“The People Demand Social Justice!”

The younger members of Israel’s middle class are tired of struggling to meet their basic needs and have taken to the streets!  It started two weeks ago with just a few tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.  Over time tents have sprung up in green spaces in all of Israel’s major cities, as well as in some of the country’s smaller peripheral cities.  For a long while Prime Minister Mr. Netanyahu did his best to ignore them.  But since they are getting a great deal of media attention it is difficult for the rest of us not to take notice of their activities.  Recently Prime Minister Mr. Netanyahu attempted to placate them with a media spin and eonomic bandage.  These intelligent young middle class people don’t want hand-outs and they certainly don’t want media spins or economic bandages they want real solutions to their real economic problems.  To that end this past Saturday night they marched throughout the land – in Tel Aviv, Beersheva, Haifa, Jerusalem, Ashdod and up north in Kiryat Shmona – 150,000 strong (about 2% of Israel’s population, proportionally equivalent to about 6 million Americans simultaneously participating in a march) they peacefully rallied under their chosen banner “The People Demand Social Justice”.  And suddenly, Prime Minister Mr. Netanyahu took notice and his spin teams began working around the clock to delegitimize this very serious protest.  Wouldn’t it be better if his teams worked to find solutions to their economic problems?  Yesterday, Minister of Culture and Sport and Member of Knesset (Likud) Ms. Limor Livnat commented that some of the protestors are led by anarchists without clear goals but that some of the issues they raise may be legitimate.  It behooves Minister-MK Ms. Livnat to spend more time listening to what is being said by the majority of the protestors before assigning divisive political labels.  
Some of the political pundits of the Israeli and international media have decided that these young people have been infected by the “Arab Spring” which began on 25 January 2011 in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.  Some of the serious economic commentators are comparing them to Spain’s unemployed demonstrators.  I believe both of those comparisons fall short and do a disservice to these young people.  These young middle class Israelis know that they live in a vibrant (sometimes fragile) democracy so that isn’t the issue.  Unemployment isn’t the issue either, Spain’s unemployment rate closes in at 21%, (as of 29 July 2011), while Israel’s unemployment rate is at an all time low of 5.7%, (as of 25 July 2011).  The well-respected, Governor of the Bank of Israel, Mr. Stanley Fisher, explained that on paper Israel’s economy is growing and that on paper Prime Minister Mr. Netanyahu’s economic policies are working.  But like the rest of us these young middle class members don’t live on paper – they live in rental apartments (or in their parents’ homes) because due to the high price of real estate in Israel they cannot afford to feed, clothe, and educate their children and still have enough money left over to purchase their own homes.  The truth is that at current market values, combined with very high national and municipal property taxes, most of us can not afford to buy the apartments or houses we currently own!  When I realized that I started listening very carefully to what these young middle class members who have moved into tents are saying. 
What I heard, here in Jerusalem, was that the issue isn’t employment, the issue is salary structure and taxation.  For example households earning a gross salary of NIS 4000 (a bit over $1,000 a month) are taxed at a rate of 30%, while households earning a solid middle class gross salary of NIS 15,000 (just under $3,000 a month) are taxed at a rate of 45%.  Additionally there are National Insurance Institute taxes and health care tax which add another 10 to 15% to the tax rate and bring it up to between 50 and 55% taxation of salaries.  So that the net take home pay is around half of the gross pay. To this high taxation rate we need to add 25% in municipal residential tax which is calculated against monthly rental fees and mortgage payments and the cost of child day care which on average costs no less than NIS 3000 (often more) per child until age 3 when the small government subsidy kicks in.  And let’s not forget all of the basic child rearing related supplies and services which young middle class families with two working parents must pay.  Of course we shouldn’t forget about the high cost of gasoline in Israel, where 4 liters, (approximately a gallon) costs NIS 22 making the cost of a gallon of gasoline currently stand at about $7!  The young middle class members that I spoke with are so bogged down trying to keep their heads above water that none of them even thought to mention the high cost of their housing utility bills!  Having heard enough about their floundering economic reality I decided it was time to join them in their struggle.  
So on Sunday evening, 31 July, 2010, appropriately the first day of the month of Av when religious Jews turn their hearts to the memory of the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the ancient Jewish kingdom, I participated in Jerusalem’s “Stroller March for Social Justice”.  The march began when one of its organizers, Rachel Har-Zahav, burst a balloon with a sharp pencil to symbolize that Jerusalem’s young middle class feels that its dreams of fair housing prices, moderately priced day-care and schooling have gone bust!  As the young secular and religious middle class Jerusalemites along with their young children and accompanied by older middle class supporters moved forward, we chanted our rallying cries: “The People Demand Social Justice!” “Secular Parents and Religious Parents Want to Raise Their Children in Jerusalem!” and “The People Want Social Change!”
We marched from the Prime Minister’s Residence up King George Street to Menorah Garden (affectionately referred to as “Horse Garden” by the locals) in the Western Center of Jerusalem where we were welcomed by tent residents who have been living there for the past two weeks.  The organizers of our “Stroller March for Social Justice” had applied for and received the necessary parade permits from the police.  Therefore, our march was guided by the organizers in co-ordination with the police force.  In Jerusalem protecting large groups of people is never an easy task.  The local police did an amazing job providing protection for the 2,500 marchers.  Since about half of the marchers were children under the age of ten, the police decided that officers coming in direct contact with the marchers would not carry weapons.

Orderly march with police protection

Armed police officers and ‘cover vehicles’ were held to the outer protective ring at an approximate distance of 10 meters from the marchers.  As one of the older participants, I easily recalled the non-violent open housing civil rights marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the late sixties during my childhood in Chicago – definitely a very far distance from Tahrir Square!  Once inside Menorah Garden, with the police continuing to provide protective cover, Israeli authors Meir Shalev and David Grossman read short Hebrew language children’s stories with social justice themes.  The authors volunteered to read the stories in memory of the loss of “story book hour” at all of the local libraries due to government cut backs. 

Shalev & Grossman listening to Har-Zahav

Then various members of the young leadership shared their stories.  The common theme was that they are all young working middle class professionals who have started their families only to find that they are not earning enough money to cover basic expenses of rent, car ownership (most of them drive cars that are between five and ten years old) and child care and have enough left over to save for the purchase of a modest home.  In between the speeches, David Broza sang for us, closing with his signature song “It will be good” (“Yeye Tov”).  Broza sang it with a copy of Sunday’s paper in front of him using its headlines as a guide to change the song’s lyrics to reflect the needs of the social justice marchers throughout the nation.  Another popular Israeli performer, Aya Koren, also entertained us with “BeShana Haba’a” (Next year) and “Shir Ahava Pashut” (A simple love song). 

Menorah Park, Jerusalem, 31 July 2011

The rally was closed with additional comments from the young leadership encouraging all of us to continue participating in marches and if we could not join the tent dwellers to at least do our best to provide them with our continuing support.  And as loyal citizens to the State we closed with the singing of our national anthem “HaTivka” (“The Hope”). 
Yesterday, President Mr. Shimon Peres, met with the national leadership of the social justice movement.  Mr. Peres, as president employing his role of loving grandfather to the nation successfully persuaded the national leadership to agree to open roundtable discussions with government and employers to advance change in national priorities and to improve the economic standing of the middle class.  It is our hope that these discussions will be productive and indeed succeed in bringing the changes necessary to bring about social justice for all. 
(All photographs for this blog post are original works by Isa David-Ben-Rafael and are owned by IsraeLightly)  
The following English language video “The Israeli Awakening?!” was created by Jan Beddegenoodts and Niel Twens.  It explains the situation in a straightforward and clear manner. 

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