Imagine if the anti-establishment fervor that followed
the 2008 economic collapse produced a political movement that was essentially
progressive rather than reactionary.
The fury that swept the country might have been
directed at the people who caused the collapse and the people who did nothing
to mitigate its effects.
But, for a number of reasons, including the failure of
Democrats to steer popular anger where it belonged, popular rage was harnessed
by the Tea Party movement, a creation of the far right and ultimately part of
the Republican Party.
It's hard to blame Republicans for exploiting anti-establishment
rage and it is impossible not to blame Democrats for letting them get away with
That it might have been
different can be seen in Israel today, where an unprecedented popular revolt
against what FDR called "economic royalism" is shaking the political and
economic establishment to its core.
The revolt began on July 14,
which, in the style of the Arab Spring, led to it being called 7.14. And also
in the Arab Spring tradition, this uprising started on Facebook. A 25-year-old
named Daphne Leef wrote of the impossibility of finding an apartment she could
afford in Tel Aviv and then followed up by erecting and moving into a tent.
Suddenly "tent cities" sprung
up throughout the country, with protesters not only railing against the high
cost of living but against the massive shift of wealth from the middle class to
the ultra-wealthy. Israelis took to the streets to protest deteriorating health
care, a mediocre (at best) public school system, and what can only be described
as the wholesale collapse of the public sector in favor of unregulated "free"
Israel, created by
socialists, was, until relatively recently, a fairly egalitarian country -- more
like Europe than the United States. But that changed with the rise of the right
and particularly of Binyamin Netanyahu, who has succeeded in his goal of
implementing Milton Friedman-style economic policies.
Everyone who is not rich is
hurting, which is why the protest movement is growing. Demonstrators include
Jews and Arabs, the secular and religious, and Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Even some
elderly Holocaust survivors are in the streets -- not surprising given that over
a quarter are
now living in poverty. That last point is especially jarring. Imagine the
Jewish state cutting benefits to Auschwitz survivors while providing economic
incentives to billionaires.
On Saturday night, 150,000
demonstrators, out of a population of seven million, took to the streets -- the
largest demonstration in Israel's history not related to the war/peace issue.
According to the respected Israeli blog +972:
main rallying cry was still: "The people! Want! Social justice!" with a
generous dose of "Bibi go home," as well as anti-capitalism, pro-welfare state
slogans, all laced with dripping sarcasm along the lines of: "The market is
free, but we're slaves."
The New York Times characterized the protest movement like this:
started as a modest Facebook-driven protest by young people over housing prices
has mushroomed into what many analysts suspect could be one of the more
significant political developments here in years -- and a possible opening for
the defeated left.
The Times misses the point. The revolt against Israel's "I want mine"
capitalism is emanating not only from the left but from across the political
spectrum and even from those who don't care about politics one way or another.
After all, one does not have
to be of the left to recognize when you are being screwed, and by whom. Besides,
Israelis understand that as bad as Netanyahu's Likud party is, the formerly
socialist Labor Party has also long been dominated by politicians (like Ehud
Barak) who are indifferent to the problems of working people or the jobless and
devote their lives to personal aggrandizement, financial and otherwise.
The missing piece in the 7.14
movement (so far) is the absence of the issue of the occupation. Not only is
the denial of Palestinian rights thoroughly illegal and immoral, it also
contributes mightily to inequality in Israel itself.
All those millions being
wasted on settlements and settlement infrastructure should be used at home. All
that money wasted on a "university" in Ariel could be spent on schools in Tel
Aviv or Haifa. Moreover, the absence of peace costs billions in military
expenditures -- expenditures that would be significantly reduced if the Israeli
government achieved peace with the Palestinians.
But the 7.14 movement should
not be criticized for not addressing everything at once. Just getting Israelis
in the street again, protesting the Netanyahu government's domestic agenda, is an
important step. And the good news is that revolutions are not easily contained.
Who knows where this energy will next be channeled?
Unfortunately, it's likely
that Netanyahu will look for a foreign policy crisis to end the revolt against him
and his millionaire allies. He is already planning a fear campaign against the
Palestinian effort to achieve recognition by the United Nations as an attention
deflector. He knows that pointing to an external enemy has almost always succeeded
in squashing movements for social justice. But maybe not this time.
Israelis deserve credit for
recognizing that, despite the jingoism of Netanyahu and company, it is not the
Palestinians who are robbing them blind. It is a greedy segment of their own
population and the politicians who serve them.
The only difference between
the situation in Israel and here in the United States is that Israelis seem to
be waking up. Perhaps someday it will happen here.