Debriefing the Israeli Social Protests

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Click photo to download. Caption: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) is accompanied by Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg (far right), who headed the Trajtenberg Committee Report on social changes, on his way to a cabinet meeting on Oct. 3, 2011. Credit: EPA/JIM HOLLANDER/POOL.

NEW YORK—For Israeli economist Manuel Trajtenberg, appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to recommend policy measures in response to this summer’s social protests, the half-million tent city protesters represent the potential for significant change in his country.

“One of the things for me that is most interesting and telling is the young generation in Israel that have discovered that they can make a difference and have a voice, that you can take charge of your destiny on these issues,” he said Monday during a press briefing at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) offices in New York. “Once you’ve discovered that something, it is impossible to take it away from you.”

Trajtenberg, who is chair of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of Israel’s Council for Higher Education, said the protests were surprising for two reasons: the healthy, growing economy that had survived the 2008 and 2009 recession unscathed, alongside serious security concerns about the Palestinians’ effort to seek membership in the UN and civil unrest in Gaza and the West Bank.

Although this combination isn’t usually a recipe for social unrest, the summer’s protests erupted with force, making them the largest of their kind in Israeli history on socioeconomic issues.

“In four weeks up to half a million Israelis were in the streets all over the country, marching peacefully and calling for social justice—and even that expression we haven’t heard in Israel for decades,” Trajtenberg said.

The protesters’ sole focus on socioeconomic issues, completely setting aside other critical issues like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, was unique, as was the group at the center of the protest: young, mainstream Israelis with good jobs, raising families, who are facing overdrafts at the end of the month; cannot contemplate buying a house; and are so unsure of their futures that they question whether they can afford another child.

“You’ve done everything right, grew up, went to the university, applied for job, and yet your economic horizon is very uncertain,” Trajtenberg said.

While these young Israelis view members of the high-tech sector who have gotten rich through their entrepreneurship and creativity as role models, they direct their anger at the “tycoons”— prominent businessmen who have accumulated fortunes through what protesters say are monopolistic practices and the appropriation of natural resources for their own purposes. Protesters have also focused on the lower end of the income distribution, in particular ultra-Orthodox men who do not work. Although one might expect sympathy or empathy toward the poorest part of the population, said Trachtenberg, the middle class resents paying heavy taxes that go to support large religious families.

“It’s hard to sympathize with a segment of the population that is seen as being very poor by choice,” he said.

Click photo to download. Caption: One of this summer's tent cities in Jerusalem, a hallmark of the Israeli social protests. Credit: Rachel Marder.

The third provocation for the massive summer protests is a sense of alienation of younger Israelis from the political system. “When you belong to a small society, you expect that each and everyone counts,” Trajtenberg said. “And when you feel that is not the case, that you don’t have the voice, that the political system is looking down on you and not paying attention to you, that the institutions of government are not tuned to your needs, you feel alienation.”

The preparation of Trajtenberg’s report was not a dry, academic effort, but a careful process of listening to the protestors and conveying their demands to the government, he said.

“We saw our role as translating the clamor of the people into a language that the government, the political body, can understand and do something about,” Trajtenberg said.

The committee engaged the protesters and the public in a dialogue through social media and public meetings that were broadcast live on the Internet, and sometimes on television. The passions of the protesters ran high, which is unusual for young Israelis who have various obligations—army, reserve duty, work, and early marriage and children.

“It’s heavy stuff, and you struggle through it,” Trachtenberg said, “But you don’t have the awareness, the predisposition, the energy to affect your life by affecting politics. Then they discovered that they can do it. Something awakened.”

While in the past social issues had played second or third fiddle behind the Palestinians, Iran, and even the religious-secular divide in Israel, they suddenly took center stage this summer. Though some thought that the terrorist attacks in Eilat and rockets from Gaza would quash the demonstrations, as had been true in the 1990s when protests were postponed due to security issues were at hand, that did not happen.

“That’s something new; something that was unthinkable in Israel, and something I see as very positive,” Trajtenberg said. “You have to control your destiny in spite of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.”

As for the degree to which the government will adopt and implement the recommendations in his report, Trajtenberg takes a long view and is hopeful. One big success for Trajtenberg, given Netanyahu’s stated political platform of reducing taxes, are tax increases on wealthy individuals and corporations that have reversed Netanyahu’s earlier policy decisions. For example, the marginal income tax, which was supposed to decline to 37 percent by 2017, was raised from 45 to 48 percent. Additionally, a measure exempting Internet purchases from all taxes has gone through.

Trajtenberg emphasized that achieving real results requires a social transformation.

“If we want to build a more just society, it takes much more than social protest, a committee, a report, and recommendations,” he said. “It requires a different state of mind, a different kind of body politic.”

For Trajtenberg, Israel and the entire Western world are facing a serious challenge in that, “We lack collectively a coherent model of what does it mean to have a market economy that works on more just principles. 

Pushing aside socialism as an ism in the graveyard of the 20th century, for people who share his hair color (he is 61), Trajtenberg warned, “You don’t build a new socioeconomic model with nostalgia. We need to reinvent things.” Socialism, in his opinion, failed miserably because it went against human nature. “The big challenge,” he said, “is how to go along with human nature and build a fairer and more just society.”

In the next elections, Trajtenberg is convinced that both the issues from the protests and the new generation of Israelis who care about them will play a significant role.

“They care beyond their personal careers; they care about their society,” he said. “It has done something to transform Israeli society in ways we couldn’t imagine before, and it won’t be more of the same.”

Posted on December 13, 2011 and filed under Israel, News, U.S..