Saturday Night Fever

One couldn’t help but be swept by a wave of nostalgia during last Saturday’s protest. The sight of thousands of people marching through Rothschild Boulevard chanting “here comes the welfare state” immediately evoked memories of the Social Justice protests that took place in Israel during the summer of 2011. But while the signs carried by the many protesters were the same, and the songs sung by the crowd were the same, there was also a great difference between Saturday night’s protest and those we witnessed just two years ago.

For one thing, there was no sense of naiveté. At the height of the Social Justice protests, many of the dwellers of “I wish I were Rothschild” Boulevard  felt that Israel was finally moving in a new direction. The promise of change carried so eloquently by Barack Obama and the early days of the Arab Spring had made Aliyah and now resided in the many tents that were set up by idealistic youngsters. This feeling of change was amplified by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response to the massive demonstrations. In a hastily organized press conference, Netanyahu pledged to meet the demands of the protesters by initiating immediate reforms that would benefit the Israeli middle class in areas such as housing, education and welfare.

The feeling during this week’s protest was not one of hope or change but rather of disillusionment. Israelis have had their fair share of broken promises in the past two years. The great reformer Netanyahu has remained what he has always been, the ultimate boosom buddy of the one percent. Since that press conference in 2011, the housing prices have only gone up as have the taxes and the burden placed on the Israeli middle class. Of course most of Saturday’s protesters did not march because of Netanyahu, they marched because of Yair Lapid, the self proclaimed savior of the middle class and the man who promised to carry the spirit of the Social Justice protests to the Knesset.

It is unclear to me why so many of Lapid’s voters feel cheated. Is Mr. Lapid the first politician to go back on his word? Is he the first MK to do exactly the opposite of what he promised? Is he the first Minister of Finance to turn into Machete once he takes office, hacking away at the remnants of the welfare state? Was Yair such a good campaigner that he actually won over the hearts and minds of so many people? Maybe his story serves to demonstrate the extent to which Israeli politics have been Americanized. After all, Lapid’s story is the ultimate example of TV persona versus actual personality and the blurry line that runs between the two.

What was most fascinating about Saturday’s protest was not the amount of attention paid to Lapid but rather the lack of rage amongst the protesters. There was no fever in Saturday night’s gathering, only a collective sense of desperation and an understanding that the difference between new politics and old politics is good looks. Even Daphni Leef, one of the leaders of the Social Justice Movement, walked silently amidst the many protesters leaving the screaming and chanting to her younger peers of which there were many. In fact, most of the demonstrators were under the age of 18, youngsters who had watched their parents and older brothers take to the streets two years ago and who now wanted to take part in the revolution. At the moment, however, this revolution has no spirit.

Judging by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction to the public debate surrounding the 2013 budget, we are not about to witness the reincarnation of the Social Justice movement. Netanyahu seems to think that the 2011 protests were a sort of perfect storm, a singular event rather than a genuine shift in the priorities of the majority of Israelis. How else can one explain the ease with which he has returned to his previous excessive standard of living ordering a $ 127,000 bed while licking Pistachio flavored ice cream?

Yet Netanyahu may be mistaken. If there is one thing that could rekindle the spirit of revolution amongst the Israeli working middle class is the extent to which the Israeli government is out of touch with its public. A government filled with unnecessary Ministers and ridiculous Ministries, a government that favors big business over small progress, a government that bills the Israeli public one Million shekels for the Prime Minister’s family vacation to China and a government in which the wife of a prominent Minister urged her twitter followers to watch the Amazing Race and forget about protesting. The only people more out of touch with the Israeli public than its politicians are the executives of Channel 10 who decided to air Israel’s version of the Housewives of Beverly Hills while 12,000 people were calling for a new social order. The revolution will not be televised by Channel 10.

In common day language, nostalgia is defined as a bittersweet longing for things of the past. Yet in Greek it literally means ‘the pain of an old wound’. If this government continues on its current course, it might reopen the wound of 2011 and face the rage of Israel’s over burdened majority once again.

I rather hope it does.

About the Author
Ilan Manor is finishing his mass media studies at Tel Aviv University. He has previously contributed to the Jerusalem Post, +972 Magazine, the Jewish Daily Forward and On Second Thought magazine. His Hebrew-language blog has been featured several times in the Israeli press.