This document was presented at the ODA-Da'am seminar, held in Kufr Qana on September 17, 2011. It was translated by Yonatan Preminger and published in English at Challenge Magazine, a magazine covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On July 14, 2011, something clicked. For years, people moaned behind closed doors about Israel's deteriorating condition while trying to get their hands on a foreign passport. Suddenly, up jumped Daphni Leef and placed her sofa on Tel Aviv's chic Rothschild Boulevard, and thus changed public discourse and political reality. The tent protest she ignited is the most political protest Israel has ever seen. It is not a response to some unsuccessful military operation, but stems from profound social failure—the result of years of economic and social policies that have brought the middle classes to the point of collapse. The protest expressed a deep public lack of faith in the Knesset and political parties, all of which adopted the same policies regarding the economy and "peace."
In the past, the middle classes supported the neo-liberal Shinui party. Now Tel Aviv's youth have dragged the entire country to a protest which places fundamental social change firmly on the public agenda. In light of the fact that no party today is able to contain the protest and win public trust, the protest leaders chose to express public discontent themselves, and declared the movement "apolitical" and non-partisan. Since the leadership does not believe in any party, it turned to the person currently on watch, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and demanded he respond to the nation's calls for social justice. To persuade the government and Knesset that the protest enjoys majority public support, it called for a referendum in which citizens were to vote with their feet: the enormous and repeated demonstrations proved that the public is sick of politics and politicians.
Aware that the right wing, the settlers and religious sectors still constitute the government, the protest leaders avoided antagonizing them and tried to maintain a neutral image. Moreover, the fundamental issues dividing the Israeli public—the Palestinian question, the occupation and peace—were systematically kept out of the protest. Personages such as Noam Shalit (father of Gilad, the IDF soldier held for five years in captivity by Hamas) and Shlomo Artzi (the legendary Israeli musician) were recruited in order to strengthen the consensus. The protest expressed its yearning for the past when the leaders of the yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) lived in modest apartments, or when the state belonged to all and social solidarity was strong, and above all when the welfare state treated all its Jewish citizens equally. Thus the protest turned its gaze "inwards", ignoring the responsibility of those demanding social justice for what is taking place just a short distance away, in the occupied territories.
The system that crushed the working class
Daphni Leef was born into the political and economic system against which she is protesting. The seeds of the system were sown in the economic upheaval led by Shimon Peres together with Likud leaders towards the end of 1985. With the collapse of communism in the beginning of the nineties, nothing remained to block the path of neo-liberal capitalism. Israel opened its doors to globalization; cheap goods and cheap labor flooded the market, and state-owned and Histadrut-owned enterprises were privatized. The results were immediate. Half the nation climbed upwards; the other half sank.
The ideologues of the new system worked overtime to convince the public of its efficiency and advantages over the old system. The old Israel of the Histadrut and Tnuva shared the cake equally between its (Jewish) citizens, and there was no need to work too hard because there wasn't anywhere to advance to anyway. The old Israel encouraged "mediocrity" while the new Israel encourages "excellence." Thus Israel is divided between the excellent and successful on one hand, and the mediocre and failures on the other. The "excellent" found themselves working in the hi-tech sector, financial services and new industries, while the "mediocre" were pushed to the margins, to minimum wage, to contract labor and to national insurance handouts. The Israel of excellence hardly glanced at the Israel of mediocrity. Those who "failed" blamed themselves for their failure. Two societies were created. The middle class sent its kids to exclusive kindergartens while those who couldn't allow themselves this luxury made do with the regular kindergartens; schools were divided between private institutions for the excellent and state schools for the failures; medical care was divided between private and public—thus the system widened socioeconomic disparities and increased rates of poverty.
Standards of living among the middle classes rose dramatically; savings of privileged employees increased; shopping sprees and trips abroad became part of life. From time to time, some little war disturbed the idyllic life of the middle classes, or an intifada or terror attack, but they generally gave their leaders the green light to deal with the issue in the usual fashion—with force, and as much of it as possible.
Then one day the middle classes woke up to find themselves in the hands of twelve monopolistic families who were bleeding them dry mercilessly and using them and their savings however they saw fit. Prices rose; salaries failed to keep up with cost of living; housing became unattainable; and expenses for education, health and consumer goods bore deep holes in middle class pockets.
The politicians too fell into the hands of the tycoons, who used their status to amass wealth. Thus the political elite found itself in the docks, from a candidate for chief of staff to an income tax commissioner, from a president to a prime minister, and including a candidate for police inspector-general, a finance minister, a minister of industry, trade and labor, and a long list of senior functionaries. Almost every government clerk, it seems, is in the pay of some tycoon, military man or former secret service agent. Capital has bought out government, and the nation has lost its ability to generate change via the ballot box.
After twenty years of neo-liberalism, the middle classes discovered that excellence is not enough, and the best education doesn't always pay. A few succeeded in getting good positions while the salaries of the majority shrank. Eventually, the middle classes found themselves in the same position as the working class. The privatization of public services and employment via NGOs made minimum wage no longer just the lot of factory workers, drivers and builders, but the wage of resident doctors, social workers, journalists, teachers, bank clerks, junior faculty—all of them comrades of Daphni Leef and the protest leadership. Most are not organized in any union, do not enjoy peripheral benefits and have no pension plan.
The moment the status of the middle classes became equal to that of the working class, they marched the streets demanding social justice for all. However, their long years of indifference towards weaker groups led to their failure to draw the periphery and the working classes into their protest movement.