A smug, bourgeois Israeli ‘social protest’

Despite the wishes of many — if not most — of the people in the streets, the masses who identify with the ‘social protest’ are callous to those whose complaints are so much more urgent than theirs.  

Even though I’ve always agreed with the stated goal of the “social protest” – to redistribute Israel’s wealth more equitably – I can no longer sympathize with it. While many if not most of the people in the streets would like to turn the movement against the occupation and not only against “swinish capitalism,” this hasn’t happened after two years of protest. It’s not going to happen, either, because the moment it does, the social protest loses its legitimacy to speak in the name of “the people,” because “the people” of Israel couldn’t care less about the Palestinians. This was clear to everyone from the beginning; left-wingers hoped that what began as a demand for economic justice would extend to a demand for justice for the Palestinians, but that hope remains as hollow today as it did in the summer of 2011.

Regardless of the politics of the street protesters and the organizers, the masses at home who identified with the cost-of-living protests two years ago, and who identify today with the protests against the new budget, are dominated politically by the Jewish middle-class and their concerns. Those concerns not only exclude the Palestinians, they exclude the Arab citizens of Israel – and they largely exclude the genuinely poor Jews of this country, too. While many middle-class demands happen to coincide with those of the poor – for instance, opposition to higher consumption taxes and to cuts in education – the poor are hangers-on in this movement. (Again, I’m not talking about the protests in the street, but the wave of popular discontent over the economic policies of Finance Minister Yair Lapid and the government.)

The days when poor Jews from the urban slums and peripheral “development towns’ could mount an attention-getting protest in this country are over. (For Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, of course, they never began.) Those days ended in the early-to-mid 2000s when then-finance minister Netanyahu outlasted the single mothers’ hunger strike led by Vikki Knafo. At the same time, he was slashing aid to the poor amid the worst recession and terrorism in the country’s history, which in turn expanded poverty and economic inequality to levels never before seen here and which have not diminished since. But because overall economic growth returned (based largely on the vast enrichment of the prosperous minority) and unemployment went down (while a giant class of “working poor” was created), the consensus today is that Netanyahu, in his years as finance minister, saved the Israeli economy.

With this sort of thinking taking over the country in the last decade, the poor and their problems are no longer a national concern: if they’re not working, it’s because they don’t want to; if their schools are lousy, it’s because of the parents; if their neighborhoods are slums, let them earn the money to move out. Poverty and poor people haven’t been an issue in Israeli politics since the 1999 election campaign, when Ehud Barak made effective use of the image of “the old lady lying on a gurney in the corridor of Nahariya hospital.” By now, the only economic victims anybody wants to hear about are the middle class, and their problems are the only ones that count – not homelessness or unemployment or “food insecurity,” but rather high prices and, now, slightly rising taxes.

In line with this mentality, the “social protest” began over the high price of cottage cheese, moved on to problem of high rents in Tel Aviv, then to the high cost of daycare for working moms. If there is a poster family of the social protest, it is the young, college-educated, hard-working couple in their late 20s with a kid or two, and who don’t know how they’re going to afford to buy their own home in the center of the country with housing prices going up like they’ve been. People of the middle-class who are finding it hard to hold onto their standard of living, and whose grown children are finding it even harder to attain it – these are the voices of economic protest that count today. Whether they’re in the streets or not, these are the masses who make the “social protest” the powerful mass movement that it is.

These people’s greatest moment during the last government was the lowering of the price of cellphones; that it was accomplished by a communications minister who was a hardline Likudnik (Moshe Kahlon), did not stop “the people” from hero-worshipping him. Likewise, the Israeli masses’ greatest moment during the current government was the “open skies” agreement that will soon lower the price of airline flights to and from Europe; that it was carried out by a vicious Arab-hating transportation minister, Yisrael Katz, didn’t hurt him a bit, either. Lapid, too, was a hero regardless of his newfound allegiance to the settlers and disparagement of the “Zoabis.” Only now that the middle-class is coming in for some budgetary pain is he in trouble; when Lapid was showing nothing but callousness to the Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and Jewish poor, he was an Israeli middle-class hero, and the chief political beneficiary of the social protest.

If this is a social protest, it’s about the most smug, bourgeois one I’ve ever heard of. It’s a social protest that shows contempt for this society’s No. 1 victims, the Palestinians, and No. 2 victims, Israeli Arabs, while showing indifference to its No. 3 victims, the Jewish poor.

When the masses behind this mass movement don’t give a damn about people here who have it so much worse than they do – and in the case of the Palestinians, who live under their country’s military dictatorship – why should anyone give a damn about them? When they are deaf to complaints ranging from poverty to tyranny, why should anyone listen to their middle-class blues?