Social/housing protesters won’t defeat capitalism

My friend Boaz Gaon wrote a beautiful longing prayer for the day after the citizen uprising around the country, outlining a progressive’s fantasy (posted on the Hebrew women-issues web-zine Saloona). In his day-after scenario, cultural and intellectual professions will earn dignified salaries, the money-based professions will be out of fashion – non-materialism will prevail:

An Israeli who parks his jeep at the entrance to a restaurant will be viewed as anti-Israeli even if he voted Likud. It will be justified to cover his car with tar and feathers. Children will point to him when he leaves the restaurant and whisper.

This was followed by a litany of other ideals: Racism will disappear because of social shame, Israelis will embrace a civilized “gentleman’s debate,” to argue among basically legitimate left and right worldviews. A clear solution to the conflict, one-state or two-states, will be set squarely on the table for Israelis to choose…

Wait, back up to that first part. Are we really headed towards a post-materialist dawn?

It’s true that the housing/social protesters wave cute slogans like “money isn’t everything,” and “people come before profits.” It’s true that they are asking for greatly expanded or revived social services and even calling for a welfare state. But do these young temporary tent-dwellers realize that in the past, the serious socialism they seem to desire was grounded in a dogmatic, ideological anti-materialism?

I wonder. Ever since the early 1990s, the country has been on a bender of decadence, obsessed with material comforts.

It began with the loosening up of market regulations, privatization, the budding hi-tech industry, and the advent of disposable income. Simultaneously, the electronic window to the world at that time – television – was thrown open. The single state-run television station suddenly faced private competition, and programming for the private Second Broadcasting Authority was in fact provided by three competing companies. Cable burst in, offering a consciousness and consumerism that ripped through former spartan Israel like an explosion.

By 1997 when I arrived from America suffused with 20something anti-consumerism, McDonald’s had been open for four years and was the subject of many heated debates among me and my new Israeli friends who thought I was naïve. They loved it, despite the crippling expense of America’s favorite cheap food. Starbucks too had recently opened to great fanfare.

But Starbucks failed. I gloated. My new home, for which I had moved halfway across the world to find the non-materialist values I had learned to love in my socialist summer camp, had proven itself.

Starbucks Revenge

Was I naïve. Within a few short years, there were no fewer than six distinct coffee chain companies, at least, blissfully muscling out the little places. Two or three major supermarket and convenience store chains, with their identical products, are leading the extinction of the greatest of all Israeli institutions – the tiny crammed grocery shop known with great local affection (and now nostalgia) as the “macolet” – there’s even a song about it.


Israelis made a sharp right turn away from the early-Zionist ethos of non-materialism, and went on a deep binge, stuffing their homes with items, bursting their credit limits, spending with little relation to their salaries.

We occasionally get huffy about consumer gouging. Recently, I read something surrounding the cottage-cheese protest saying that prices are high here because Israelis are suckers.

I don’t agree. We pay astronomical prices because we are desperate to own things and eat out, and increasingly, drink. We love Ace, Office Depot and Zara. When Ikea opened in Netanya, the stock was permanently sold out and for many months, people lined up weekly in the wee hours on the day when new stock arrived; when that Ikea recently burned down, it was covered as a national tragedy akin to the loss of beloved astronaut Ilan Ramon.  When H&M opened last year, there were riots as frenzied shoppers could not wait one more second to live without their shmattas. Think I’m kidding?

The Jerusalem Post reported:

Immediately after the count down [to the Tel Aviv opening], dozens of customers ran into the store, practically trampling two baby strollers in their rush to enter, Channel 2 reported. Passersby managed to save the babies while shoppers continued to flow into the store. “This place looks like the site of a terror attack,” one shopper told the television station.

We absolutely love chatting on our mobile phones and we’re willing to pay inflated and totally fraudulent costs (as anyone who has dealt with our cell cartel knows) – because in a rather charming way, Israel maintains vestiges of the communal society and people must be connected all the time. My friends call mom at least once a day, and that’s after fielding three of her calls. We love having more children we can’t afford, because who calculates finances when children are at stake?

Liberal, mugged.

This post is not an anti-materialist tirade. It’s acceptance. I too own an apartment now, a car and two computers, although not much else. But I travel to many European capitals and watch the throngs in the malls, pawing at the same cheap plastic knock-off brands as in every other mall, or else I stroll through the luxury shops with the same identical made-in-China thousand-times mark-up shirts, and I have learned something: people, everywhere, love consumerism. The bars, cafes and kiosks near Rothschild seem to be raking it in these last two weeks. Will the tent protest turn the clock back?  Judging from the harmonious co-existence between the enormous welfare-state demonstration last Saturday night, and the great unscathed symbols of consumerism (see below), I doubt it.

Social/housing protesters won't defeat capitalism
Massive social/housing protest demonstration in Tel Aviv, 30 July, 2011 - Sign (on right) reads: "Netanyahu's piggish capitalism is costing us dearly!" McDonald's in background (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin)
Social/housing protesters won't defeat capitalism
Demonstrators at mass social/housing rally in Tel Aviv, 30 July, 2011 - sign reads "Women before profits" (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin)