Sushi, Social Justice and Self-respect

This uprising is about social justice. And yes, it is driven by the middle class. And it’s time to say something about the middle class’s right to a decent life without being apologetic.

The current government of Israel has tried a number of times to delegitimize the social uprising. First by dismissing it as a conspiracy of the “radical left” to topple the government; then by saying that the protesters are a bunch of sushi-eaters with nargilas (Arab water pipes); and then Avigdor Lieberman noted that since he couldn’t find a seat in a Tel Aviv restaurant, the situation couldn’t be that bad.

This uprising is about social justice. And yes, it is driven by the middle class. And it’s time to say something about the middle class’s right to a decent life without being apologetic.

Protest - Tal Cohen - August 6, 2011
Hundreds of thousands of protesters march in Tel Aviv over the high cost of living in Israel, August 6, 2011. Tal Cohen

In June, when the second semester came to an end, I invited the class that was finishing its MA in clinical psychology at Tel Aviv University to talk about how they felt. I have done this for fifteen years; for fourteen years the students spoke about what they had found satisfying about the program, and what they felt was missing.

This year, I was in for a surprise. As yet, the uprising had not begun, and nobody (including Daphni Leef) knew that there would be such a thing. But my students spoke about their humiliation. After having worked around the clock to enter one of the most competitive programs in higher education; after having studied about the human soul and how to alleviate psychological suffering, the outlook for their future was bleak.

After finishing their MA, in order to qualify as clinical psychologists, they have to do a four-year internship, at least 30 hours a week, for which they receive less than NIS 2,000 a month. This means that all of them will have to take additional jobs, often late into the night, to make ends meet. To make things worse: many of them will have to wait for up to three years to find a slot for the internship. “I finished my studies to continue working as a waiter”, one of them said.

On Rothschild Boulevard there is a tent of clinical psychology interns. Nobody cares about them, of course. After all, nobody listened to the medical interns, who work inhuman hours for ridiculous pay for more than four months. So why listen to psychologists, who have even less power than doctors?

Social justice isn’t only about alleviating poverty. It is about a very simple idea: people should be able to make a decent living if they invest in their education, take a lot of responsibility and work hard.

The middle class is the backbone of every developed society. These are the people who drive and maintain the economy. In Israel they pay outrageously high taxes. And they receive close to nothing in return.

Bibi Netanyahu has been selling the story that Israel’s economy is doing fine and that we have very little unemployment. That’s so tendentious that it borders on lying. As the newest report of the Taub Center for Public Policy, chaired by economist Prof Dan Ben-David shows, only 57 percent of Israel’s potential workforce even seek work. The middle class is carrying on its back whole sectors that live off child-support and mostly don’t work.

Israel’s politicians have been paying off sectors like the Haredim and the settlers who for decades have used their political power to extort phenomenal amounts of money as payment for participating in government coalitions. And Israel’s middle classes hemorrhaged money to pay for Haredi education systems that made sure the children could not become productive members of society, but would raise another generation doomed to poverty and dependence.

Israel’s citizens demand social justice. The leaders of this uprising are middle class – and they have the decency to ask for social justice for the weaker strata of society, not just for themselves. Social justice is, of course about preventing abject poverty, and giving every child a chance for a decent life.

But social justice is also about hardworking people being remunerated decently for their work. The middle class has a right not to have their money taken away and to receive nothing in return. It is time no longer to be intimidated by cynical politicians who accuse the protesters of being spoilt members of the middle class. It is time to insist that those who work hard can expect a decent life; not as a favor; but as a basic human right.

And you know what? The middle classes should be able to eat sushi without having to apologize to Likud ministers or to Avigdor Lieberman.