Tel Aviv—Nine days ago, in the middle of Ibn Gevirol Street, on the corner of Shaul Hamelech, I saw D. We were separated by the hordes of people flooding the street on the way to the demonstration in Tel Aviv, and though I was close enough to recognize him, there was too much noise to hear exactly what he was shouting. From his lip movements, I could guess that it was “The people demand social justice.”
A few days earlier, when Margol, the well-known Mizrachi (a term used for Jews who immigrated to Israel from the Arab world) singer and judge on A Star Is Born, the Israeli version of American Idol, spoke out against the social revolution and its “inauthentic” activists, she must have been thinking of him. D. is a fair-skinned, round-spectacled redhead. He has two apartments on a quiet Tel Aviv street given to him by his well-to-do family. In addition, he holds a summa cum laude masters degree from Tel Aviv University and a dream job at one of Israel’s successful high-tech companies, the kind featured in financial columns. In short, the guy has it made. And this guy who has it made, instead of sitting home and watching the finale of A Star Is Born, is standing and sweating in the middle of Ibn Gevirol Street on Saturday night, shouting hoarsely with thousands of others that the people want social justice.
When Margol, who grew up in a poor neighborhood, looks at D. demonstrating in the street, she sees cynicism and lies; when I look at him, I see something completely different. Because our D. is no sucker; he, like the rest of us, read the list of demands made by the protest organizers and knows very well that if they are met, he will no longer be able to rent his apartments to the highest bidder according to a “free-market economy,” a concept that his present prime minister is so enamored of. He also knows that the direct taxes on his high salary will increase and his take-home will decrease. But still he’s here, placard in hand. Because D., as a shrewd businessman, understands that, if in return for the money he’s going to lose he’ll get a more just and egalitarian country for himself and his children, then he’s getting a really good deal.
Forty years ago, when the Israeli Black Panthers, a civil rights movement of Mizrachi Jews inspired by the American Black Panthers, demanded social justice here in Israel, the socioeconomic gaps were a lot smaller than they are today. The middle class, mostly Ashkenazi (European-descended) Jews then, viewed the Mizrachi Panthers with fear and suspicion because it was clear that the money needed to revitalize poor neighborhoods would ultimately come from its pockets. The situation today is totally different, and the Tel Aviv students on Rothschild Boulevard are demonstrating not only to have their personal needs met, but also for better education in outlying areas and for a rise in the minimum wage. Some call this a “lie”; I call it “social solidarity.”
If I were in Margol’s shoes, nothing would make me happier than seeing 300,000 people, many of whom have very little, fighting not only for themselves but also for those who have even less. But apparently in today’s privatized Israel, choosing to fight for other people’s rights is considered dishonest, exploitative or just plain foolish.