Shadows in the Cave

Israelis need to ask themselves: What parts of our reality are indeed real, and what is merely shadows that others want us to see?

In Plato’s cave, so the parable goes, the prisoners are sitting there staring at the wall. On the wall, they can see shadows of the action outside the cave, and they believe that the shadows are all there is to reality. One day one of the prisoners escapes, sees the outside world and comes back to tell his friends. They mock him and decide to execute him. The parable’s message is clear: The prisoners are confined, uneducated folk who cannot or do not want to rescue themselves from their cave, since that’s the only reality they know.

How different are most Israelis from those prisoners in the cave? What parts of reality are indeed real, and what is merely shadows that others want us to see? Here are a few examples that prove we’re more like the chained prisoners than the one who escaped.

The Iranian bomb. Is there any doubt that what we’re seeing in the newspapers and on television, and hearing on the radio, are dancing shadows, as the defense establishment’s budget considerations and politics get mixed up with the actual threat? Given the financial crisis, the cost-of-living protests and the difficulty of getting the 2013 budget passed, nothing is easier for the prime minister than fanning or cooling the flames under the Iranian pressure cooker.

What part of the threats and the leaked images of Iranian nuclear installations are real? We don’t know, and we probably never will. The public’s blindness is so great that even if someone were to show up who had actually been in all these installations, we wouldn’t believe him. Nearly everyone on the operational side of the defense establishment opposes an attack on Iran, yet half the country supports the idea.

The media. On the face of it, it’s all perfectly clear: The Israel Broadcasting Authority and the giveaway daily Israel Hayom are in the prime minister’s bag, Haaretz is leftist, Maariv was until recently Nochi Dankner’s message board and Channel 10 is dying. And then there are the daily Yedioth Ahronoth and Channel 2 television, which don’t have a clear agenda and therefore are perceived as reliable.

But this, too, is nothing more than shadows. In practice, the media outlets in the Yedioth Ahronoth group also distort things in keeping with the interests of their controlling shareholder, Noni Mozes. Here’s an example: A few days before the Knesset’s decisive ruling on the economic concentration committee’s recommendations, Yedioth’s chief economic commentator wrote, “Given the cold forecasts in the job market, we should reconsider our economic, social and competitive policy. It’s not logical or right to make the cost of living our target when unemployment is the main risk.”

Unemployment? How convenient for the media establishment, the power players and the monopolies: They can hike cell-phone rates, bank fees and the price of cottage cheese again. The public believes it is receiving an honest depiction of reality, but this, too, is a shadow created by the same puppeteer, and it’s clear in some cases that he’s having trouble stifling his laughter.

The managers insurance crisis. The Finance Ministry’s capital market commissioner recently announced that he was doing away with so-called managers insurance policies ‏(bituah menahalim‏) because of the uncertainty surrounding life expectancies. He also cited concerns that these insurance policies − which offer customers guaranteed monthly pension payments − could destabilize insurance companies in the long term.

The truth is nearly the diametrical opposite: One of the insurance companies had been afraid for a while that its managers insurance policies could lead to serious losses, but did not dare to stop selling them. Instead, it convinced the Finance Ministry simply to change the rules of the game in one fell swoop, for all the players. The capital market commissioner, who comes off as the public’s white knight, was in fact a pawn in the insurance companies’ hands.

The leaders. Every time the public wishes to change its fate, it turns to its so-called leaders − the prime minister, the ministers, the Knesset members, senior government officials, regulators. Yet time after time it emerges that the actions of these “leaders” − and certainly their words − are nothing more than shadows on the cave wall. Over the past two years, it has become clear that our politicians and public servants are mired in such a complicated maze of restrictions, relationships and incentives that they have almost no freedom of action or thought. In fact, you could swap nearly any one of them with someone else entirely, and the implications for government and corporate policy could be identical.

Fact: Individual public servants come and go, yet public service is static.

So who actually leads? The prime minister and his cabinet are dependent on the Knesset members, who are dependent on their party central committees and the press. Central committee members are dependent on the big unions, the tycoons, the banks and the media.

And who influences these entities? No one, so long as the public is silent.

But when people take to the streets and demand change, as happened last summer, the public is in control. Over the past two years, terms like “social justice,” “income gaps,” “tycoons,” “haircuts” and “economic concentration” have become a central part of public discourse and spurred a wave of unprecedented reforms.

A country is like a massive passenger ship, and it’s very difficult to change direction when the captain, officers and crew are sitting pretty. If this is the case, the ship will stay its course even if an iceberg is looming ahead. When is the helm turned? When enough of the passengers leave their rooms, go up to the deck and vociferously state their objections. Then, they become the real leaders.