With another school year in the books, earnest and idealistic Israeli university students across the land are feverishly signing up for the 20-something set’s equivalent of summer camp: social justice protests.
What are these good, well-read and well-spoken defenders of all that’s true and right actually protesting? It’s a seemingly straight-forward question that doesn’t lend itself neatly to any one answer.
United by the mantra of “The people demand social justice”, hundreds of thousands of protesters from a wide variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds are being led by this loud, proud and fashionably hip coterie that’s demanding a fundamental change in national priorities, the elimination of Israel’s neo-liberal policies and the restoration of the welfare state.
In other words: revolution.
No one can reasonably deny the existence of some very deep and pervasive societal ills that Israelis must live with. The iron triangle of oligopolistic businesses, militant labor unions and huge unaccountable government bureaucracies have created a thoroughly dysfunctional political and economic system.
And no one can reasonably deny the protestors’ right to get out there and yelp to their hearts’ content. Israel is a vibrant if imperfect democracy that cherishes and guarantees freedom of speech as a basic human right and an essential component of that democracy.
Furthermore, it is this freedom that enables citizens to protest against injustice, to influence the public discourse and to criticize the actions of the government.
However, there is something insincere, even a bit staged, about the movement that was apparently sparked by 25-year-old Daphne Leef, who pitched a tent in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square in the summer of 2011 and then opened a Facebook protest page, where she invited others to join her protest.
The movement that Leef birthed claims to be non-partisan and regards itself as apolitical. Parties and trade unions are not involved.
However, a political rather than social agenda can be discerned, especially in light of revelations that the Leef-led protestors received funding from specific left-wing individuals and organizations like S. Daniel Abraham and the New Israel Fund.
In fact, it turns out that the spontaneous uprising of June 2011 had been planned and orchestrated by The National Left and other left-leaning organizations months earlier.
Indeed, the lack of clear, specific goals and the Israeli media’s focus on a few select activists buttresses the belief by some that genuine public outrage over high inflated costs, high unemployment, low productivity and slow real wage growth has been hijacked by political operatives whose goal is to topple a center-right government and ultimately establish a European-style welfare state in Israel.
And welfare-state expansion worked like gangbusters in Greece and Portugal, were the entitlement-based system was part of the reason these two countries ended up as clients of Europe’s bailout mechanisms.
While the founders of the “Hebrew Spring” remain determined to fight for Israel’s future, it’s worth noting that the European social system they aspire to replicate is in its own death throes. While welfare states may continue to exist across Europe for decades to come, their benefit programs will be far less generous and a greater part of social security will be organized privately. Welfare services, like health care, will be exposed to competition and, to a much greater degree, paid for out of pocket or by private insurance.
By eschewing basic structural reforms in favor of societal upheaval, the student-led protestors are seeking to throw out the baby with the bath water.
In contrast, the “reserve soldier rally” that took place a couple of weeks ago in front of the Tel Aviv Museum was a masterstroke of effective social protest in action. The clearly stated goal of this demonstration was to lead tens of thousands of Israeli ultra-Orthodox and Arab youths to don uniforms and enlist in the IDF, as the secular and nationalist Orthodox youths do.
While Israel must contend with a laundry list of very real issues, Israelis, living in the only civilized country under constant existential threat, are a remarkably happy bunch. There have been several theories posited as to the reason for this seemingly illogical reality. But the logical conclusion to be drawn is that while many Israelis do live in a state of perpetual emotional strain, they seek out, develop and support solutions of a measured, pragmatic nature.
Most Israelis, much to the chagrin of Ms Leef and her acolytes, are deeply appreciative of a deeply flawed system that has somehow managed to innovate, invent and contribute to the world in the biomedical, technological, and scientific fields.
Much work still needs to be done to make this good society great. However, a healthy dose of perspective will serve us well along the way.