Reading the Israeli or foreign press these days, one could get the impression that Israeli households are uniformly collapsing under the weight of the government’s tightfisted capitalist policies, and that everybody is out protesting for “social justice” on the streets of Tel Aviv.
Except that it isn’t so.
It’s not so because the public does not homogeneously lay the blame for the high cost of housing, food, water and electricity on the current government. Polls indicate that most Israelis, despite their desire for structural reforms in pricing and welfare, understand that Prime Minister Netanyahu is a steady hand at the economic till during turbulent times; and that without him, the situation would be much worse.
Nor do Israelis have a unitary vision of “social justice.” Very few Israelis truly want to bring back socialism, or chuck the free market philosophy that has helped catapult Israel into the OECD. Obviously, the extreme concentration of industrial, financial and natural resources in the hands of a few very wealthy Israeli family conglomerates needs to be rolled-back. But a return to Labor Party cronyism and the Big Labor dictatorship of Israel’s early decades isn’t all that attractive.
Moreover, mainstream Israelis are now avoiding participation in the increasingly partisan (and consequently dwindling) street protests. The militant socialist demands of Daphni Leef and her colleagues raise fears that the protest movement has a hidden hard-left-wing agenda, one that is blatantly anti-democratic, even Marxist. The Trachtenberg Committee recommendations, which already have been partially adopted by the government, may not provide the instant solutions that Daphni is demanding – but they are great step forward. Yet Daphni and the hard-left NGOs behind her have rejected Trachtenberg outright.
One simple fact is often overlooked by critics and foreign observers: Most Israelis are gainfully employed. The country boasts only 5.7 percent unemployment. In most families (excepting Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs) both spouses are working, and despite the high cost of living there seems to be quite a bit of middle class cash available for vacations, fine food and cultural events.
This past summer, more than 60,000 vacationing Israelis departed Ben-Gurion airport every day for foreign destinations, or returned from them. Holiday villages in the Galilee and Golan were packed to the rafters. All the annual summertime cultural festivals were sold out, including the international arts and crafts fair in Jerusalem, Israeli music festival in Arad, Israeli wine festival at the Israel Museum, Jewish dance festival in Shiloh, klezmer music festival in Safed, kosher food festival in Tel Aviv, Red Sea jazz festival in Eilat, and dozens of concerts ranging from Air Supply to Avraham Fried.
I’m not saying that the Israeli middle class doesn’t suffer from excessive taxes, overbearing monopolies and infuriating regulations that jack-up the cost of living. It does. But it’s not true that the middle class is disintegrating without a penny at its disposal. And in any case, Center-Israel isn’t going to be pulled foolishly into the arms of populist radicals who would undermine the fundamentally-healthy underpinnings of the economy.
Consequently, it is important to reject the media’s portrayal of Israeli society as bitter and rising up in revolution against the government. Frustrated and demanding of changes – yes. Miserable, broke and clamoring for a new prime minister – no.
Consumer protests like the “cottage cheese” boycott of dairy giant Tnuva are the wave of the future, I think. Here, Israelis have correctly zeroed in on some true culprits – monopolies once controlled by the government and Histadrut, and today by dynastic tycoons, who deliver products to the consumer at very high markup prices. Monopolies currently control everything from car imports to construction materials, the capital market and telecommunications.
Izhak Alrov and his colleagues, who initiated the cottage cheese consumer boycott, have a good and wise campaign underway. More power to them – and to all of us!
* Originally published in Israel Hayom, November 3, 2011.