Power to the People

Israel's grass roots has moved beyond protest to creative initiative on a broad scale. The Am Chai movement is one group that has some advice for the politicians.

The Am Chai (Living Nation) movement in the Lower Galilee town of Migdal Ha'emek is going to run in the municipal elections this fall. On the face of it, the movement is another in a long series of independent lists that are being formed all over the country to participate in the October elections. For several decades now, the municipal arena has provided fertile ground for local leaders to express their political desires, and even for the growth of national leadership. However, David Bouzaglo, who heads Am Chai, is a different story. Even before he is defined as a "new politician" by virtue of his municipal ambitions, Bouzaglo, 39, a driver for the Israel Electric Corporation, is a new Israeli, 2003 model.

The past few years - during which the country has been wracked by security, economic and social difficulties - have had a transforming effect on the way of life in the country. The stereotypical Israeli who grumbles about "the situation" while reclining in his armchair and vigorously devouring sunflower seeds has almost disappeared. Even the criticism leveled at the country's politicians has become so taken for granted that it is no longer a fitting occupation for leisure-time activity.

Those patterns of behavior have given way to two models of behavior that are the opposite of each other. On the one hand there is the indifferent Israeli, who no longer believes in anyone or in his ability to exert influence, and cuts himself off from the events around him. On the other hand, there is the Israeli whose loss of faith in the political system is translated not into apathy, but rather into alternative creative thinking.

Anyone traveling around the country cannot help notice this fundamental change. Alongside the despairing utterances - "There's nothing you can do," "There's no way to change anything" - the grass-roots level is fraught with a wealth of well-grounded ideas about how to bring about political and social change, which are being conceived by ordinary people. Indeed, in a situation of frustration at the character of the leadership and the absence of an aggressive opposition, a large part of the country seems to have become a shadow government that is offering an alternative to current policy.

Bouzaglo is a perfect specimen of this new breed. His roots, though, lie in a very political home of the old kind. His mother, who raised 11 children, was a dyed-in-the-wool Likud activist dating back to her days in the Betar movement in Morocco. She was willing to follow the Likud leader Menachem Begin through fire and water. Bouzaglo, too, is a "Likudnik" by nature, though his party affinities are more flexible. "I follow the synagogue and not the usher," he told a meeting of his movement's activists this week in Migdal Ha'emek - meaning that he follows the idea and not the person.

This approach led him to leave the Likud - "I took the true banner with me" - after Ariel Sharon bested Benjamin Netanyahu in the party's internal elections. Ahead of the last Knesset elections, he hooked up with Avigdor Lieberman's ultranationalist National Union and worked for him. Now, disappointed in Lieberman's position on social issues, he has broken with him, too.

"From his period as prime minister, Bibi [Netanyahu] understood that the nation is not strong enough to ensure his rule, and the elites sent him home. Now he is applying that lesson: He is hurting the people and helping to strengthen the elites, who will reinforce him at the top levels," Bouzaglo says, analyzing the behavior of the finance minister.

On the morning of the Knesset vote on the government's new economic plan, Bouzaglo relates, Lieberman called him in a last-minute attempt to find out "what the feeling was in the town." Bouzaglo told him "not to vote for these budget cuts, which will hurt his supporters. Ivet [Lieberman] told me that there is no choice, but I don't buy that. We are still good friends, but I know that there are a lot of other things that can be done before hurting those who are weak."

Investing in Bamba

Bouzaglo doesn't leave things at the level of talk and generalizations. The era of generalizing is over and the slogans can be left to the politicians. Seven months ago, he created an association whose first move was to enlist supporters for the idea of eliminating value added tax on home electricity and gas use.

"I thought it was wrong for people who barely subsist to have to pay VAT on such basic things. That money can be taken from those who are well-off in the form of an additional percent of tax, for example," he explains. "These people will invest the extra money they will have in another bag of the Bamba snack, which they can't afford now, and so strengthen the food industry in a way that will create more jobs."

At this stage, Bouzaglo offers a detailed, systematic analysis of the economic and social implications of such a move, a subject with which he has thoroughly familiarized himself. He has presented it to cabinet ministers and Knesset members, who told him that it's a fine concept but that there's no one to push it forward. The plan has been shelved for the time being.

Now the association has become a movement, which will become a challenger in the local elections. Its main message is the elimination of the many deputy-mayor posts. That subject, which entailed the unification of local governments, was killed off by the Knesset because of personal and political interests of the MKs, but it refuses to die among the public. In Migdal Ha'emek it has become the major talking point.

"We have to take our fate in our hands," asserts Sami Balitli, a major in the reserves, who four months ago retired from the army after 26 years and joined Bouzaglo's movement along with his wife, Etti.

"The politicians have stopped thinking," adds Nissim Even-Haim, a local engineer, who also joined Am Chai. "That is why we have to make proposals and throw bombshells, so that they will at least react. That's the most that can be expected of them - that we will think and they will be forced to react." And thinking is certainly not in short supply in Migdal Ha'emek.

One morning this week members of the movement met in a local cafe, which overlooks a lovely valley, and spoke about all these issues in a manner that combined pragmatic political thought with notions of protest. It's precisely because their origins are not in socioeconomic distress yet they are not strangers to it, and precisely because Migdal Ha'emek, with its modest version of Silicon Valley and its constantly improving education system, projects great prospects, that they are capable of being receptive to new thinking. For example, on the question of why a town of 28,000 people needs three salaried deputy mayors.

With the help of a financial expert who teaches these subjects at the university, they calculated that the direct cost to the taxpayer of each deputy mayor is NIS 600,000 a year, and the indirect cost, including all the expenses for office and staff, is on the order of NIS 2.5 million a year. Overall, then, the cost of these deputies, who deal with a population that is the size of a neighborhood in a big city, is NIS 7.5 million annually. They don't have a bad word to say about any of the deputy mayors, apart from the argument that they simply are not needed and have become a burden on it.

"If you stick chewing gum on the chair of any of the deputy mayors and then come back a week later, you'll see that the gum is still there," Bouzaglo says. "But it's not a personal thing, we are simply against the system."

The compromise decision that was reached yesterday in the Knesset with respect to limiting the number of deputy mayors angers him: "I will fight till the last deputy is gone," Bouzaglo warns. "Look what a plan they began with and what a miserable reduction they ended up with - just so that they won't feel any unpleasantness when they wander about among the public during the Knesset's summer break."

On the same occasion members of Am Chai also tried to figure out what can be done with the money that will become available. It would be possible to assist the 600 single-parent families among the new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, in a town where the immigrants of the 1990s account for 30 percent of the population. Or they could help B., a locally born single mother who once managed a sewing shop that shut down and was recently also fired from her housecleaning work, because the owners of the house also found themselves financially strapped. Now she cleans only one house and her 10-year-old daughter accompanies her to work as her main activity during the summer vacation.

As the conversation proceeds, the anger of the participants rises and the ideas, which sound so logical and so simple to execute, pour forth. "It's a terrible waste," says Felix Lernerman, who immigrated 13 years ago, alone, at the age of 19, from Moldova, the birthplace of Avigdor Lieberman, whom Lernerman supported. Now, though, he is helping Bouzaglo's movement and says in an ironic tone: "The political behavior here reminds me of Russia: the same bureaucracy, the same cronyism and arrangements for the inner group. That is why I very much support the idea of eliminating the posts of the deputy mayors. We sat with new immigrants and figured out that if that unnecessary position is eliminated, it will be possible to reduce each person's municipal taxes by an amount equal to two monthly installments. The country needs money? Fine, here's the money."

It's not by chance that Lernerman talks in national terms and not only about Migdal Ha'emek. Am Chai intends to move from the municipal to the national arena and is perfectly serious about its plan. Even if they don't succeed, they will at least sow the seeds of protest and alternative thinking that are rampant here.

This, too, is a new pattern of behavior that has taken root. If in the past protest in Israel was characterized by merely rejecting a political or social plan, now it is accompanied by alternative ideas to what the establishment is putting forward. That was the modus operandi of the social-welfare organizations during the battle over the budget, when they backed up their opposition by adducing alternatives to the proposed budget. The same pattern was discernible in the lengthy lead-up to the start of construction on the separation fence between Israel and the West Bank. In the course of the protracted period in which the government found it difficult to decide about this barrier, there were not only calls from the grass-roots level to build it but also detailed plans as to how and where it should be built, not to mention privately financed construction on the Mount Gilboa area.

Many of the plans were the initiative of individuals from disciplines foreign to the subject. An engineer with a private firm made blueprints, an energetic lawyer produced a map, and two professors from the Weizmann Institute of Science established a movement calling for separation and came up with a detailed map showing how this could be done. The despair over the way things are being handled "above" is by now generating not only protest per se, but also giving rise to initiatives from below.

Cultural defiance

The new trend has not passed over the cultural arena, either. In the small shopping mall of Migdal Ha'emek, Asher Cohen said this week: "I am not the David Levy of the Moroccan creative artists" - referring to the longtime Likud MK and former cabinet minister.

Cohen, who is a director, actor and translator into Moroccan, and has three academic degrees, was talking about the patterns of activity of the Moroccan community in Israel, which for nearly two generations was nourished largely by feelings of discrimination and complaint by performers and artists of Middle Eastern descent.

Cohen is aware of the discrimination but decided to cope with it in a different way. The Al-Maghreb Theater in which he is active is now completing a second successful season of performing Moli?re's "The Miser," following a first season in which another Moli?re play, "The Rogueries of Scapin," was adapted, also in Moroccan translation. He is now working on an original work entitled "Cantata to Moufletta" (a traditional Moroccan dish), which will be staged toward the end of the year.

"My Moroccan projects, too, do not take discrimination as their point of departure," he emphasizes. "The truth is that I don't have a message for the Israeli theater world, other than the desire to offer the Moroccan public an hour and a half of entertainment in its language and to allow the general public to get to know us as we really are. Things fell into place one day when I received a CD of the Red Army Chorus and was amazed to discover that the Russians were imitating the Israelis' singing style. Then I grasped the cultural bluff on which I was raised."

He looked around, he recalls, and saw that there is a Yiddish theater and a Russian theater, and decided to act, without budgetary support from any part of the establishment.

In an interim summation of the massive wave of immigration, it can be said that the new immigrants from the former Soviet Union laid the foundation for cultural pluralism in a manner that also had an impact on the activity of other groups, which are now also engaged in constructive cultural defiance. Against this background, Cohen was not unduly upset when, after a performance of "The Miser" in Eilat, he was told by the television entertainer Dudu Topaz, whom he ran into at the local airport, that Moroccan is not really a civilized language. Cohen told Topaz that he would only be ready to respond to that remark on his television program; he is still waiting for an invitation.

In the meantime, he is trying to decide whether it will be physically possible for the Moroccan theater to perform at the Jerusalem tent encampment of the single mothers who are protesting the budget cuts. Of them, too, Topaz said that they are afflicted by a culture based on an approach of "I have it coming to me." Cohen wonders, though, why Topaz didn't say that when the country's performing artists shouted the same thing - justly, he says - before the government transferred another NIS 2 million for culture.

At the end of the conversation with Cohen, Bouzaglo, who was also present, says he forgot to say something very important: Why are discharged soldiers given incentives to work in gas stations, which is easy work that can be done by the people in their fifties who are crowding the Employment Bureaus without any chance of finding work, whereas the young people who have just completed their army service could do harder physical work?

"Everything is possible, it's just a matter of thinking and doing," he says. There is total agreement on that approach by Bouzaglo, who comes from politics, and Cohen, who is from the theater; they are done with grumbling about injustice and have set out to do something about it.