Beyond Fixing Prices


Jerusalem — Many of the Israelis who took to the streets Saturday night to demand lower prices and greater social equality said they don’t have enough money to pay the rent, purchase a home or put nutritious food on the table. Others were there to show their solidarity and to change national priorities.

Carrying placards in their hands — and sometimes babies on their backs — Saturday night’s protesters were mostly young, employed and struggling. They were joined by older marchers who wondered out loud why the country they helped build and fought for has become too expensive for their children.

All were responding to a call from the grassroots Israeli social protest movement that sprang up this summer. Now that school has begun and most of the tent-dwellers have gone home, no one really knows what direction the social protest movement will take.

Already, pundits are predicting, or perhaps hoping, that the direction will be political. Writing in Ha’aretz, columnist Carlo Strenger noted that most of Israel’s most gifted and idealistic citizens “have refrained from entering politics, because they saw it as a petty and unproductive game.”

This summer’s protests, Strenger said, “may give birth to a new political party with younger people who will not forget why they took to the streets in the last two months.”

Given the angst people expressed at the rallies and tent encampments and on the supermarket line (88 percent of Israelis polled supported the protests), it is reasonable to assume that at least some of the hundreds of thousands of citizens who attended the demonstrations would vote for a political party growing out of the protest movement.

Even without a party, the movement’s protesters have managed to influence public opinion and even government policy. Following the public outcry, the dairy companies dropped their prices and the government decided to raise electricity prices by “just” 10 percent, not the 20 percent that had been announced.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet he intends to “act quickly and maintain the correct balance between social sensitivity and responsible economics.” Noting the economic woes of several European countries, Netanyahu said, “only if we have an economy that does not collapse … can we ease the cost-of-living and correct those distortions.”

That balancing act won’t be easy, and could very well be impossible, according to many analysts.

“The situation is very complex. Israel can’t go back to the welfare state it had in the ‘70s,” said Shlomo Mizrachi, a public policy professor at Ben Gurion University. “The protester’s demands are wider than simply reducing prices.”

Mizrachi fears the gap may not be bridgeable, and that the public will be disappointed by the recommendations being formulated by the Trachtenberg Committee, a government initiative to examine what’s wrong and how to fix it.

While some of this disappointment will no doubt lead to another round of demonstrations, many disillusioned Israelis “will become very passive in democratic terms,” Mizrachi warned, and will become “a danger for Israeli democracy.”

The reasons behind the protests “are real and relatively wide ranging and deep,” says Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. He sees “no chance whatsoever” that the social protest movement will evaporate “as if it were some summer fling.”

Lehman-Wilzig predicted that, as a result of the protests, the government will be “quite forthcoming” and will recommend “relatively serious reforms or a change in national priorities” because Binyamin Netanyahu “is deadly scared of losing Likud support.”

Although many Likud supporters did not attend the demonstrations or erect tents, the political scientist said, believing that the political left wing was using the protests for their own political gain, “this is an issue that affects even more lower-class and lower-middle-class, and that’s the majority of Likud members.”

What’s important to remember, Lehman-Wilzig said, is that the protest movement “wasn’t born out of the overheated minds of some yuppie Tel Avivians. Its goals are real.”

“This is just the beginning,” Stav Shafir, one of the Tel Aviv protest organizers, told the Jewish Week. During the next month, she said, protest leaders will “put pressure” on Knesset members “to create a new budget for social welfare.”

The leaders will also help create groups in local municipalities to deal with the lack of affordable housing and other socio-economic issues, Shafir said.

The marchers at Saturday night’s rally in Jerusalem said they would continue to support the protest movement because they see no other vehicle for change.

Udi Vinter, 32-year-old, and his wife Yael, 30, came to the rally with their five-month-old son, Alon and Udi’s mother, Sarah.

“We came to protest because we work hard, both of us, and we end every month in minus,” said Udi, a transportation planner, as he pushed Alon’s stroller from the city center to Paris Square, a block away from the Prime Minister’s residence.

“They both served in the army. They both have degrees,” Sarah Vinter said, glancing at her son and daughter-in-law.

“And we’re not big spenders,” Yael added.

“The cost of living is insane,” griped Shai Koren, a 35-year-old store manager from Mevasseret, a Jerusalem suburb, who drives an 18-year-old car to his job in Jerusalem every day.

Koren’s wife, Netta, 32, a preschool teacher, tried to soothe her fidgety 2-year-old, who she carried on her back in a sling.

“What with rent, food and childcare, it’s impossible to save anything,” Shai Koren said. “Something’s got to change and it looks like we’re the ones who are going to have to do it.”

Dov Feuerstein, the 65-year-old director of Hebrew University’s libraries said he and his wife, Dora, a 64-year-old Pilates instructor, were at the demonstration “because we believe in social justice.”

Though the Feuersteins can support themselves, they fear that, unless something changes in Israel, their children may feel compelled to live abroad.

“There are opportunities in the States and Europe and a calmer life there.” He said his daughter and her husband, a physician, are living in London for two years to advance his son-in-law’s career.

“We want them to come back home to Israel,” Feuerstein said.