Fear and loathing on Pinkas Street

The time has come to rise up against the soul-crushing illogic of Israel's sad economic reality

“Eeeehhhhh…  you should know, we pay very leettehl ‘ere.  Veeery leettehl.”

It seemed at the time like they’d all rehearsed the same disclaimers.  As if the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption had given a course on how to lower olims’ expectations.  Every interview I went to in the first few months following my aliyah ended with the same disdainful closer.  No matter how well the seventh-round, all-day meeting went, no matter how many sparks flew between a suit-and-tied, eager-to-please me and the ripped-polo-and-jeans-clad HR guy, no matter how over-qualified I was for the job, it always ended like that.  We won’t pay you what you’re worth, OK?

After a while, my mind still in North America, I naively asked “But why? Don’t you value your employees?” And the answer I got from one particularly frank honcho was this: “Well, we give as little as we can get away with.” I didn’t realize at the time that that pithy, cogent admission explained the acute myopia plaguing Israel’s economy and politics.

Last summer, to great fanfare, over 400,000 Israelis of all shapes and sizes came out to the streets to protest the exorbitant cost of living in this country. Parks became campgrounds, erstwhile unknowns became regulars on the news, and Tel Aviv was plastered with posters. There were concerts and endless speeches, a few rich kids got to play Che Guevara and live on Rothschild rent-free for a summer. Tent manufacturers made a killing.  Some people even pointed a meek, hesitant finger at the “tycoons” who make the machine so rickety. And on the big night, everyone came out to chant some vacuous platitudes about “social justice” or the like.

The biggest social protest in the history of the country. The real precursor to the global Occupy movement.

And what came of it? What came of the huge mobilization? Nothing. Klum. Effess. Except that two days later, the Tel Aviv municipality for no apparent reason decided to raise the price of parking at deserted beach lots. Electricity went up too. And a few weeks later, Netanyahu’s lackeys decided that the proper thing to do to help struggling Israeli families buy bread for their kids was to raise taxes.

Now, a few months down the road, things are actually worse than before the protests. The price of everyday items — like that of rent and electricity — continues to rise, relentless, defiant, like a middle finger. Even tomatoes, my only budgetary comfort, are playing hard to get these days. Only now the inflation has an “in your face,” dafka quality to it.

The land of milk or honey

And so, we all – the well off and the less well off – have to keep struggling in this recently OECD-canonized, abundant state to make it through the month. In today’s high-tech and low-unemployment Israel, even basic necessities like gasoline and air conditioning are a luxury. Milk and honey? A small fortune. If you think that you’ve found a deal, whether through hard work, luck or craftiness, odds are that you are being screwed and don’t yet know how. To have a tiny car and a small apartment in Tel Aviv, one needs to be loaded. Or in debt. Or both. To raise kids in this economy is to have faith in the miraculous. And indeed, professions of faith substitute for sound budgets at every turn.

Meanwhile, the ill-named “tycoons” keep fleecing the fabric of this nation through their immutable control over a disproportionate market share that they did not earn but instead bought at a steal from the public just because they happened to know the right people at the right time. They continue, unbothered, to pay us third-world salaries while charging us New York prices for everything. Why? Because we let them get away with it.

Kumquats grown a few minutes’ drive away and harvested by acutely underpaid foreign laborers cost more at the local supermarket than Florida oranges do in Quebec. Why? No one can say. Israeli snacks made within eyesight of my apartment cost almost twice as much at the local supermarket than they do in London. Or Jersey. Or Miami. Why? No good reason comes to mind.

Cottage cheese prices creep back up while we turn our heads to greet Gilad Shalit, and the price of mediocre yogurt reaches never-before-seen heights. Why? Just because. Clothing and everything else is more of the same. Only worse.

To our crooked economic overlords, theft is ingenuity, greed is sagacity and impertinence passes for customer service. Why? Because we let them get away with it. Because we will wake early on a Friday morning to drive an hour on overpriced fuel in an overpriced car to stand in line for ages to buy some sub-par item at an unconscionable cost. And we will do it with a smile.

The government is the other face of the piggish tycoon hydra. Israel is alone among pretenders to western democracy to recycle politicians – failed politicians – endlessly. Our political class is a veritable compost of incompetence and immorality. The platforms our politicians run on are half-baked rehashes of their opponents’. We are but a few semantic steps from a one-party, one-idea system.

And indeed, our déjà-vu, elected failures in turn appoint whichever clown is at arm’s length to forever stabilize their indecent coalitions and cement their un-kosher hold on power. Stalin lookalike Amir Peretz as defense minister at a crucial time? Why not; no one will make a sound. Ehud Barak back at defense after his last fiasco? Sounds good. WWF-worthy Lieberman as the head of diplomacy? The coast is clear. A thuggish theocrat to head the Ministry of the Interior? Meh.

The presidency, too, meant to be an office beyond politics, one to unite the nation and hearken back to our biblical heroes, an office once held by Weizman and Herzog and offered to no less than Einstein, has become the Miami Beach of politics, where old, cumbersome men go to die (or rape, or mass-produce fluffy one-liners in a desperate bid to be remembered). And somehow in a country where public servants are paid like subsidized volunteers, we have ex-career officers and lifelong bureaucrats traipsing from their fully-paid penthouses to their gleaming Mercedes sedans without a mere peep of questioning from the public. Let alone an indictment. Because we let them get away with it.

Time to take our due

The hardworking, average Israeli – a superhero if ever there was one – keeps taking it. He, she, the ever-resourceful Sabra, is the silver cloud shining out the dark grey lining. The soul and engine of this great nation. For every incompetent, arrogant public functionary making life unduly complicated, there are ten smiling citizens welcoming me still to Israel and offering whatever help they can. For every undue tax and thieving bank fee, there is a warm and sincere invitation to Shabbat dinner from a total stranger. For every brash and inappropriate declaration by an elected idiot or a customer service bully, there is the warm and heartfelt well-wishing of an overworked but joyful cab driver. The human face of Israel.

And so I, too, sedated by the genuine kindness and decency of the people, keep taking it. Like the hero Israelis, hypnotized by security concerns and shackled by Zionist self-reliance, I also learn to be a Zen master about it all. And, therefore, nothing changes. Because we let them get away with it.

And all the clamoring of empty leftist slogans at protests-turned-festivals or defeatist dinner table concessions that “ein ma laassot” won’t do a thing. Because we let them get away with.

But it need not be that way. They – the governments employed by our resigned votes and fed by our fiscal obedience, the barnyard tycoons fattened by our complacency — should not just hear us; they should fear us. Fear of the people, the essential ingredient of a healthy democracy, is wholly absent in Israel.

It is high time for this electorate to know its worth and to remove the politicians we endlessly complain about, and for the consumer base to punish the swinish tycoons who, like vampires, suck dry and spit out the hand that feeds them. Let us not ask but take our due. No please or thanks. Let us not let them get away with it any longer. Let them fear us.

So this is a call to arms. Stay tuned for details…

About the Author
Philippe Assouline is a lawyer and PhD candidate in International Relations and Political science. His research is on the Middle East, and investigating whether positive communication can foster peace between Israelis and Arabs. Philippe believes that dehumanizing propaganda, like BDS, fuels hatred and war. Accordingly, he has written posts criticizing BDS and profiling dissidents and Arab peace activists, to break barriers between Jews and Arabs.