David's Harp / Start the Social-justice Revolution Without Me

Succor for Israel can't come from the street. The issues are too complex for shrill slogans to resolve.

There was an air of unreality Saturday night at the social-justice rally in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

“A year after the biggest social struggle in Israel’s history, we’re still here … Today, we’re not the few against than many but the many against the few,” protest leader Stav Shaffir thundered. Yossi Yonah declared that the people are heading back to the city squares "to tell the government that its crisis of confidence with the public hasn't been resolved and will just get worse."

The snag is that they were addressing a crowd of 7,000.

More than four times as many people showed up for the Madonna concert in Ramat Gan two nights before.

Yet it’s not as if the grievances that inspired the protest tents and mass rallies a year ago aren’t real. Nor have they been addressed in any serious way.

True, cottage cheese now costs 20% less than back then, and the government has promised free preschool education come September. Unemployment is slightly lower than a year ago. Wage growth briefly exceeded inflation in the months after last year’s protests, but the trend has reversed since December.

Also, legislation reining in the worst excesses of the tycoon economy is slowly wending its way through the system. But the cost of living in Israel remains higher than in most other developed economies, the disparities in wage are greater, and the burden of taxes and army service is distributed unfairly, to name but a few of the gripes that remain largely unaddressed. The poorest are hurting, as they always are, but so is the middle class.

A Bank of Israel report from March found that the middle class as a share of the population shrunk between 1997 and 2011 at a time when the economy was growing and free market economics was supposed to be working its miracles.

You don't have a better life

The passivity of the Israeli middle class to the distress around them isn’t hard to fathom. It's a question of what is being compared with what.

With just a couple of numbers a recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development captured the Israeli zeitgeist in a report last month.

On most measures of the Your Better Life Index, Israel ranked in the bottom half of the 36 countries surveyed.

Onnet adjusted disposable income, Israelis ranked 22. 

The survey found that Israelis are better educated, on average, in terms of years spent in school. But we perform poorly on standardized math and science exams.

Our scores for the environment are close to rock-bottom and on housing we ranked 30 in crowdedness.

But an ordinary person isn’t likely to compare him or herself to how his or her peers are living in America or France. (In any case, Americans and Europeans aren’t so content either these days. They’re more likely to be without a job, own a house worth less than the mortgage on it and they're watching their social benefits dry up.) The fact is that the average Israeli is better off than he or she was 20 years ago, and that’s the kind of benchmark most people use.

When OECD pollsters asked Israelis whether they were generally content with life, the answer was yes: On a scale of one to 10, we averaged 7.4, much higher than the OECD-wide 6.7. 

Going by their slogans as reported by the press, the protestors last Saturday night think the answers to our problems lie in more generous government handouts, attacking the tycoons and doing battle with Bibi.

But the severe fiscal constraints the government faces make increased spending a pipe dream. The tycoons aren’t a problem per se, rather monopolies are, and the worst of those are run by the same government. Opposing Bibi makes the movement not only partisan but stupidly partisan because for better or for worse, the prime minister remains hugely popular.

Itzik Alrov, the Lech Walesa of last year’s cottage cheese rebellion, was a rare voice of reason Saturday when he warned about the politicization of the protest.

Israel has serious economic dislocations but the solutions do not make for easy slogans or promise quick returns and painless joy. Tackling them should start by overhauling our miserable educational system. But that is an undertaking that will take many patient years to bear fruit.

Meanwhile, the solutions involve breaking up the most egregious monopolies, like electricity and the ports. That requires doing battle with powerful unions against whom mass rallies are powerless. It means bringing the Haredim and Israeli Arabs into the labor force. Coaxing the Haredim requires a sophisticated package of carrots and sticks that only government policymakers can design and implement. To entice the Arabs, they have to be treated as equals.

Finally, it means reaching comprehensive peace agreements with our neighbors in order to remove the last vestiges of our economic and political isolation. But a large segment of the population doesn’t want to hear that.

This kind of revolution won’t come from the street, which incapable of leading it or sustaining it. If it comes at all, it will come from above.