Israelis Demand Dignity

The protest of the middle class, no longer willing to be milked and abused, may be a first step to cleaning up the mess of Israeli politics.

In the last year, the Middle East has looked strangely upside down. Tunisia ousted its dictator, Egypt finally toppled Mubarak and Syria’s Assad is greatly weakened even though his troops keep killing their own citizens. Meanwhile Israel, supposedly the Middle East’s only democracy, passed one totalitarian law after another: dictating to its citizens what they could say about the Nakba, or boycotting Israel, and what they had to be loyal to.

While Arab citizens rebelled against their regimes, Israel’s citizens meekly swallowed infringement after infringement of their liberties. They didn’t say a word about the fact that its governments, for years, let a small number of families control Israel’s economy with money borrowed from the middle class’s pension funds and savings, making Israel look like an oligarchic banana republic.

Tel Aviv protest July 23, 2011 (Dudu Bachar)
David Bachar

Neither did they say a word about the fact that Haredi families, without contributing to the economy, receive enormous sums in child support; or about the fact that settlers enjoy reduced prices for public transportation that runs on a byzantine road system in the occupied territories designed to prevent them from having to drive on the same roads as Palestinians.

The middle class neither had the lobbying power of the wealthy nor the political clout of ultraorthodox or national-religious sectarian parties willing to use their king-making power to milk the system. Paying exorbitant taxes, pulling Israel’s economy from economic backwater to a success story, they received nothing in return except soaring prices and the disdain of those they elected to serve them.

Politics, unfortunately, is rarely a pretty sight. Just look at the farce that is Italy; look at the shame that is the Republican Party in the world’s leading democracy, bringing the world’s financial system to the brink of disaster just to score political points.

But the Netanyahu government has pushed cynicism beyond good and evil: Israel’s citizens, for all intents and purposes, had given up on their country. Their anger was silent, but the discontent was soaring: according to the Democracy Index published by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2010 only a quarter of respondents trusted political parties, and hardly more than one third the Knesset.

They had gotten used to be battered without responding: Israel’s tax burden is among the highest in the free world. Why not have a government that includes thirty ministers and vice-ministers, each endowed with offices, cars, protection and the like?

Israel has become a country in which doctors get paid less than babysitters by the impossibly hours they work, their patients’ lives endangered by their tiredness; in which doctors’ protests that have been going on for months are simply disregarded. Never mind that there is no minister of health; and that the vice-minister of health Yaakov Litzman represents a constituency that only uses tax-money while hardly contributing to the economy. Oh: let’s not forget that formally Mr. Netanyahu is minister of health. But he’s busy having El Al planes outfitted to the tune of hundreds of thousands of shekels to have a more comfortable trip with his wife.

It has become a country in which the foreign minister can call human rights organizations terror groups and get away with it; in which the prime minister can talk about painful concessions for peace while silently endorsing ever more land extractions in the occupied territories.

Some have criticized the protests that began in Tel Aviv Rothschild Boulevard as naïve, because these young people do not have precise demands from the government. This is true; for they have started to protest against a tangible source of misery: exorbitant rent without claiming that they know what they solution is.

But they are not accepting Netanyahu’s attempts to buy them off: they are beginning to understand that the reasons for the social misery they no longer accept are rooted deeply in Israel’s political system and culture. They are beginning to understand that Netanyahu is the epitome of the cynicism that permeates Israel’s political class - rivaled by Ehud Barak, whose only ethical principle seems to be that he must be minister of defense and Avigdor Lieberman, who is perfectly willing to drive Israel into isolation to position himself as Israel’s right-wing strongman.

Rothschild Boulevard has become Israel’s Tahrir Square. It has become the place where Israeli citizens are beginning to reclaim their country from complacent politicians who have come to believe that they are accountable only to their own party centers that, in turn, are run like corrupt family businesses, with votes being bought and sold by the thousands.

The protesters must not lose sight of the fact that the housing crisis is only the tip of the rotten iceberg that is Israel’s political system. The only thing that will really help is for a whole generation of politicians to disappear into the dustbin of history. It is time for those who have come to see power as their birthright to accept that they are resounding failures.

Israel is blessed with many gifted people who could run the country well. None of them are willing to even consider joining the political system - for good reasons: they don’t want to join the backslapping crowd of horse-traders that fill the halls of the Knesset and the central committees of Israel’s parties. They are people used to be productive; not to waste taxpayers’ money to court favor giving jobs to their friends.

When Heracles was told to clean the Augean’ stables, he turned a river through the yards, and swept the dirt away. The young who started Israel’s Tahrir Square protests may not be able to clean the mess that is Israeli politics. But the protest of the middle class, no longer willing to be milked and abused, may be a first step.

The only way to clean up the mess of Israeli politics is for Israel finally to get a constitution that carves into stone that Israel is committed to inalienable human rights independently of race, creed and gender and freedom of expression; that defines the numbers of ministries and the qualifications needed for each ministry, such as to prevent appointing ministers incompetent to deal with their subject matter; and that stipulates the total separation of state and religion.

In brief, a constitution that reminds politicians that they are here to serve and not to dominate and that defends human dignity that Israel’s governments are trampling.