Taking Stock / First, Change the People of Israel

United we can stand, as long we leave the red shirt out of it.

May 1 isn't a date much noted among today's Israelis, and for good reason. May Day is associated with the left, with socialism and with the big unions. A large part of the Israeli public doesn't identify with that set of values and ideas.

When I was a child, my grandfather of blessed memory, who had belonged to the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement (whose slogan is "Toward Zionism, socialism and peace among nations" ), would ask me to don a red shirt on May 1 and wear it outside. I didn't understand why. When I insisted my grandfather explain, he said something vague from which I understood that the first day of May was mainly on occasion to wax nostalgic about a time he was younger and believed in himself, and in Israeli society, rather more.

May Day march - Appelbaum - 1.5.12
Tomer Appelbaum

Some of today's social movements, old and new, want to link May 1, today, with the resurgence of social justice protests in Israel. But they're making a mistake. As long as that date remains linked with leftism, or has a whiff of the Histadrut labor federation or politics, association with it will weaken the protest movement in Israel.

The tremendous success of that movement can be seen in the huge wave of public support it has engendered, as well as by the changed social discourse and the pressure felt by decision makers since the protests first erupted in the summer. That success is due in part to the fact that the movement united different groups in society for the first time in decades.

The ruling elite, which is doing well under the present economic, political and societal structure in Israel, has managed to keep things that way by dividing the people: secular vs. religious, leftists vs. settlers, capitalists vs. socialists.

And then came the protest movement and said, all those things are well and good but let's take a break and talk about life for a minute. Let's talk about what's going on while we wrangle over politics, occupation, religion and ideology. Let's talk about the standard of living, the quality of life, the cost of living, the state of public services, fairness and equality of opportunity in Israel.

In the last year I have spoken to thousands of Israelis about the protests, at meetings small and large, in lectures and in conversations. I have talked with all sorts of people: young and old, religiously observant and otherwise, rich and poor, businessmen and entrepreneurs, salaried workers and college students, capitalists who unwaveringly believe in the free market and socialists who want the state everywhere, union leaders at monopolies and employees at high-tech companies who have zero job security, directors general at government ministries and managers of nonprofits.

I learned many things from these conversations, but reached no clear conclusions. There is certainly a sweeping sense of support for the social justice protests, though many of the supporters feel hostility toward the people perceived as its leaders. The ones who do claim to oppose the movement seem either to link it closely with those leaders, or to view it as an agglomeration of left-leaning movements.

Yet fascinatingly, there were several common denominators in the way these diverse groups of Israelis described the reasons behind the protests. Beyond the sky-high cost of living and the onerous cost of housing, education and health care, all these people described a sense of unfairness in society and the economy. As a high-ranking government official put it at a conference with dozens of executives, "We feel that the people who make it in Israel are more and more the schemers, and less and less the talented and industrious."

Some have been calling for the protest leaders to go into politics. They are, in effect, suggesting that the protest be buried. Some are suggesting it with malice aforethought.

Israel's political system is not geared to embrace the idea of protest. Most of the protest leaders who might venture into politics would be ground down and spat out at best, or turn into the very thing they're trying to eradicate at worst.

The Chinese race car driver Han Han - who reportedly has more than half a billion visitors to his blog, making him the most influential blogger in China - told the Financial Times recently that the chance of true revolution in totalitarian China is miniscule. So he advocates something else. "In the near future, it's impossible to change the institution," he said. "So we need to change the people." If that can be done, says Han, "then the party will change."

Israel isn't China, but Han Han's words ring true for every modern society. First change the people; then the system will change.

The social protest movement in Israel can change the people. The dozens of social enterprises that sprang up within the past year because of the movement can change the people. Only then, with changed awareness, discourse, understanding and conduct can we start talking about serious political change.

Despite the terrific support the protest movement has garnered, and the centrality of the issues with which it contends, some Israeli media have been ignoring it, belittling it or trying to link it to ideas that take the shine off its attraction. Hostility from the media seems strange, since the 2,000 or 3,000 journalists working in Israel are among the people whom the current system works against. But they, like other weak segments of society, live for the day. They see the short run.

Journalists were told that the protest movement reduces advertising income. They were told that jobs would be lost, and mainly they were told that their bosses or their bosses' friends don't appreciate having them cover the topic - or the people who control hundreds of billions of shekels' worth of the public's assets. These reporters can cry out for structural change and equal opportunity, for change in the public agenda, in conversation with friends; but they can't bring that mindset to the newsroom. That's where the usual smoke screens of security issues, politics, crime and gossip are concocted, things that have nothing to do with Israel's economic and social future.

The meaning for the social justice movement is crystal clear. It must not link up with, or rely on, other political movements or the existing economic powers (not the tycoons and not the unions; not the left and not the right ). And it must also avoid depending on any news group controlled or financed by members of the existing ruling class, for they want the public to revert to focusing on something else, and it matters little whether that is Iran, a huge technology sale, Haredim or Bar Refaeli.