Jerusalem pro­tes­tors are not what you think

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - Nathan Jeffay

THE COST OF liv­ing demon­stra­tions have caught the na­tion’s imag­i­na­tion in Israel. Weekly ral­lies have at­tracted as many as 300,000 peo­ple and polling puts pub­lic sup­port at close to 90 per­cent. But Bri­tish Jews seem to have greeted the new move­ment with at best a shrug and at worst crit­i­cism. I have been amazed when speak­ing to Brits, many of whom are so keen to end de­pri­va­tion in Israel that they do­nate gen­er­ously to char­i­ties, at their at­ti­tude to this gutsy at­tempt to ad­dress in­equal­ity.

It is trite to read about the protests and re­mark that times are tough, goods and hous­ing are ex­pen­sive ev­ery­where, Is­raelis are com­plain­ing about high cost of liv­ing — but hey, that’s life. My friend Miriam Sha­viv, writ­ing last week, claimed that “pro­tes­tors do not re­alise how lucky they are col­lec­tively.”

But this ar­gu­ment does not add up. Don’t take my word or the pro­tes­tors’ word for it; re­fer in­stead to the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (OECD).

Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu was cock-a-hoop when Israel was ad­mit­ted to the OECD just over a year ago, say­ing it was an in­ter­na­tional “seal of ap­proval.” But that mem­ber­ship also blew out of the wa­ter the myth that his ver­sion of Thatcherite eco­nom­ics, ush­ered in dur­ing his stint as fi­nance min­is­ter from 2003 to 2005, isn’t hurt­ing nor­mal Is­raelis.

OECD league ta­bles show that poverty is al­most twice as wide­spread in Israel than the OECD av­er­age: 19.9 per cent of the Is­raeli pop­u­la­tion, com­pared to 10.9 per cent. The gap be­tween the over­all stan­dard of liv­ing in Israel and that of the low­est tenth of the pop­u­la­tion is three times higher than the OECD av­er­age. Some 39 per cent of Is­raelis find it “dif­fi­cult” or “very dif­fi­cult” to live on their cur­rent in­comes, well above the OECD av­er­age of 24 per cent.

In short, Israel is not just a coun­try feel­ing tough times like oth­ers but, rather, a coun­try built on ro­bust wel­fare pro­grammes and eco­nomic pol­icy that pro­tects the weak watch­ing these lega­cies slip away. And watch­ing home own­er­ship be­come the pre­serve of the priv­i­leged.

Miriam wrote crit­i­cally of the pro­tes­tors’ “sense of en­ti­tle­ment.” I say that if they be­lieve that buy­ing a house should be a re­al­is­tic as­pi­ra­tion for nor­mal ci­ti­zens, good for them. House prices have risen 29 per cent more than salaries in the last two decades. The hous­ing mar­ket has ac­cen­tu­ated in­equal­ity over this pe­riod. For the rich­est tenth of the pop­u­la­tion, the rel­a­tive cost of their hous­ing has only in­creased by 13.6 per cent, while for the low­est tenth it has in­creased by 56.7 per cent.

The pro­tes­tors have fo­cused heav­ily on Tel Aviv and other ar­eas in cen­tral Israel, prompt­ing the crit­i­cism that they are spoiled kids who have the un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tion that they should live in prime lo­ca­tions. As Miriam put it: “No one has the right to live in the most de­sir­able ar­eas; few English­men ex­pect to live in cen­tral Lon­don.”

But liken­ing Israel to the UK does not work. Israel is, to an ex­treme de­gree, a coun­try of “cen­tre” and “pe­riph­ery.” The cen­tre is where the job op­por­tu­ni­ties are con­cen­trated; in the pe­riph­ery un­em­ploy­ment is high and op­por­tu­ni­ties few. In terms of eco­nom­ics and job op­por­tu­ni­ties, Israel is two coun­tries in one. For young peo­ple, choos­ing Tel Aviv or other ar­eas in cen­tral Israel is not in­dul­gent but prag­matic.

So why not com­mute? Brits are sea­soned com­muters, and have a trans­port in­fras­truc­ture that sup­ports this life­style. But af­ter decades of low in­vest­ment Israel’s trans­port in­fras­truc­ture is poor. If a dis­trict of Israel seems like a bar­gain, it most likely lacks good trans­port links; good com­muter belt is paid for in the price of a home.

One mo­ment Is­raeli young­sters are told they must give ev­ery­thing, even their lives if nec­es­sary, to the col­lec­tive. Then as soon as they have served their two or three com­pul­sory years in the mil­i­tary they are told that this is the coun­try of the in­di­vid­ual and they are on their own. Un­til, that is, the coun­try de­mands they drop what­ever they are do­ing for the na­tion’s good when­ever called for re­serve duty.

Is­raelis have had enough of hav­ing the worst of both worlds.

The protest tents are full of young­sters who have put their pro­fes­sional and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment on hold to de­fend Israel — not only as their coun­try but also as the coun­try of all Jews, which will ab­sorb any Di­as­pora Jew who wants or needs to come at a mo­ment’s no­tice.

These young men and women de­serve a hero’s wel­come to civil­ian life but they are not ask­ing for any­thing like that — just for prospects.

The coun­try they served owes them re­form.

And the Di­as­pora they served owes them sup­port.

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