A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Social-justice Protest

The people have been silent since the great protest in mid-2011, though the rhetoric places Israel between Somalia and Greece.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

A funny thing happened on to the way to the big social-justice rally at Rabin Square Saturday night: The masses of Israelis struggling with the high cost of living, spiraling home prices, with a government raising taxes and cutting back services, and with poverty and income inequality didn't come.

About a thousand people showed up. That's it.

It wasn't an isolated incident. Since hundreds of thousands poured out into the streets for a few brief weeks in the summer 2011 there has been nary a whimper from Israel's oppressed poor and middle class.

But listening to the speakers at Saturday night's rally, you'd think Israel lies somewhere on the socio-economic ladder between Somalia and Greece.

"Giant demo of 2014 – the nation is collapsing" was how the organizers billed it, and from the speaker's dais that was how Israel looked. "We're the uncountable masses, the people struggling to live honorably," thundered the actor Moshe Ivgi. "You've turned Israeli society into a nasty game of Survivor," declared Yossi Yonah, a professor at Ben-Gurion University, referring to the prime minister.

A culture of kvetching

They come from a culture of kvetching – or, to put it more gently, unrestrained criticism – that pervades much of the media, politics and academia. In the political realm, this culture takes Israel's many failings and turns it into racist entity, a serial violator of human rights, anti-democratic and oppressive.

In the socio-economic sphere, this same culture turns the country into a miserable place where tycoons with their monopolies and debt bailouts are impoverishing the country while an indifferent political class looks on.

You have to ask yourself, if everything is so irredeemably awful, why aren't more people protesting? Why do they keep returning Netanyahu to power, even though he is supposed to be the ugly face of Israel's worst economic ills?

Let's look at the situation not from the prospective of opposition politician trying to score points against the government, or that of a social activist. Let's look at it from the perspective of the ordinary Israeli who has to make real life decisions.

Yossi frets about his overdraft

It's Thursday evening, after a long day at work Yossi Levi pulls his car up in front of his home. Thinking about how he's going to close that overdraft at the bank, it wasn't a pleasant trip home. Neither he nor his wife Yael have seen their salaries increase much over the last couple of years, certainly not compared with the rise in the cost of living. But at least they both have well-paying, rewarding jobs. She has secure employment as a civil servant, and the high-tech company he works for is doing well. Everyone he knows his working, even his nephew, Yonatan, who just got out of the army and is using the training he got in data mining at a startup company.

Yossi probably hasn't examined global unemployment figures, but if he did his feelings would be confirmed. Israel's jobless rate as of last November (the last month for with the OECD has comparative figures) was 5.5%. The U.S.' rate was 7.0%, Sweden's 8.0%, France's 10.8% and Ireland's 12.3%.

Vis a vis youth unemployment, which is in some ways the worst of all because it denies opportunities and experience to people just starting out in their careers, Israel's rate was 9.9% in the third quarter of last year. That may sound distressingly high, but it was among the lowest in OECD countries. In Ireland the rate was 26.7%, in Sweden 23.2% and in Italy 40.5%.

Yossi walks up to the front door. It's already dark but down the street he can see his two children, eight-year-old Yair and six-year-old Yaara, down the street coming home from after-school groups. Yossi's cousins from America were shocked that he allowed his kids out alone on the street after dark, but it never occurred to him or Yael that there was any danger.

The fact is that Israeli crime rates are low, according to United Nations statistics. The number of thefts per 100,000 people in Israel in 2011 was 936, compared with 1,967 for the U.S. Even in Scandinavia, the rates ranged above 2,000 to over 4,000 in Sweden.

On burglaries, the Israeli rate of 424.8 was less than half that of Sweden and just two thirds the U.S. level. Israel's homicide rate at 2.0 per 100,000 was less than half the American rate and lower than for Norway and Finland.

It's now Friday morning. Yossi opens up his copy of MarkerWeek, pursues the columnists raging about how he is being ripped off by a dysfunctional economy, enjoys a few seconds of self-righteous rage and then moves to the real estate classifieds. He and Yael have been renting because they can't find anything affordable to buy in commuting distance from their jobs.

Yuval's dream fizzles

When he thinks about his overdraft and housing problem, he's almost ready to try his luck in America. A dozen years ago, when the Second Intifada was raging, Yossi had also thought about going away for a few years. He could have worked in Silicon Valley. But he didn't do it and he has no regrets.

His cousin Yuval did, but the American Dream eluded him. Yuval bought a house during the boom years, but when prices crashed he was saddled with a mortgage bigger than the property he had bought. In fact, as of December 19% of all mortgaged homes in the U.S. were "deep underwater," meaning they were worth 25% less than the loans taken out of on them, according to RealtyTrac's latest U.S. Home Equity and Underwater Report.

Anyhow, Yossi isn't alone in deciding to stay put. For 2012, the last year for which the Central Bureau of Statistics has figures, Israel had a net emigration of 0.9 people per 1,000 population, the lowest rate since the early 1970s and a tiny fraction of the rate in countries that have real economic troubles, such as Ireland (7.6), Greece (4.0), Portugal (3.6) and Spain (3.5).

Little Yair pulls on his father's sleeve. He needs help with arithmetic homework. Yossi looks at the work his son has done so far and sees it's riddled with errors. What did he expect? Yair's crowded classroom at school is a scene of daily chaos, the teachers demoralized and incompetent.

But the situation may be getting better: The last set of international comparison of achievements in math, science and reading put Israel in seventh, 12th and 18th place among 45 countries—not exactly raw material for Startup Nation but a big improvement over previous years. In any case, the new recruits at his company seem remarkably talented. Last month, his CEO turned down an offer from a top American high-tech company to buy its from more than $100 million. Israel's universities are excellent and the army teaches skills, like Yonatan learned, that compensate for what's lacking in the schools. He isn't worried about his son's future.

Yossi takes a deep breath and starts to work with Yair when Yael interrupts them. "Hey, did you hear about the big demo at Rabin Square tomorrow night? Maybe we should go," she says. Yael,who consumes no less than five tubs of cottage cheese a week, had been outraged enough by Tnuva's price gouging back in 2011 to show up for a few of the social-justice rallies, but by September had lost interest.

Yossi thinks for a second. "No. Let's go to the mall tomorrow night. I need some new shirts. We're meeting with that Silicon Valley company next week again."

Moshe Ivgi, right: The situation in Israel is enough to drive anybody crazy. Or is it?Credit: Ohad Romano
A cost of living protest in Tel Aviv, 2011.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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