Power to the People of Israel

In the past few weeks, a new protest movement has been sweeping Israel – 300,000 marched in Tel Aiv yesterday and 30,000 in Jerusalem, and tent protest cities have been set up in tens of cities around Israel. People around the world tend to think of Israel in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fight for peace in the Middle East. In my camp, we think about the struggle against the religious establishment that keeps a firm foot on pluralism.
However, in the end, it all comes down to economics.
Recently at a gathering of alumni at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, I heard Dr. Steven Cohen, one of the major researchers on the demography of the Jewish community in America, explain that affiliation in America is economic. When a family consists of two Jewish parents, there is more of a willingness to make the financial commitments to joining a congregation or other Jewish organization. When a family is interfaith, there is less involvement because there is less drive to make this kind of financial investment.
Here in Israel, it is also economics. I knew when I made aliyah to Israel that it has become more capitalistic in recent years despite its socialistic base. Having come from a capitalistic society, having lived on my own in big cities which tend to be more expensive (Washington, DC, New York), it is hard for me to judge how it is to live in Israel today as compared to the past. In Israel, we pay high taxes, sales tax is around 15%, gas is heavily taxed, electronics have big import taxes, we pay a health tax but, so far, I have had excellent health care. Restaurants are more expensive here than in America, gas is astronomical (now at around $7.60/gallon), my grocery bill is not small most weeks. However, I know that childcare is much cheaper here than in America, I am guaranteed a 16 week paid maternity leave here, and my apartment in the almost center of Jerusalem is much cheaper here than it would be in an American major city. Granted, the average family income in Israel is about $40,000/year.
In the circle of people that I know, there are many young professionals with young children. Some have managed to buy apartments, some crowd into small apartments. All work or combine work with study, men and women alike. Most are able to take at least one vacation a year, whether it is in Israel or travel abroad. In the community I serve near Tel Aviv, it is the same situation. Most are families in which both parents work. They are not rich but they manage to take a vacation and to make renovations on their apartments, pay for after-school activities for their kids.
What is the answer? I have been asking people that I meet on the street and in my community. There is a range of answers. On the one hand, there needs to continue to be the pioneering spirit – housing is much cheaper in the periphery (outside Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa). There are universities and colleges in these areas. There are programs that give students cheap housing for moving out to these places and considering to settle there. People have to be entrepreneurs and the government has to help provide opportunities to create places of work on these places.
I also think there is a bit of the consumer culture creeping in to Israel – people see what creature comforts there are in America and in Europe. People want to live comfortably here and not to feel like they “sacrifice”. They threaten to leave Israel and thereby drain the country of its intellectual resources. I talk with teenagers who I’ve sent on youth delegations to America – “You can take a shower there as long as you want and you don’t worry about the water shortage!” As someone who comes from abundance, I understand how much waste there is in America because people take for granted certain resources. I am proud that we conserve water in our house in Israel, that we recycle many of our daily items and that our society supports this. Excess is not better. Let’s take a look at our values and see what is really important.
On the other hand, prices of daily items are not proportionate to salaries. Granted, I don’t need to go out to restaurants all the time, but I do need to buy food at the supermarket (and the prices at the Machane Yehudah shuk are not better). The “cottage cheese” protest proved that the prices are becoming intolerable. One young man I spoke to said that it’s all connected to the price of gas – the higher the gas, the more it costs for the truck to transport the bread and to work the machines that produce it, and thus up goes the price of bread. We need to develop an alternative resource.
A veteran Israeli and observer and participant in political life made the remark that made the most sense to me: It’s still about the distribution of resources. The average middle-class Israeli is “secular” (not Orthodox) and lives in Israel proper. There is a disproportionate amount of resources going to the ultra-Orthodox – religious institutions, education subsidies, welfare – and to the development of the Jewish settlements in the territories. (I have received a number of emails citing numbers and amounts) We don’t even need to bring the defense budget into the conversation. The middle class is crying out to the government: We are the majority here. We bear the brunt of the workforce. We serve willingly in the army, ready to give our lives for the existence of the State of Israel. You better start paying attention to us. You need us in your coalition just as much as you need your right-wing block. Enough. That is what this struggle is about and, in my opinion, it is a righteous struggle.
What is the answer? Well, no one is really sure at the moment. But we’re generally an intelligent people, we should be able to figure it out.
In the meantime, Power to the People!

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One Response to “Power to the People of Israel”

  1. Benjamin Sperber Says:

    Such clarity. The American Jewish middle class watched their retirement funds plunge on Friday. These are the philanthropists that love Kehillat Darchei Noam and support their brilliant rabbi.
    We are sympathetic when not only do our children graduate with heavy indebtedness from university, but they cannot find jobs in their field.
    And many of my longtime friends have struggled to work until retirement as the United States squeezes its middle class.
    The right wing in the U.S. held the country hostage for over three months with the agenda that the wealthy should not have their taxes raised. Now the international community balks at our so called economy.
    May Israel learn from her western “brethren.” We watch our young soldiers perish on the battlefield and pay billions for the privilege.
    Our indebtedness comes from an ignorance that is not in the Torah, but in ourselves.
    Israel is still a democracy and she can teach herself from the wisdom of her people “in the streets”.

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