Like anyone who lives in Israel, I can definitely relate to the protests sweeping the country. The rising cost of living, considering the average Israeli salary, is certainly alarming. Although it’s true that there is a distinctive left-leaning anti-Bibi slant to the growing movement and it’s also true that the protesters have become the darlings of the predominantly left-wing media rather than being vilified and subsequently beaten and imprisoned in the way that young religious youth were beaten and imprisoned as they protested against the Gaza Disengagement a few years ago, there is, nevertheless, a real problem.
To borrow the trinity paradigm from Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”, the “Have-a-Little, Want Mores”, otherwise known as the middles class, are being pushed down the socioeconomic ladder away from the “Haves” and in the direction of the “Have-Nots”. This frightening awareness, and not a true concern about the plight of the poor since the poor have been around for years affording concerned citizens ample opportunities to get involved and help, is what is causing otherwise apathetic Israelis to finally raise their voice in protest.
The real problem with the protests is not the fact that Israelis are finally waking up but rather the belief that the cause of the deteriorating situation is the government. Although it’s true that shifted government policies might be capable of alleviating the situation, the fact is that government policy alone is not a panacea for the deeper social problems that not only plague Israel but plague many western countries as well.
The first of these problems is the growing focus on the “me” as opposed to a genuine concern for others. This can be seen in various ways throughout Israel; for example the growing percentage of secular Israelis shirking army responsibility (in addition to the already high percentage of Haredi men), the low per capita charitable giving amongst Israelis despite the growth in wealth through the years, the continued aggressive behavior on the more and more crowded roads as if no one else existed but “me and my car”, the more than five year lack of concern for the roughly 10,000 Israelis that were forcibly removed from their homes in Gaza and thrown into a life of misery, etc, etc.
One of the leaders of the protests was recently quoted as saying “It’s about changing the entire approach to what the country can do for its people”. Not only does this assume that the source of the problem is the government but also that the government needs to serve us better. This brought to mind the exact opposite quote from JFK’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” In other words, the emphasis should be on collective responsibility and in helping to improve the well-being of others.
This of course is a very basic Jewish message, beautifully expressed by Natan Tzulman in his book (in Hebrew) “Thoughts and Views in Judaism.” In explaining the difference between the western approach to life and the Jewish approach to life, Tzulman says that in the western approach man looks at the world around him in order to understand how he can better utilize the world for his own pleasure and to make his life more enjoyable while in the Jewish approach man studies the world around him in order to understand how he can better contribute in helping to make the world a better place. Based upon this, a large portion of the Jewish state is sadly acting in a very un-Jewish way.
Another problem is the lack in Israel of what is known as “histapkut”, best defined as “contentment with one’s lot”. This trait, which has been widely praised by Jewish sages throughout the ages, means that a person should not only be happy with what he has but that he should happily live within his means. This doesn’t suggest that a person should stop striving to improve his lot but rather this should be tempered by an awareness of what is truly important. In other words, one should clearly know the difference between “needs” and “wants”.
With this in mind I spoke with a protester earlier today in the tent community set up in the center of Jerusalem who said that even if he wanted to take his children on a vacation to Eilat, he couldn’t since it’s simply too expensive. Of course my answer to him was “don’t go.” Although such a trip may be enjoyable, it’s certainly not something that one needs. Unfortunately in this regard Israel has been heavily influenced by the western consumer mentality and the belief that the purchase of more and more “things” – be it the latest iPhone, an American style refrigerator or a vacation trip to Europe – regardless of one’s financial situation, will somehow bring happiness.
There’s also a touch of greed in Israel. Many people charge exorbitant prices since they know they can get away with it. This of course is attached to the first problem since if there was a true concern for others across the board then people would certainly find ways to charge a bit less and still make a profit. This would apply not only to the obvious problem with the soaring price of apartment rentals but even to the outrageous prices charged for many children’s attractions, the frightening prices charged by contractors for apartment renovations, or the outlandish prices charged to families for a simple kibbutz tzimmer (a guesthouse/bed and breakfast). In this light I think of the supermarket king Rami Levi. He’s a smart businessman and makes a hefty profit. At the same time it appears that he has a good heart, regularly charging less than other supermarkets and even drastically reducing prices on certain essential products before Passover, a move that enables many less fortunate families to conduct a proper Passover Seder. Although cynics will claim that his only intention is to attract more customers and thereby increase his revenue, it’s an undeniable fact that many Israelis benefit from his approach.
Bottom line, in order to effect a lasting change in Israel the focus needs to be on correcting these damaging traits. The question is whether the protesters and the rest of the country understand that this, and not government policy, is the real source of the problem. If they don’t, then all the changes in the world will not stop the further deterioration of the society.