Jerusalem & Babylon / Neither Marx nor Moses

The Jewish war is over, secular capitalism won, and we all just want a decent standard of living.

I suppose it's a good thing, but these haven't been fruitful weeks for us military correspondents. Used to ruling the front pages, along with our colleagues on the diplomatic and political beats, we have been pushed to the back by the new "civil agenda." Newspapers are feeding the public a steady diet of housing protests, with the doctors' strike on the side. It's been 15 days since the first tent was pitched on Rothschild Boulevard, and dessert is nowhere in sight.

It might end very soon, when Israelis sink into their customary August stupor. (Perhaps Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will suddenly agree to a prisoner exchange deal for the release of Gilad Shalit, cutting off the tent dwellers' crucial oxygen supply of media attention. ) But if the wave of protests endures, generating real change in the political landscape, sociologists and political scientists will be arguing for decades over the causes of this sudden awakening of Israel's middle class.

stroller march
Tal Cohen

I think I have isolated the real motive for the outpouring of angst. It is not simply the disparity between income and expenses, nor is it just spiraling housing costs. Overdrafts have always been a way of life in Israel, and the housing market is cyclical. I think the key is in something one of the instant "leaders" of the housing protest said on the radio on Monday: "We deserve the same standard of living as in other Western countries."

Hold on, I thought, where does it say that in Israel's Declaration of Independence? I'm under 40, yet I distinctly recall a time when living here implicitly meant being worse off materially than in the United States or Western Europe.

Next month it will be 30 years since my family made aliyah from Britain. Even then I knew that in order to reach that great, intangible Jewish and Zionist fulfillment you had to exchange your large house with a garden for a small, stuffy apartment with thin mattresses and no air-conditioning. When you're eight you don't understand salaries and mortgages and tax burdens.

I noticed other things, like having only one, black-and-white television channel, instead of three color stations. I wondered why we couldn't find smoked salmon for love or money. Instead of having bottles of milk delivered to our door we had to walk to the shop down the street and fish an unwieldy plastic bag from a tub of watery sour milk, checking for holes. Before asking our phone number, we were first asked whether we had a phone. We did, but many Israelis had been waiting for years. These were among the details denoting the dip in the standard of living that was part of moving to Israel, from the "First World," in 1981.

Even then Israel was not a Third-World country, but few expected a high standard of living. It was almost a matter of pride.

For many of my classmates their first airplane was the one they parachuted from, their first visit to a foreign land made by armored personnel carrier, to Lebanon. Israel was expected to be a world leader in national collective endeavors, such as the army and the greening of the desert. No outing to the northern border or the Jordan Valley was complete without someone saying, "How green our side is, theirs is desolate."

Some people are nostalgic for those simpler times, when children wanted to be farmers, doctors and engineers, not stockbrokers and fashion models. I'm not. How easy it is to forget today the poverty in almost every neighborhood. Every class had kids who came in the same patched clothing every day, whose parents could not afford to buy them textbooks.

Petty corruption was part of every transaction with officialdom, and it's not as if cabinet ministers only began taking bribes and raping their secretaries in the 21st century. The difference is that it was rarely investigated. Schoolchildren often dropped out to support their families, or were herded into vocational schools to train for a life of menial labor. Higher education was a minority pursuit. Yes, there was public housing and apartments were more affordable, but so many were in soulless, Soviet-style tenements and "development" shanty towns. Most of these ills still exist, but the scope is much smaller.

In the mid-1990s, just after Israel successfully absorbed one million immigrants from the disintegrating Soviet Union and just before the twin burst bubbles of the Oslo Accords and the first dotcom wave, Israelis suddenly discovered that traveling abroad was as cheap as vacationing in Eilat, and that a new car was a legitimate middle-class purchase. Over the next 15 years Israeli consumerism accelerated to warp speed. Within just a few years, material aspirations and expectations underwent a transformation.

Until recently there were two Jewish ideals. The socialist founders saw Israel as a "model society," fusing a pseudo-biblical heritage with collectivism. They saw no problem with sacrificing individual comfort for the sake of the new society.

The religious leaders and part of the Revisionist right, in contrast, adopted Bilam's poisoned blessing of "a nation dwelling unto itself," which over generations of exile and assimilation came to mean willing isolation from gentile temptations and aspirations.

Despite being on polar extremes ideologically, both camps essentially preached the same thing: self-denial and the greater good, whether as a "light unto the nations" or in a self-imposed ghetto. And while the socialists were the Zionist vanguard for decades and the religious right is now ascendant, the socialists were always a minority. It was the much-maligned, largely nonideological Fourth Aliyah of 1924-1931, with its petit-bourgeois shopkeepers who preferred Tel Aviv to the kibbutzim, who gave the real impetus to the development of the Jewish economy in Palestine. But they never got the credit.

When the kibbutzim went bankrupt, in the 1970s and '80s, and nearly an entire generation fled to the cities, they were forced to transform themselves into privatized real-estate entities. It turned out that hedonistic Tel Aviv, for all its faults, had been the engine of Israel's prosperity all along.

The West Bank settlement movement is mainly the preserve of the religious, but the great majority of observant and Haredi Israelis are pursuing the suburban dream, preferably near Tel Aviv.

Since the only subsidized housing built in the past 20 years has been for the ultra-Orthodox or in the settlements, the current protest is overwhelmingly secular. But the religious are part of the middle class today, and share the same concerns. Bialik, the quintessential Tel Avivan, famously wrote that Israel would not be a normal nation until there were Jewish thieves and prostitutes, and he was right. The socialist utopia failed, as will the attempts to theocratize Israel. The only sustainable way to realize the goals of Zionism is to strive for a better quality of life in Zion.