tent protest
A tent protester in Tel Aviv airing his grievances in the summer of 2011. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Eran Wolkowski
Theodor Herzl didn’t factor in the Israeli-Arab struggle or the original sins baked into the bricks of the new Israeli society. Photo by Eran Wolkowski

The people are waking up. After years of submissively accepting the story they were being told, one day the Israeli taxpayer, the Israeli consumer, the Israeli shopper woke up and smelled the garbage.

They realized that the public sector is crumbling and ineffective and that whole sectors are sucking up vast amounts of money and producing little. They realized that people in power, from officials to politicians to generals, have become tainted and corrupt. They know now that the capital market is concentrated and that the tycoons may be fronted by PR experts, but at their heart they feel no duty to society. It is now clear that the economy has become a Mexican-style fief of families.

That civil awakening poses opportunity, but also threat. From all sides politicians and their spinmeisters and false prophets seek to divide the people, to leverage the fear and to push snake oil to cure Israel's socioeconomic ills.

Usually the turning point to change is some sort of crisis, or at least a sense of urgency. But if we wait for a crisis to arrive, the price could be unbearable. When mobs of people are already setting the streets afire like in Athens, the politicians don't have much capacity left to implement curative measures.

Which leaves us with the sense of urgency that has been accumulating in Israel's middle class for months. The summer protests over the cost of living were a watershed: The public awoke and spoke.

It said, the "startup nation" of high tech is a bubble benefiting maybe 5% of Israel's workforce, and only if they're young. The other 95% are treading water at best and if they don't work at one of the great monopolies, they won't get far.

Is there an Israeli elite - not of the businessmen who exploited contacts in government to become super-rich in the last 10 years, but of academics, of technology entrepreneurs? Where are the philanthropists? A few tens of thousands of Israelis built up terrific wealth in the last decade, and not all of it thanks to economic concentration and dubious methods in government, as economic adviser Manuel Trajtenberg put it. Some was accrued by merit, through talent and initiative.

Afraid of taking risks

Where are these people? Why do they not speak out? They have resources and managerial talent, and at least some understand that Israel will never have "social justice," as the protesters demand, without fundamental change in the structure of the economy, the effectiveness of the public sector, the management and allocation of Israel's resources, and values.

Not for attribution, some of these businessmen, academics and high-tech millionaires, and philanthropists, admit to being afraid. They are Zionists and love Israel, yet some whisper about leaving once and for all.

They are continuing their philanthropic activities. They donate and participate. But when asked if they have brought about real change, most quietly admit that for all their efforts, they have not. The structural problems remain. They know that unless the blanket of government is broadened, or made more efficient, pulling it one way to cover one group feeling cold will just expose another group to the cold.

These people are worried. They realize that inequality has been increasing and education has been deteriorating, that governance is sorely lacking and that the concentration and corruption could either blow up like a giant boil or continue to fester, reducing Israel to slow, painful atrophying.

But they stay silent. They do not act. They are evidently afraid of something. Like the middle class preoccupied with the humdrum of daily life, they sink into their routines and refuse to wake up. Yet unlike the majority, they need to: It is their duty. They have the resources, the knowhow, the experience. They aren't preoccupied about the cost of living, paying mortgages or how to help the kids. They made it, some rather better than that. So why don't they take action, or settle for involvement in some specific project? They know that real change requires broad involvement.

One reason could be that they also know real change is inevitably controversial and will arouse opposition. It involves risk. But they don't want to take real risks. They already took their risks in their careers, and it panned out well for them. They achieved status and a comfortable life, and don't feel like risking them. Mainly, they don't want to risk their public status, their brand name as it were, or their anonymity.

"What can I do?" one of Israel's more successful serial entrepreneurs asked me rhetorically.

"You could delve into the depths, study, look around you," I answered, "like you did in your business, in your career. You built a series of startups and sold them successfully. You led teams, you found investors, you invented concepts. Couldn't you do great things in the Israeli arena as well?"

"I gave up," said this billionaire, who had founded a groundbreaking company in its field. "Our politicians are corrupt," he added, and they only think in the short term.

How disappointing. He steered his business with grit and success over decades, leading it to international success. Yet he stands helpless before the corruption, before the unkosher ties of wealth and government?

Naturally, there are philanthropists and social entrepreneurs who have worked within the system for decades and are due all praise. But they are a drop in the ocean compared with the potential.

They know that isolated projects can be important and gratifying, but real change can only come about through change in policy and concepts. Many of them admit that their success in business didn't prepare them at all for the very different world of social and public work.

Utopian fantasies

In his utopian novel Altneuland, written 112 years ago, Theodor (Benjamin Ze'ev ) Herzl tells the tale of a young Jewish intellectual named Friedrich Lowenberg, who meets a German noble named Kingscourt. The two despair of the social and economic order of Europe and go live on an island for 20 years. When they return to civilization, they travel to Haifa, in Palestine, to the utopian society built by immigrants.

Again and again the two stand agape at the efficient, just, advanced economy and society built by the Zionists, which combined competitiveness, private property, government and free enterprise together with equal opportunity, cooperatives and mutual assistance. From time to time their hosts ask, with wonder, where were you during the last 20 years? Why didn't you take part in the exciting process of building this civilian society?

So much for utopian fantasies. Herzl didn't factor in the Israeli-Arab struggle or the many original sins baked into the bricks of the new Israeli society. But most would agree that Israel still has potential; and it has enough talent for its resources and society to be run much better.

Israel's society and economy have been traveling along unsustainable paths. The middle class feels it now, but the day is not far when the upper class and top 1% will feel it in their flesh as well. When the number of people left outside the party with their noses pressed to the glass grows and grows, ultimately they will crash it. And while the poorest segments of society deal with the pressures in silence, the middle class has been finding its voice: It is more involved, more awake, more informed and more disappointed. It cannot and will not take it any more.

One could view that class as a threat, or as an opportunity.

This class yearns for leadership and direction that the present set of decision-makers cannot provide. The state needs new social leaders whose prowess isn't measured in money but in excellence, integrity, commitment, openness, curiosity, ability and grit. The state needs them to come out of their bunkers and cellars and use their abilities and resources to lead change, including in norms and concepts. They don't have to go into politics. They have to help create an environment that encourages leaders who want to institute change.

Israel has hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of people - intellectuals, executives and entrepreneurs - who fit the bill. They know it. They just have to overcome their fear and come out of their comfort zones. It is time to stop being afraid, to take risks, to absorb blows, disappointments and insults.

And having mentioned one Theodor, let's bring in another. In one of his stirring speeches, delivered at the Sorbonne University in Paris in April 1910, Theodore Roosevelt said: "It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."