Israel, Where People Love to Lacerate Themselves

A poll finds that two-thirds of Israelis feel they personally are doing fine but everyone else is not. As ridiculous proposals to fix the inflated ills roll in, Israel's national habit of self-bashing is taking a toll

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Some people really are not doing "just fine" but, a poll finds, 65% are. But 65% also feels it's high time for mass protest. Something's not adding up.
Some people really are not doing "just fine" but, a poll finds, 65% are. But 65% also feels it's high time for mass protest. Something's not adding up.Credit: Nir Kafri

You are probably not aware of this, but statistically, anytime you are together with two friends, family or whoever, the majority of you think that Israel’s economic situation is so dire that people should be taking to the streets to demonstrate against the government.

So next you think, well, I don’t need to be protesting -- my personal situation isn’t that dire, so it must be my two friends. But each of your two friends would probably say the same thing – it must be the other two.

That may be why the Israel Democracy Institute, in a survey published this week on the public’s feelings about socio-economic issues, found that a stunning 65% said our situation is so terrible that the time has come for mass protests.

In other words, everyone thinks everyone else should be kvetching.

That would explain why, more than three years after the big social-justice protests did indeed draw hundreds of thousands to giant rallies – the streets are quiet.

Groaning under the self-lash

If you follow the mass and social media, listen to the politicians and even to economists, Israelis are groaning under the unbearably high cost of living. They can’t afford to buy a home, their spending power is falling, they are at the mercy of powerful monopolies, and their savings are being stolen by tycoons who are in turn risking their money on dubious ventures. Poverty is growing, income gaps are widening and the government is run by a pack of hyenas beholden to special interests.

Yet, when the latest supposed wave of public disgust erupted, this time prompted by the outrageous price of the chocolate pudding Milky - where was that 65%?

Last October, the media were rife with talk about Israelis fleeing to Berlin where chocolate pudding costs just a third what it does in Israel. About 23,000 people signed on to a Facebook page saying they would be there to shout slogans in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Pundits raged that Milky was a symbol of a dysfunctional Israeli economy.

In the event, a few dozen people showed up and the Israeli expat who started the whole brouhaha returned home from Berlin after proclaiming only days earlier that life in Israel was economically intolerable.

The Milky controversy says less about Israel and more about Israelis and their penchant for engaging in self-bashing.

Only in Israel

This used to be something some Israelis traditionally employed on the Palestinian issue (the problem, say the bashers, is almost exclusively Israeli intransience and poor leadership) and the national character (Israelis are racists, boorish, ill-mannered, etc.).

Not that Israel doesn’t share responsibility for the failed peace process or that we’re as courteous as Londoners or as genteel as Scandinavians, but at a certain point reasonable self-criticism morphs into unreasonable self-bashing.

Here’s a classic bash: It was a minor and easily forgettable controversy when the film "Ajami" was nominated for an Oscar four years ago and its Israeli Arab co-director Scandar Copti declared that he didn’t see himself and his work at representing Israel (“I cannot represent a country that does not represent me”). That prompted a hue and cry, to which Yossi Sarid, in classic bashing fashion, responded that only in Israel and nowhere else in the world do people look at entries in international competitions as a national endeavor rather than the creative accomplishments of an individual.

Detached from any semblance of reality, Sarid wrote, “People in Germany, Peru, France and Argentina slept soundly last night, even though a film by one of their countrymen was vying for the prize. . Only in a sad place [Israel] do people transform every individual joy into collective joy.”

Did Brazilians not take it badly that their soccer team was eliminated in the World Cup semi-finals last year? Did Germans not exhibit national pride when their team won?

In any case, the director of the winner that year, Argentinian Juan José Campanella, shouted "Viva Argentina!" after accepting the statuette at the awards ceremony. Evidently not only Israelis would have engaged in vulgar nationalism.

Skidding into the swamp

Since 2011, the bashing has expanded into the realm of economics and business. What used to be mainly the concern of policy makers at the treasury and Bank of Israel and the business elite has become a subject of public discussion that has skidded into the swamp of Israel-bashing.

Israel has serious problems to address – some of them in the public eye like the high cost of housing, and others like low productivity that should be in the public eye but are not. But they have become the entire agenda, which leaves the impression that Israel is an economic basket case.

While the media focus on factory closings, in fact Israel’s unemployment rate is close to a record low and the economy is generating jobs at a rapid pace. Food prices are rising, if you believe what you read, but the reality is that they fell last year, ironically because of intense competition in the food industry that supposedly doesn’t exist. Likewise, poverty is not on the rise: it has been falling the last few years.

Operation Protective Edge did not strike a body blow to economic growth as media coverage would have you believe; GDP did contract in the third quarter but growth rebounded in the fourth and the Bank of Israel last month raised its 2014 economic growth projection to 2.5% from 2.3% and to 3.2% this year, up from a prior estimate of 3%.

Economy-bashing isn’t benign. That same Israel Democracy Institute survey that found that two-thirds of Israelis think the time has come to protest found that a slightly larger majority (65.9%) think their personal situation is good or very good; less than 10% describe it as bad or very bad.

At the risk of being facile, one can easily conclude that people know their personal situation economically is fine but are convinced from the deluge of Israel-bashing that everyone else’s is not.

This plays out in politics in the form of lots of bad policies designed to assuage the supposedly angry masses. Hence we had Zero-VAT to bring down house prices and flip-flops on the natural gas cartel and policies for taxing natural resources, to name some recent bloopers.

The elections could easily bring more dumb ideas – Bibi has already proposed exempting basic foods from the value-added tax – but it seems voters are more inclined to believe their paycheck and bank balance than what they read and see. Former communications minister Moshe Kahlon, the hero of Israel’s cellular reform, is falling in the polls even though his campaign is centered on curing Israel’s economic malaise.

But we shouldn’t be surprised because the voters’ deeper wisdom was in evidence in the Israel Democracy Institute poll, which found the public trusts the media even less (66.7%) than they do the banks (61.8%).