Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Protests for social justice

Recent weeks have seen the birth of a social justice protest movement in Israel. People have started camping out in parks and public spaces to protest the high cost of housing and the cost of living in general.

On Saturday night there were large demonstrations in ten cities, with a reported total participation of about 150,000 people, with 100,000 in Tel Aviv, and 10,000 each in Jerusalem and Haifa. The Haifa demonstration was very close to where we live, and we could hear the speeches and the applause. I realized from the volume of applause that there were more people there than I have ever known to attend an event in Haifa, and it has been called one of the largest demonstrations ever in the city.

I have been following the story of this new protest movement with interest. For the first time, the movement is led by middle class professional people who still find it very difficult to reach the sort of financial security that would allow them to buy their own home, and even renting is becoming more and more expensive. I can attest to this difficulty. For twenty years we rented, and only when we inherited enough money, from my aunt and Ivor's parents and grandparents, could we consider buying our own place.

The reporting of the protest has involved several interesting comparisons between Israel and other developed countries, regarding salaries, working hours, the cost of various items, and the gap between rich and poor. Israel recently joined the OECD, and in most indices is at the bottom of its ranking. For example, if I remember correctly, Israel has the largest proportion of child poverty and the largest gap between the incomes of the richest and poorest.

One of the factors that must be taken into account is that in Israel, the citizens' contribution to the state is greater than in most other countries. Most Israelis are recruited to compulsory military service at 18, serve for 2-3 years, and some of them are required to participate in reserve military duty until the age of 40, sometimes for a month each year. Also, at times of war, the civilian population is called upon to stand strong, keep working, and not flee when Israeli cities are attacked from across the border. For these contributions, in addition to the taxes people pay, there is a growing feeling that the population is not being rewarded sufficiently.

What has been bothering me, though, is the distorted focus of the public debate and the attitudes displayed by some of the people opposed to the protests. At first, it was suggested that the protesters were spoilt, wanted to live only in Tel Aviv, and were unwilling to move futher away. This suggestion faded when tents sprung up in so many other cities, and when data about the cost of housing in all parts of Israel were published.

Many people are still arguing that the economy here is good, that the protesters could live more modestly, and that they are "just trying to bring down the government". These claims can be answered by first looking at the economic data, which show the protest is based on fact rather than feeling. To say that the middle class should live more modestly implies that the vast majority of the population should actually be working class rather than middle class. Telling your population to lower its aspirations does not seem to me to be a good way to improve the economy and morale. Finally, peaceful protests are a legitimate form of expressing the population's opinions about the government between elections.

There is a call for the restoration of the welfare state and an end to privatization. This is a point of ideology that raises some serious arguments, but also some very emotionally charged claims. I have observed that many of the supporters of the more extreme market freedoms, who claim the state should have a minimal intervention in the economy, are self-made wealthy people. They like to present their prosperity as evidence of their hard work, and to argue that anyone can become wealthy given enough hard work. This seems to me to be a form of blaming the victim - claiming that the poor brought their poverty upon themselves through laziness. These self-made people refuse to acknowledge the importance of luck in their success. Their careers have been helped along by contacts they made, and often by chance factors that gave them an advantage over others who worked just as hard. In some cases, such people have advanced by bending the rules, while more honest people who studiously avoid corruption end up falling behind.

The current proposals being negotiated by the protesters and the government may lead to some compromise steps being taken. Ultimately, I do not consider it likely that life in Israel will be made much easier for the working and middle classes, or that the gap between the richest and the rest of us can be reduced significantly. But an outcome I would like to see would be an improvement in the level of public debate, where people looked at the facts and listened to each other with open minds, rather than prejudging those who disagree with their ideology.

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