Israel’s Generation Gap Stems From Economic Angst

Young people don’t fear they’ll be beaten up for being Jewish, like Benjamin Netanyahu’s grandfather, they fear they’ll end up like the activist who immolated himself during the social protests.

It’s almost amusing to listen to the pointless conversation over Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s statements about the new breed of Israeli expats in Berlin. On one side are Lapid and retired general Uzi Dayan, who made his own furious Facebook posting on the matter, accusing young Israelis of throwing away their Israeliness for a fistful of comfort. On the other side are Israelis in their 20s and 30s, the well-educated among them who speak the global language and are doing what seems logical: seeking a place where their lives will be better.

The gap between the two sides is much more complex than the one between Dayan’s generous pension and the average wage, or between Lapid’s SUV and the overdraft in many Israelis’ bank accounts. The two sides are destined to live completely separate existences, like creatures from different planets.

The first gap involves Israel’s economic history. Dayan, 65, grew up in a country where ordinary people could make a respectable living and count on a fair pension, not just career army people. It was a world where workers were an important part of the economy and the social safety net was an obligation no one doubted.

The labor market today is more like a battlefield where the handful of employees still belonging to strong unions enjoy protection and good conditions, while the masses wallow unprotected in the trenches. Young people don’t understand by what right Dayan, who never spent a day on this insane battlefield, can tell them what to do.

Lapid, 50, is from another generation, one that still considers Israel a welfare state and more egalitarian society but also notices society’s ills and rises up against them. To Lapid, who was raised on the rights of the individual and the free market, socialism is an ugly word, signifying political appointments, wasteful management and the curbing of individual freedoms. Young people can’t understand what right Lapid has to demand that they give up their personal comfort for some collective good.

But the more significant gap is in the way consciousness is formed – in the generations’ very different senses of private and collective experience. Unlike Dayan and Lapid, who judge the state through the filter of the Zionist ethos, young people judge the state in objective terms. Lapid and Dayan treat Israel as the solution for existential anxiety, so they play down other difficulties people have.

But young people want no part of this anxiety; they don’t understand why their lives have to be different from their German, Dutch or Canadian Facebook friends. Their fear isn’t that they’ll be beaten up for being Jewish, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grandfather, but that they’ll reach the point of Moshe Silman, the activist who immolated himself during last year’s round of the social protests. They also worry they’ll be prisoners in an explosive region, as the government depicts it.

Young people can choose to shun this existential anxiety, because unlike Dayan and Lapid, they’ve never lived in the shadow of an existential disaster. They know about the Holocaust from school, Anne Frank’s diary and “Schindler’s List.” The frequent use of the Holocaust to justify life in Israel doesn’t scare them; it seems to them manipulation by a salesman who knows that his wares are substandard.

Lapid and his friends in government can stop this pointless conversation – the question is whether they want to. The government, one of our most right-wing ever, seems to be galloping toward the vision of the Greater and Privatized Land of Israel. It’s not clear whether the people who are leaving would fit in there.

Oren Nachshon