The Israeli spring has sprung


The “Israeli Spring” has arrived. But, despite the warnings (and hopes) of the usual chorus of Israel-bashers, it is not a “third intifada” clamouring for a Palestinian state, but a grassroots Israeli movement demanding social change.

What began three weeks ago as a “tent city” protesting the lack of affordable housing has grown into a campaign calling on the government to assume its responsibility for accessible accommodation, education and health, and to put a stop to the rising cost of living.

From the outside it often seems that politics in Israel revolves around nothing more than war and peace, “anti-occupation” versus “pro-settlements”. Indeed, even inside Israel these existential issues invariably eclipse domestic concerns in political discourse and especially, at elections. Parties are defined as “left” or “right” depending on their security policies; the quality of public services, and issues of taxation and redistribution remain irrelevant.

And, while governments focused on diplomacy and defence, the land of kibbutzim and pioneers, dominated by institutions and structures designed by the labour movement and modelled on left-wing principles, changed beyond recognition.

Israel has come very far from the poor relation of the fundraising campaigns of her early years. Despite the huge proportion of GDP spent on defence, she has a vibrant economy, leading in hi-tech fields and strong enough to withstand the GFC nearly unscathed. But not everyone has had an equal bite of the fruits of this development.

Our school recently hosted Naomi Chazan of the New Israel Fund to speak to students. Although I (and many of her audience) disagreed with her agenda, one plank of the platform struck a chord – the need to reduce economic inequality in Israel, which currently has the world’s fourth highest gap between rich and poor. I asked her what had happened to the socialist vision of the country’s founders. “Growth. It was much easier to share misery” was her insightful response.

With hindsight, it was inevitable that the perceived disinterest by successive governments in the quality of social provision and the difficulties for those towards the bottom of the economic pile, would generate an angry reaction. The (mainly young, mainly secular) campaigners claim that their needs have been ignored; that tent cities and demonstrations in the streets are the only way to get the political leadership’s attention.

But what the demonstrators actually want is far from clear. Many may wish to see lower prices in the supermarkets, but is this to be achieved by subsidies, or price controls, or an end to the market economy? A desire for better and cheaper public services is universal, but so is an aversion to paying the taxes that would be needed to deliver them. Do the protestors want both, or just the gain without the pain?

We may wish to live in a world where the “left” and “right” economic question is outdated, and one no longer has to be “for” socialism or capitalism. But vague demands for “better” schools and hospitals are meaningless unless accompanied by a programme to achieve such aims, and a declared willingness to make the necessary sacrifices that must be part of the package.

What the demonstrators do say is no less concerning than what they do not. Posters of Che Guevara and Communist flags are seen at rallies. Tent protestors accompany the Jerusalem Pride march for Gay rights. Even the need for action to free Gilad Schalit (i.e. more concessions to Hamas) has somehow become intertwined with the original issues. If the campaigners wish to rid themselves of the image as bored yuppies attracted to a confused hotchpotch of liberal causes, they need to try harder.

But there is one specific political demand coming from the protestors – Netanyahu’s resignation. Unlike the states disrupted by the “Arab Spring”, Israel is a democracy. Its system of representation may be imperfect (as in every democracy) yet nevertheless every citizen can vote for the government that the majority desire. In a democracy, the choice of leaders, and the policies they pursue, are made by the entire electorate, not dictated by media-savvy demonstrators, however numerous they may be.

Israel has real social problems, partly the result of neglect by successive governments. I too grieve for the erosion of the progressive Israeli society of the early years, when all wore a kova tembel and worked hard, while the state did its best to look after everyone, even if that image was largely a myth. But demonstrations which marry hippy-style anarchy with Facebook organisation, is not the way to recreate those halcyon days. If protestors want a government that invests more in society, they must be prepared to articulate their vision, vote for it and pay for it.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College.