Protesters vandalizing a bank in Spain.
Protesters vandalizing a bank in Spain. Photo by Reuters
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The people of Israel sang in unison on Friday night, tunefully or otherwise, "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand." Some find the words sung over thousands of years moving. Some just go through the motions, finding the celebration of our emancipation rather embarrassing after all that time.

After all, Israel is a democracy. Its people are free. They know how to insist on their rights, and proved as much during the social-justice protests last summer. When prodded, the people have shown they have the gumption to take to the streets and show government exactly what they think. Israelis, slaves? They refuse even to be taken for granted.

But is that really so?

No question, we're no longer slaves in that biblical sense. No chains, no whips, no hard labor. But slavery is not only a physical constraint - it's an emotional state in which the slave has come to terms with his situation and the machine. He even embraces them. A true slave can hardly imagine an alternative.

The slave may embrace the laws that bind him, sometimes zealously - "that's the law" - and to help him come to terms with his lot, may even help enforce the laws.

Unlike free people, true slaves don't fight to change their lot - they ask the government how they should live and accept the answer. They don't want to confront the depressing substance of their situation.

Sound familiar?

The modern Israeli should ask himself, not the tribal elders, four questions:

1. Is this it? Or is there a better system?

2. True, I can influence the system but I have a salary and basic financial security. Should I rock the boat?

3. Life is a jungle. There are the haves and the have nots. That's how it is. Will it always be that way?

If you don't want to go there, now ask yourself this:

4. Am I a slave to the system?

Financial freedom?

Israeli households, from the poorest to the wealthiest, have a tendency to lackadaisically let their pension savings fend for themselves. It's all passive. Money gets set aside from their salaries each month automatically. They don't know how much or where it goes. They know somebody "manages" it, and that it will "be invested" in something. That's it.

Sometimes, reading a story in the paper, they realize that a chunk of their money has been lent to some collapsing company or nation that isn't going to pay it back. But if an annoyed citizen seeks an alternative, he won't find one. Everybody's offering the same service and the same shoddy goods. Moreover, it's hard to switch service provider.

Worse, a fairly simple calculation will show that after retirement his standard of living will plunge.

Calling this "financial slavery" is a tad radical, but it certainly can't be said that the Israeli saver is financially free.

What about all those people who made money on their investments and now live the life of Riley? Well, there aren't many of them.

Shaking off those mental chains

If the difference between freedom and slavery boils down to the ability to choose between alternatives, then we can expand the definition of economic servitude to a long list of products and services.

If we want a phone line there are only two suppliers, and they sell the line for the same price. There is only one supplier of cement and of electricity. When the price goes up we have no choice but to obediently pay it, or the Israel Electric Corporation will cut off our power supply.

We can choose between banks and insurance companies, but they all sell the same services for the same prices. And these are just a handful of cases that all involve consumerism. We haven't even reached social security, health tax, municipal tax, water fees and the cost of education.

A vast majority of our consumer decisions are not made freely. We are told who will supply the product or service and how much we will pay for it. We obey - sometimes by standing order.

No, we aren't really slaves. Our economic freedom is not inferior to that of most Americans, Europeans, Indians or that of all 1.3 billion Chinese. In parts of Europe where unemployment is passing 25%, citizens' freedom is far more constrained.

But to be truly free, maybe Israelis could stand to shake off those mental shackles of meekly accepting life as it is and not even thinking about changing it - let alone abetting the masters.