Thursday, August 04, 2011

Start-up Nation Becomes Fed-Up Nation

It all started in June over cottage cheese.
The 3 large dairy concerns in Israel (Tnuva, Strauss & Tara) simultaneously raised the price of cottage cheese (for the 3rd time in less than 24 months) in June of 2011, and a disgruntled consumer started a Facebook page to protest the price hike. 90,000 people signed in to the page, a hue and cry went forth in the land, and the dairy monopolies rolled back the price increase. There was some online chatter that the cottage cheese revolt marked the arrival of the popular uprising movement of the region (the so-called "Arab Spring") to Israel. It was far from a "people's revolt" however, and despite the efforts of leftists, anarchists, and fringe political activists, no one seriously took the cottage cheese revolt to be on par with the "Arab Spring." But Israelis seemed restless, as if they didn't want to be left on the outside as the region roiled.
There used to be in Israel an array of mechanisms, largely of a socialist hue, which counteracted against economic and social inequities as Israelis naturally acquired wealth and emerged into some prosperity. In the old pioneering days there was a powerful national labor confederation, aligned with the ruling power, which put pressure on the leadership to have national funds allocated to the workers and their social welfare. An array of government subsidies and socialized services helped turn a nation of impoverished immigrants into a healthy and robust society, all against the background of a defense posture which drained the economy. But times have changed, the Histadrut is a shadow of its former self, the Army has a manpower problem in that it has more recruits than it needs, a wave of privatization has transformed the once-pervasive Israeli state system into a market-driven capitalist "start-up nation." Both Israelis and American Jews boasted of the robust, unstoppable IT service-based economy which brought untold blessings to a nation that a scant 30-years earlier was a philanthropic basket-case.
#J14, 4 days in - the entire site
Which brings us to July 14. A few days after the cottage cheese revolt, a university student pitched a tent on one of the iconic boulevards of downtown Tel Aviv to protest the lack of affordable rentals in metropolitan Tel Aviv for university students. University undergrads in Israel are 20-21 years old and have finished a mandatory 12-24 month stint in the Israeli Army.
The fuse was slow to burn: at first a small number of protesters and malcontents set up shop in sympathy with this sudden appearance of citizen activism. Using the Twitter hashtag #j14 (akin to #j25 - still used on Twitter by Egyptians to refer to the first great protest at Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011 and all that has come thereafter), the protest seemed to me to be nothing more than a tiny group of anarchists and professional malcontents when I visited the site on July 18. I counted 43 tents which filled a single block. I tweeted that day:
The renters' protest is a joke -virtually no one there - mostly anarchists trying to catch a ride. Media exaggerates
Boy did I get that wrong.
Within 2 weeks, #j14 had become a mass protest, and the tent city extended the entire length of the Boulevard, nearly a mile. On July 30, an estimated 150,000 Israelis marched in the largest cities of the country to join together in a corporate complaint against not just rentals, but the seeming collapse of the social contract between Israeli politicians and the citizens of Israel. There have been larger protests in modern Israel's history, but never for a matter of domestic-only concern.
There has been some pushback from the Israeli oligarchs. One government minister dismissed the protesters as enjoying a tent city of "nargilas and sushi," suggesting the protesters are spoiled middle-class kids on a summer lark. Caroline Glick, true to form, dismissed the frenzied media attention lavished on the protest movement (Channel 2 uses the logo "a nation in protest").
As long as the protest remained focus on the purely domestic issue of "social justice" - prices, wages, and rent - the protest could be embraced by Israelis across political, religious, and ethnic divides. But everyone sees a variation of their own grievance in the amorphous call for "social justice." As soon as the leftists stress the onerous cost of the settlement movement (as two writers from the leftist tendentiously argued in today's New York Times) , or Israeli-Arabs make their own special claim for justice (see hashtag #tent48), or ultra-Orthodox, or Kahanists, or labor federation officials stake out their share of the justice pie, the protest is bound to be victim of the old Eastern European Jewish adage: "put 2 Jews in a room, and you'll have 3 opinions." Most protesters are comfortable blaming the misappropriation of their tax dollars to governmental corruption and preferential treatment for the rich; the next step - seeing the untenable occupation as the second source of economic woes - might be a bridge too far for some neophyte protesters.
Israelis are fed up, but unless the next week and the week thereafter produce ever larger and consistently peaceful turnouts, the summer will end, classes will resume, and the dysfunction that is the Israeli economy and government will continue on. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his government won't fall, the Israeli parliament will sputter and fulminate over populist distractions, the settlement project will continue to suckle at the nation's teat, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Same as it ever was.
USA readers - sounds familiar, no?