The Israeli People Demanded Social Justice in 2011. What Did They Get?

Five years on from the social protest movement of 2011, the question is whether it succeeded or failed. To answer that, we must go back to the protest’s initial goals.

Tal Cohen

At the start of the social justice protests back in July 2011, I was invited, along with a few friends, to the tent camp in central Tel Aviv to speak about the situation. It was after people had already spent long days and nights under the canvas during that hot, sweaty summer, and we were asked whether the government intended to do something in response to the protesters’ demands.

I told the questioner it was highly likely the protesters would be packing away their tents before the government did anything, because large and significant change does not happen in a month or two. The questioner got angry, stood up and started walking away, shouting at the top of his voice: “So we wasted our time sitting in tents?!”

Five years have passed since the protest erupted, and during that time we have been asked numerous times – and also asked ourselves – if the protest succeeded or failed.

To many, the answer is “Of course it failed, have you seen anything good that happened since then?” But in order to answer the question, we must remember the original goals of the protest. The main message was: “The people demand social justice.” So is Israel in July 2016 more socially just than five years before?

Social justice is a slippery thing. It may be that we have more social justice in one area of our lives but less in another. For example, we can pay our cell phone bill easily today and the price of cottage cheese has been frozen, but housing prices have climbed by another 20%. So how can we do the calculation?

The easiest answer is that the protests caused a deep change in awareness. By saying that, we can absolve ourselves of having to conduct any in-depth discussion. After all, a change in awareness is the first step toward practical change.

There’s another way, a more measured path, which is to examine the two basic quantitative components making up our financial situation: income and expenditure. If our income grew at a faster rate than our expenses (the cost of living), this means our situation has improved. But we run into problems again here, because these are averages and statistics, and the situation of one person is different to that of another. What do we care that the average wage in Israel rose if our salaries didn’t shift?

Awareness and involvement are achievements, because in the past only the ultra-Orthodox community knew how to organize and protest, and now a large part of the population – not Haredi and not organized – has rid itself of its apathy and has an influence on the political, economic and social agenda.

The social protest caused shock waves that have led to “nano-protests.” You can find them on Facebook, and they’re about local issues (i.e., a preschool that the municipality wants to close). We also have protests that exert public pressure on people – mostly those who were appointed to a new post but have a lot of question marks hanging over them.

Many public figures have lost out due to public pressure: Jacob Frenkel and Leo Leiderman lost their chance to be governor of the Bank of Israel; Yoav Galant was named IDF chief of staff but was forced to give up on his dream; Silvan Shalom and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer dreamed of becoming president but had to quit the race; and Yinon Magal resigned from the Knesset.

A couple takes part in the Israeli 'tent protest' over housing prices in 2011.
Moti Kimche

We saw big winners from the protest, too: Yair Lapid’s newly formed Yesh Atid party won 19 Knesset seats in 2013; Shelly Yacimovich was elected chairwoman of the Labor Party (but later lost the position); current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon won 10 Knesset seats in 2015 – all of these were results of the energy that emerged from the social protest movement and the hope it created for a more just social agenda.

It may not have changed the fact that those who led the government then are still in charge today. It didn’t even change Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s basic way of thinking about the economy and society, and it didn’t change the relative amounts spent on civilian social services as a percentage of GDP. These have all remained as they were.

But there are things we can say wouldn’t have happened without the social protest movement, or would have come out differently. Take, for example, the collapse of IDB, once Israel’s largest conglomerate, which was hit hard by the sudden opening up of competition in the cellular industry as well as by food prices. Or the separation of the credit card companies from the big banks, which even Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug now supports. She admits she’s doing so “because of the public discourse.”

This “public discourse” doesn’t involve a chat over a cup of coffee in an air-conditioned room. And in order for it to yield results, it’s usually accompanied by heavy pressure. In Flug’s case, she was forced to accept the principle of separating the credit card companies from the banks only because Kahlon placed this demand on the table when the coalition was formed – and as far as he’s concerned, he would have carried it out immediately, without any committees or discussions. In the end, Flug and Kahlon reached a compromise, but it left quite a lot of baggage in the central bank. Just last week, we saw how the International Monetary Fund tried to warn the Finance Ministry against applying heavy political pressure on Flug and the BOI.

Or take the initiative to establish new, privately owned ports in Ashdod and Haifa. This step was planned over a decade ago, but only began to take shape two years ago after a police investigation forced out Ashdod Port union chief Alon Hassan, along with heavy pressure applied by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. Would it have been possible to do so without putting an end to Hassan’s reign?

It’s impossible to claim that the protest changed the socioeconomic system in Israel, despite the various reforms and committees that have subsequently dealt with food prices, banking services, public health care, poverty, economic concentration and debt agreements in financial markets. But all these reforms would have had a hard time being born without pressure from the public and the media – even if some of them have yet to show any real achievements.

Today, it’s quite clear to everyone that there are no free lunches anymore, and when the state succeeds in improving individual welfare, it knows how to support it in other ways. This was, in fact, the guiding principle of the Trajtenberg Committee (which was established by the government in August 2011 to find ways to lower the cost of living): To create budgetary sources out of what already existed – and only then to increase spending on social services.

Trajtenberg’s report, published in September 2011, recommended that value-added tax be raised one percentage point, and the defense budget be cut by 3 billion shekels ($772.5 million), in order to meet a small part of the protesters’ demands. The first part was carried out immediately, but the second part was not only not done, the defense budget actually increased because of subsequent changes in the security agenda – including operations Cast Lead and Protective Edge in Gaza, and the preparations for an attack on Iran, which former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called a “delusion that cost us 11 billion shekels.”

So the social protest movement taught us that the Israeli public knows how to protest, apply pressure and prevent inappropriate people from attaining senior public positions. It knows how to motivate politicians to take simple and easy-to-understand steps on its behalf, such as lowering the price of public transportation (courtesy of Arye Dery), free dental care for children (Yaakov Litzman), lower cellular prices (Kahlon) and limiting executive pay in the financial system (Yacimovich, Lapid and Kahlon).

At the same time, the protest taught us that the public finds it very hard to move the political system to make large, macro changes that have great importance but are less measurable and hard to see. These include improving the public sector, reforms and greater efficiency in the state-controlled electricity sector, increasing labor productivity, root and branch treatment for the defense budget (which grows ever larger), reducing poverty, regulating public health care, combating inequality in the education budget, and aggressive treatment of the black economy and tax evasion.

It’s very hard to galvanize the people to demonstrate against large, expensive and sophisticated institutions. It’s very hard to motivate politicians to come out against powerful interest groups. Despite the protest, and despite the fact that the Israeli public has moved up a notch in its involvement and knowledge of economic issues, the most worthwhile deal for politicians is still to take measurable and short-term actions that every consumer can feel in their own pockets, instead of acting for the long term and creating a better and more just socioeconomic reality. The social protests have not yet broken this formula, which means the public cannot rest.

Where are they now?

When Nochi Dankner was convicted of stock manipulation last week, the former owner of the IDB group sat in the Tel Aviv courtroom of Judge Chaled Kabub with only his family alongside him. Just his children and sons-in-law.

It was hard not to wonder where all the people had gone who used to surround him in the days when he was the most powerful figure in the Israeli economy. Where were all the businessmen, politicians, mayors, journalists and newspaper owners who danced at his daughters’ weddings? Where were the battalions of executives from IDB that he dragged along on his visits to famous rabbis? Where were his rich friends from “the Friends’ Offering” that landed him in so much trouble? Where did they all disappear to? Why didn’t they stand by him during his trial?

It is possible that Dankner himself provided them with the reason to abandon him when he said, not so long ago, that his main mistake was in “choosing people.” It teaches us something about him, his friends and the worship of power and money.