised hundreds of thousands of young Israelis were qualitatively distinct from the uprisings in the Arab world. Israel's protesters, who had begun to pitch tents at Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard in July, were not asking for democracy. Rather, they were seeking a marked transformation to improve the quality of their democracy. The Israeli youth have been asking for dignity and respect from what they expect should be a caring and responsive welfare state that governs its people on the principles of fairness and efficiency.
The call of the Israeli youth for a new social contract was triggered by the sharp escalation in housing rents. Over the last one year, rents for two- and three-room flats in the Israeli capital have jumped by 11 per cent. Consequently, high rents have been taking away an unduly large slice of the disposable income of most middle-class Israelis, grievously hurting the quality of their lives. It was the surge in rents that prompted 25-year-old Daphne Leef to establish a Facebook group calling for a protest camp. Her call did not fall on deaf ears — on July 14 around hundred young men and women, mainly from affluent families, pitched their tents at Rothschild boulevard, marking the beginning of the first wave of protest.
With Ms Leef's call on cyberspace striking a chord, the number of protesters began to swell. Within a week, several hundred tents had mushroomed at the venue, their presence turning into a healthy show of street power. As it caught the imagination of the Israeli youth, around 300,000 people streamed through the streets of Tel Aviv on August 6, chanting the simple but ringing slogan: “The people want social justice!”
At the root of the discontent lies Israel's enthusiastic pursuit of a neoliberal model of economy — the perfect and proven prescription, tested the world over, for causing mass hardship and imparting marked social inequalities. Israel became one of the first countries in the world to subscribe to the so-called “Washington consensus”. In 1985, an Economic Stabilisation Plan was drawn up in the wake of the perilous economic crisis of the eighties. During that period, inflation had jumped to 450 per cent, setting the stage for the adoption of drastic measures. What followed was not only a new monetary policy but also a wholesale attack on the concept of the welfare state. Huge public spending cuts were initiated, wages were frozen and the workers' rights were undermined.
During his tenure as Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has accelerated this process. Israel's crown jewels in the public sector, such as the El Al airlines, have been sold to private players. A similar fate has befallen the telecom giant Bezeq. At the core of Israeli economic policies lies the belief that the rich must be made richer through tax cuts to stimulate growth. It is therefore unsurprising that despite boasting high growth levels, nearly one-fifth of Israelis are poor. Statistics provided by the OECD show that in terms of cost of living, Israel is as expensive as France. However, Israel's minimum wage is only half that of France.
The crisis of Israel's political legitimacy is also equally palpable.
The Democracy Index published by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2010 concluded that only a quarter of respondents trusted political parties. Just a little over 33 per cent said that they had faith in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.
Writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz, columnist Carlo Strenger points to the real life experiences that have deeply angered the Israeli middle class. “Israel has become a country in which doctors get paid less than babysitters by the impossibly (long) hours they work, their patients' lives endangered by their tiredness; in which doctors' protests that have been going on for months are simply disregarded.” On another occasion, he points to the hardship of students, some of whom, despite securing a Master's degree in a subject like clinical psychology, have to undergo a poorly-paid four-year internship, which demands that they study for at least 30 hours a week to qualify as clinical psychologists.
“This means that all of them will have to take additional jobs, often late into the night, to make ends meet.”
In Israel, where the middle class is heavily taxed, several questions with significant political implications have begun to arise. Many individuals have begun to question why settlers in areas occupied during the 1967 war are heavily compensated while some of the most creative and talented Israelis find it hard to afford a decent lifestyle. Then there are questions associated with the culture of governance, in which conservative mainstream parties generally have to depend on the support of the ultra-right to form a survivable coalition. Given the heavy bargaining power of these fringe parties, a disproportionate amount of money usually gets diverted from the main productive channels to ensure the well-being of small orthodox communities, whose economic contribution to the society is negligible.
These questions and several others were amplified on Saturday when, instead of holding protest rallies, organisers attempted a novel experiment to give direction to their movement. In Tel Aviv and several other cities, organisers set up community tables where perfect strangers could join in discussion and air their views. At each table, a designated individual “shaped” the conversation, while an observer noted the suggestions generated by the dialogue on a computer. The distilled results of the “1000 tables” experiment will be posted on a web page, and is likely to influence the future course of action of the movement. The organisers, who are part of the “Social Justice” movement said on their Facebook page that “a giant dialogue of the masses, the first of its kind…will foster thought, discussion and allow us to examine together what we are demanding and how we bring about the optimal change.”
Despite grabbing the headlines in the national media, Israel's promising youth movement suffers from one glaring malady: the campaign's social base is predominantly middle class, with only fringe groups of the country's large working class signing up for the protests. Three major groups that form a large component of the underclass are yet to join the protests in significant numbers.
These include the Israeli-Arabs, more than half of whom live below the poverty line. The other economically marginalised communities, which include immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, remain fence-sitters. Consequently, the protests have acquired a dominantly Ashkenazi flavour, imparted by the mainly liberal and secular Jewish immigrants, who trace their origins to western Europe.
The protesters' next big moment is arriving later this month, when a government-appointed committee on socioeconomic change will present its report. The government had appointed the panel, led by Manuel Trajtenberg, professor of economics at Tel Aviv University, to recommend meaningful changes in the wake of the protests. The organisers of the protests have so far not adopted a unified stance towards the Trajtenberg committee. Ms. Leef and several other members of the movement's informal leadership maintain that the panel is irrelevant. However, Itzik Shmuli, another heavyweight organiser and chairman of Israel's National Student Union, is in favour of selective cooperation. Writing in the Guardian, Mr. Shmuli observed: “We will uphold the combination of protest and constructive dialogue so as to shape the recommendations of the committee appointed by the Prime Minister. We are preparing ourselves for a prolonged struggle, which requires our consistent involvement in the public debate and beyond.”
Whatever be the differences in tactics, the success of the movement, which in the words of Mr. Shmuli is meant to define “a new vision and a new social contract” can be achieved only through unity based on a common agenda, irrespective of the natural ideological differences among the various streams of participants that are bound to exist. Hopefully, the architects of the movement will also work on the presumption that middle-class bonding apart, their protests will yield tangible benefits only after the country's marginalised workers are also mobilised and are fully drawn into the social mainstream in order to play a constructive role.