A Growth Year

This summer the Israeli public experienced rejuvenation. For a moment it seemed that the vicious cycle was broken, that the dialogue of the young made the old language obsolete, and that the depressing mood had changed.

Do you remember the campaign slogan from the 1996 election, "Bibi is good for the Jews"? Some time after that, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a huge sign was hung over the coastal highway: "Nu, Jews, is it good for you?" A rhetorical question, with bitter wit, in the best of Jewish tradition. No one had it good back then.

Since then Rosh Hashanah has come and gone 15 times, and the situation is pure gold. And wearing the coat (the same coat) is the prime minister (the same prime minister), who is already racing to provide an answer to the question before it has even been asked.

Of course things are good, he explains. The entire world is caught up in a terrible economic tailspin, and only Israel, the sparkling diamond of high-tech and progress in the middle of the wild Middle East, has not ceased to grow. Its credit rating rises, and so does per-capita income. Its restaurants serve the finest foods and wines, unemployment is lower than ever, GNP exceeds $31,000, the standard of living is increasing constantly and so is consumption.

Were it up to him alone, he wouldn't change a thing. Perhaps he would loosen the corporate tax belt a little, reduce income taxes a bit more, privatize all state-owned land and permit any developer to build, lay 80 more railways to nowhere - and everything would be, as his friend Avigdor Lieberman likes to say, paradise.

But something went wrong this summer. Like Peretz, the mischievous boy who was the last to inherit the abovementioned coat, and with a loud raspberry to the pretenses of the family, a group of young people rose up and exposed the bluff. You, with your graphs and tables, might be growing, they said to the uberminister of finance, Benjamin Netanyahu, but we and our parents, our siblings and their children, are not growing at all. In fact, we are choking.

You may be growing in your capital markets, they said to the tycoons, but we are working like dogs and can see no future. In the name of "economic science" you sell your theories to the politicians, they said to the experts, who never ceased warning those young people "you don't understand economics." But we are speaking to you in a new language: the language of civil rights, of equality, of transparency, of the human spirit.

The background to all of this was the bankrupting of the public sector, the decimation of organized labor, the ruinous privatization of health, education and welfare and the concentration of capital in the interlocking hands of too few people - but also racist legislation and an atmosphere of persecution, together with a paranoid paralysis in the realm of foreign policy. This is how Netanyahu fulfilled his 1996 campaign promise to "Jews": Israeli society turned into an unrestrained, gluttonous and desperate market, closed to and suspicious of the world, victim-like and bullying, and with no way out.

This summer the Israeli public, or at least a large part of it, experienced rejuvenation. For a moment it seemed that the vicious cycle was broken, that the dialogue of the young made the old language obsolete, and that the depressing mood had opened up to change. But that was not entirely accurate.

The new conversation has begun to percolate through the layers, but there are strong, deep countercurrents. If you don't believe it, listen again to Netanyahu's speech in the United Nations last week and to the responses to the "harsh" speech of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; examine how labor disputes and the ongoing housing crisis are boring the media once more, and how the strikes are once again annoying the public whose "welfare is hurt" by them. See how the right, for "nationalistic" reasons, slammed Daphni Leef and the other "traitorous anarchist" leaders of the social protest movement, and look into the new right-wing economic groupings established in response to the "swinish socialism" of the protest movement.

The previous century was rife with examples of thrilling protest movements that inspired hope during fragile times and in tottering societies, but were coopted by pernicious counterforces who exploited them for evil purposes before they were able to have a real effect. This summer Israeli society was given an opportunity for genuine growth. Now it must decide whether it wants this growth or the growth offered by Netanyahu, in the style of the Yiddish curse: May you grow and thrive like an onion, with its head in the ground.