Carmel scapegoats III: the meaning of responsibility

The settlers and the ultra-orthodox are not the cause for Israel’s collapsing public services. The professional middle class, which considers itself a “silent majority” of “responsible citizens” but is quite the opposite, should take a hard look in the mirror. This is the third and final installment in a series of posts, examining arguments, which have resurfaced following the Carmel fire, that assign the blame for Israel’s problems to the ultra-orthodox or the settlements. To read the first post, dealing with the ultra-orthodox, click here. To read the second post, dealing with the settlements, click here

The debacle surrounding the Carmel forest fire, which has claimed 43 lives, and caused vast damage to land and property, should come as no surprise. The underfunding of Israel’s fire services, which are seven times smaller than those in the US in relative terms, is just the tip of the iceberg. The depletion of Israel’s public services and social safety net takes its toll in fatalities and destroyed lives in a much less spectacular fashion, for many years now.

Israel is hardly the only country undergoing an accelerated neo-liberalization process in the past few decades. An adherence to an extremist economic ideology has transformed it from one the world’s most equal nations, to one of its most unequal, even excluding the occupied Palestinian population. But what is most remarkable about Israel is the lack of resistance to this trend, or even interest in public debate about it.

None of Israel’s major parties (and most of its minor parties as well) can even be positioned on a left-right axis in socio-economic terms. Many argue that these issues have been displaced by disagreements about how to deal with the “existential” threat faced by Israel. But since 1973, as this threat has receded, and Israel’s regional supremacy has been established, the marginalization of social policy in the national debate has only increased.

It is also inaccurate to say that these issues have been neglected. On the contrary, for over thirty years economic decision making has been gripped by frenzied, never ending “reforms” which are radically altering the nature of the social compact. Yet whenever the results of this destructive process are highlighted, as they have been in the recent catastrophe, it will not be long before someone mentions the classic red herrings: the ultra-orthodox and the settlements.

Bernard Avishai is representative of a group of Israelis who consider themselves the “silent majority” of “responsible citizens”. In fact, they are neither. They are small minority in Israel, where more than a third of workers make do with a minimum wage or less. And the main responsibility they feel is for their own interests, as Avishai’s list of grievances demonstrates:

The vast majority of middle class families on the coastal plain have seen the traffic and smog in greater Tel Aviv become insufferable, while commission after commission stalls out on providing a subway; the coastal highway become either stop-and-go or a death trap; the water-line in the Kinneret sink while desalination plants stall; the universities and secondary schools lose ground both in national budgets and OECD ratings; the crime rate soar; the Israel Broadcasting Authority become an embarrassment as compared with, say, the BBC; line-ups for ultra-sound machines getting longer.

All of these issues are important, but in a country where holocaust survivors go hungry and skimp on medicines, where the vast majority could only dream of affording a home in Tel Aviv with or without a subway, where parents cannot buy textbooks for their children, and public housing is fast disappearing, you would expect at least one of these phenomena to enter the top five list of issues of concern for “responsible citizens”.

Then a forest burns down, and they rush to blame the settlers and the ultra-orthodox. I say “they”, but it is actually “we”. I am a member of this class, and like them, I have benefited, in the short term, from lower taxes and increased hierarchization, which puts educated, Ashkenazi, middle class Tel Aviv men like myself way at the top. But in the long term, we are all losers. It is time to be truly responsible, to forge new coalitions that will represent a genuine majority, to stop blaming others and relinquish some of our privileges, in order to make Israel a fairer and better place in which to live.  

Read more about the Carmel Forest Fire:

The Carmel Disaster: My forest is on fire, by Ami Kaufman

Israel’s deadliest fire: Eli Yishai must go, by Noam Sheizaf

Carmel fire: the price of the treasury’s policy, by Yossi Gurvitz

What are Israel’s priorities in time of natural disaster?, by Joseph Dana