The people demand social justice.” That’s the chant of more than 300,000 people in dozens of sites across Israel. And just maybe that signals that Israel is entering the third chapter of its history as an independent state.
The first chapter extends from Israel’s founding, in 1948, to 1977, 29 years of Labor hegemony, embedded principles of social democracy, and a remarkably inefficient bureaucracy that ineptly subverted the vision of building Israel on the Scandinavian model — “the third way,” as it came to be known. “The third way” envisioned an alternative to the raw capitalism of the United States (little did they know how raw it would become) and the brutal tyranny of the USSR.
And then in 1977 came displacement of the old elite. Ben Gurion et al were replaced by Menachem Begin and his populist nationalism (spilling over into jingoism) and then by Begin’s heirs and, in particular, by Netanyahu, devoted to radical privatization and indifferent to income inequality. The country, once obsessed with the collective, saw a much greater focus on the individual.
The chapter would last for 34 years, up until — well, up until last month.
Now, in the wake of the utterly surprising social protests that have engaged hundreds of thousands of Israelis, one can detect not only a shift from the unbridled privatization that has marked the Netanyahu administration but also of a generational shift. Netanyahu appears increasingly out of touch, locked in a stale and unpersuasive rhetoric, surrounded by a cast not so much of has-beens as of never-weres.
However all this plays out — and as promising as it seems, one cannot discount the ability of anachronisms to hang on long after they have been discredited — there is a near-giddy sense of hope that infects much public discourse these surprising days.
It is captured in an endless flood of e-mails and blogs expressing a sense of wonderment: Just when the veteran social justice activists were readying themselves to recite prayers of mourning, just when they feared the battle for a humane and responsible Zionism and economy was lost, a whole new generation has taken to the streets, demanding social justice, chanting “Re-Vo-Lu-Tion.”
Amos Oz, in a front-page article in Ha’aretz, suggested that the “resources required for establishing social justice in Israel are located in three places” — the “billions Israel has invested in the settlements, which are the greatest mistake in the state’s history, as well as its greatest injustice”; the “mammoth sums” channeled into the fervently Orthodox yeshivas; and government polices that enriched “various tycoons and their cronies, at the expense of the middle class and the poor.”
As Oz goes on to say, “[It is] profoundly moving to see the protest veterans of all generations, who for years were a voice calling in the wilderness, spending time in the tents of the youngsters, who are wisely leading the new protest.”
It is, indeed, tempting to herald a new day. But such an announcement remains, for now, premature. The policies and proposals that have led to these monster demonstrations and the swiftness of the entrenched forces to dismiss the protests offer a sobering reminder of how divided Israeli society has come to be. Forty-two members of the Knesset, including a number of government ministers, have responded to the protesters’ demand for more affordable housing by urging that new housing be built in the West Bank and in Jerusalem. Forty MKs have offered a bill that would change Israel’s classic self-definition as a “Jewish and democratic state” to “the national home of the Jewish people.” That same bill also ends the status of Arabic as one of Israel’s official languages.
Thus the denigration of democracy that has been building these last many months has now become explicit, enthusiastically supported by the settlers and the vast majority of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
But the weightiest challenge to the protesters comes not from the outside. Sooner rather than later, the protesters, who are a very mixed multitude, will have to define what they mean by “social justice” (beyond more affordable housing). They will have to develop a political structure that reflects that definition. They, who are overwhelmingly middle class, will have to make room for the full-fledged participation of Israel’s working class and its disadvantaged sectors, including its Arabs (21 percent of the population).
In short, they will have to move beyond demonstrations and into Israel’s tangled political web, while preserving the enthusiasm and the hopefulness that characterize them today.
No small challenge, all that. But hey, the nearly empty glass is suddenly half full. So, just maybe, these really are the rays of a new dawn we are witnessing.