The Israeli Spring

The Israeli Spring

Hundreds of thousands have turned out in demos all over the country, demanding a more egalitarian society. They have awakened a few ancient, dormant Jewish values.


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.

Until just a few weeks ago, the word “community” was, for my generation, something you could find only on the Internet, in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods or among homo-lesbian groups, and “social responsibility” meant watching the right TV channel and sending a text message to keep your favorite contestant from being eliminated. But all that has changed. And from that point of view, this fight, which I hope will try to achieve a great deal more, has already succeeded. It has broken out of the alienating, individualistic cage of the radical capitalism on which we were raised. The normal division of Israeli society, into those who take part in quiz shows that award prizes and those who watch them at home with glazed or envious eyes, no longer exists. And the passivity and herding instinct have been temporarily restrained.

For those who still haven’t taken to the streets, I recommend that you participate in the next protest rally, if only to see each demonstrator waving his own placard, the one he formulated himself about the issue that disturbs him the most, the one drawn in his favorite color and not in the colors of the brand names that sponsor the TV show you watch in your living room. And bring your kids with you. Yelling “The people want social justice” with them at a nonviolent demonstration is the best civics lesson they’ll have this year, and that lesson isn’t just in civics: it will also awaken in them and in you a few ancient, dormant Jewish values such as compassion and helping others, values that even the mandatory class visits to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, organized for your children by the right-wing education minister, never managed to stir.

And regarding Margol’s claim that what actually lies behind this entire half-Ashkenazi struggle is the political desire to oust Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, all I can offer in response is a revelation of my own: our elected prime minister did not exactly grow up in a tin shack. And the economic worldview he learned at his father’s knee has always advocated unlimited privatization that drains the concept of a welfare state of all its meaning. That’s why it isn’t the least bit surprising that the multitudes taking to the streets would rather see a leader with a slightly different worldview.

The claims of those who want to oust Netanyahu vary: some are social, some political, some personal and even esoteric, but it is totally clear to each one of the people sleeping in tents—including the Jewish and Arab left-wingers who are dominant in quite a few of these tent camps—that this protest would never have erupted if the person at the head of our country were a different right-wing leader, one more sensitive to social problems. Such a leader may have worked harder to hide the fact that massive state support for the settlements, as well as Israel’s huge defense budget, are among the main reasons Israel’s recent governments have neglected poor and middle-class citizens. But Netanyahu has transformed this hidden problem into an outspoken ideology.

As fate would have it, we’re stuck with a prime minister who is not only right wing but also completely impervious to social issues. So, if Netanyahu abuses the weak and destroys the middle class, should the fact that he also happens not to believe in the peace process grant him immunity from being ousted by his right-wing supporters?

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