The True Lesson of the Social Protests

The protests helped changes things for the better, but not because they wrought some deep cultural change. We just learned to give greater obedience to the traditional Israeli commandment: Don’t be a sucker.

Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon
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Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon

These are good days for the Israeli public. Many feel that the spirit of the social protests of summer 2011 is finally bearing fruit. Here are a few facts: After only a few days, criticism of the change in the compensation paid to reservists pushed Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to allocate NIS 60 million from the defense budget for the soldiers. And in light of the public’s anger, Bank Leumi reversed itself on its write-off of debts for Nochi Dankner. Above all this hovers the general satisfaction over the “Open Skies” reforms.

But are these really the fruits of the protests? It depends on which protests you’re talking about. Until the agreement between Israeli airlines and the government was reached, the discussion of the side effects of Open Skies − mass layoffs − didn’t arouse any of the hundreds of thousands of social justice protesters to go back into the streets.

I can hear it now: You’re not writing as an opponent of Open Skies, but because there is something irritating about these public reactions coming in the wake of the social protests − which, if they actually reflected their leaders’ declarations, would have resulted in an outcry now against the crippling blow being dealt to thousands of airline employees.

This didn’t happen because today we can definitely say the protests did not stem from a demand for social justice for the economically needy.

Instead, they were based on the change in the citizen’s relationship with the government. One of the main factors behind this was the end of the era of the old hierarchies and the feeling of a loss of authority. In an era in which the government or the Histadrut labor federation controlled the big conglomerates, the citizens tended to wring their hands in despair even when they were harmed, because they had accepted the presence of hidden powers “up above.” When tycoons, as part of the privatization wave, replaced the state and party institutions − not just in the economy but even in sports − the public tended to idolize them as heroes.

But the flood of media channels and social networks, in which all are equal members, narrowed the distance between the leaders and citizens. Today the tycoons are viewed as citizens just like us, except that they have succeeded in manipulating the system. Given the public’s outlook, it’s no surprise when everyone demands that the banks which make their lives difficult also make life difficult for the tycoons.

Recognition of this change in relations between citizen and government explains the ease with which political, financial and military leaders have recently backed down in the face of public criticism. The days when the prime minister demanded to be elected since “I don’t know what the people want, but I know what is good for the people,” ‏(David Ben-Gurion, 1965 Labor Party convention‏) have passed, to be replaced by politicians’ unwillingness to go against the will of the masses. In many cases this brings progress, as in the cancellation of the outrageous agreement with Dankner. But sometimes it brings absurdity, such as the joy over the compensation for army reservists − without a change in the defense budget, the money the IDF transferred so easily to the reservists will just be taken from the state budget, at the public’s expense.

The events of the past few months, from the electoral disappointment suffered by Labor, the party closest to the spirit of the protests, to the Open Skies agreement, show that the politician who best understood the masses’ chant of “the people demand social justice” − that it was really hundreds of thousands of individuals chanting “I demand personal justice” − was Yair Lapid. It is no coincidence that his personal appeal to the voters − “Where’s the money?” − pulled so many of them in.

The bottom line is that the protests helped bring about changes for the better, but not because they wrought some deep cultural change in the way Israeli society understands the economy. In all, we just learned to give greater obedience to the traditional Israeli commandment: Don’t be a sucker.

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