Welfare State Now!

The crowd surged uphill, a torrent filling a main street in the center of Jerusalem on Saturday night, coursing toward the square next to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's official residence -- one of his three homes. The marchers were overwhelmingly in their twenties and early thirties -- the generation of Israelis who have been written off for years as being terminally apathetic. They were jumping, swaying, pounding on pots and water-cooler bottles as drums, blowing whistles, shouting themselves hoarse in the giddy joy of being angry together.

They sang the old Hebrew kindergarten song, "My hat has three corners," rewritten as "My Bibi has three homes ... and if my Bibi didn't have three homes, maybe I'd have a home of my own." They roared: "The people demand social justice!" Someone shouted through a megaphone, "What's the answer to privatization?" and the crowd yelled back, again and again, "Revolution!"

The economic protests shaking Israel began three weeks ago with demands for affordable housing, but the cause has grown and morphed as more people have joined. In the square before Netanyahu's house, the speakers included a medical student telling the government that it had to restore budgets for health care, and a teacher decrying the pure insult of schools employing teachers as temp workers to avoid paying them benefits. Kobi Oz, a popular rock singer, got on the stage with his guitar and belted out the Jewish blessing praising God "who has kept us alive to this moment" -- meaning the moment when politics were reborn -- before blasting into a protest song. An eight-month pregnant woman leaned back against her partner for support as she listened. A dark-eyed woman climbed onto a man's shoulders and danced to the chants. A little girl held up a sign saying "People before profits." A man carried another sign sign that said "I'd burn a tire, but I can't afford one."

There were over 10,000 people in Jerusalem, but that was only the local crowd; marches took place in ten other cities. News reports have generally listed the national total at up to 150,000 demonstrators -- equivalent to 6 million people marching in America.

The Israeli protests, explicitly inspired by the Arab Spring, are still gaining force. New tent encampments -- the best known expression of the movement -- continue to crop up around the country. A poll published on Monday showed that 88 percent of Israelis, and 85 percent of voters for Netanyahu's own Likud Party, support the protests. (Under normal conditions, 88 percent of Israelis cannot agree on what the date is, since the country uses both the civil and Hebrew calendars.) When Daphni Leef, a 25-year-old Tel Aviv video editor, posted the Facebook invitation to join her in setting up a tent camp in the center of a Tel Aviv street -- the invitation that lit the fire -- she was responding to her inability to afford an apartment in Tel Aviv. This Sunday, Leef and three other leaders of the movement held a press conference on the center island of Rothschild Boulevard with a list of demands that included free public education from the age of three months, increased enforcement of labor laws, and better pay for civil servants, including teachers, social workers, police, and firefighters. By Tuesday, as fevered discussions continued in the tent cities, the list of demands grew to include increasing the capital-gains tax, reducing the number of pupils in classes, and freezing all further privatization.

The details, however, do not tell the story as well as one simple statement by Stav Shaffir, another of the core organizers, at Sunday's open-air press conference: "The state must be responsible for the well-being of the citizens. This is not the job of nonprofits and voluntary organizations."

This is the moving spirit of the movement. It is a challenge not just to Netanyahu but to the entire political system. Israel has many political parties. But at least since Ronald Reagan's emissaries imposed monetarist fundamentalism in the mid-1980s, economic debate has usually been close to comatose. "Left" has come to be a synonym for dovish on foreign policy, "right" with being hawkish, and both terms have lost their economic meaning. Politicians identified both locally and abroad as being on the left have often sounded as Thatcherite as those of the right. Shaffir's comments and the signs along Rothschild Boulevard calling for a "Welfare State Now" express Israel's earlier social-democratic ethos and suggest that the deep beliefs of a society can run underground for decades and then gush to the surface. The suddenly renewed debate isn't just about economic specifics; it's about the basic purpose of economic policy: Is holding down inflation and encouraging growth enough, or is the state responsible for making sure that citizens can eat decently, afford a home, receive medical care, get an education, live without economic fear?

As an aside, sporadic American media coverage of the protests has mostly missed this core issue. A gut feeling of collective responsibility can be even more difficult to translate into American English than the popular Hebrew epithet "piggish capitalism," which in a mostly Jewish country not only suggests unbridled gluttony but expresses aversion to something deeply taboo. Israel is a society founded on the rugged group, not the rugged individual. In American legend, a pioneer wants to live far enough away from the nearest neighbor to avoid seeing the smoke from his or her chimney. Israeli pioneers founded kibbutzim and didn't own the shirts on their backs. It's easier to say, "Raise taxes!" here.

Because the protests are a challenge to the entire political system, politicians have been absent from the list of speakers at demonstrations. On Wednesday, the new movement did suffer an old-fashioned parliamentary defeat: On a straight party-line vote, the Knesset ratified real-estate legislation championed by Netanyahu. The law purportedly cuts bureaucratic barriers to building housing -- and in fact reduces citizens' power to challenge developers' plans. "The shortcuts won't serve the public, only the developers," Hebrew University economist Yossi Zeira said in an interview with a business newspaper, Calcalist. "This is the embodiment of the government-capital complex."

Then again, the fact that the opposition, including Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima Party, opposed the legislation as a bloc is a partial victory for the protesters. In the past, some of Kadima's legislators might well have cast "aye" votes. Livni herself is a former corporate lawyer, and in her first political position oversaw privatization of government companies.

Today, many politicians are seeking the protesters' favor. On Tuesday night, at a demonstration on the hill overlooking the Knesset building, I found two Kadima members of the Knesset standing in the shadows at the edges of the crowd, like high schoolers uncertain they had been invited to a dance. "Even capitalist America, whom we all respected, is in a state of economic collapse," Knesset Member Shlomo Molla told me. "Why? Because it exalted the wealthy, it sanctified capitalism."

I asked Molla's colleague from Kadima, Nachman Shai, how the party should respond to the protests. We "have to decode well what's happening here and adopt a line of government involvement in the economy, not of piggish capitalism," Shai answered. But he admitted he had no idea of the political impact of the sudden revolt. "Maybe there will be new parties," he said. "Just as no one knew this would start, no one knows where it will lead."

In fact, if they don't quickly bend Netanyahu's policies, the protests might ebb for a time. But Israeli politics has also proven that crises can have long-delayed effects. When the Netanyahu's Likud Party lost the 1999 national election, a leading figure in the party admitted that the defeat expressed backlash over the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin even though the Likud had narrowly won an earlier election a few months after Rabin was murdered. Even if the tents vanish from Rothschild Boulevard, the tidal wave of economic anger will not have passed. In the meantime, more rallies are planned for this Saturday night, and a new Facebook page promotes Daphni Leef, the woman who started it all, for prime minister.

One out of every 20 Israelis took to the street Saturday night protesting against neo-liberal policies. Read more at SouthJerusalem.com

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