Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Housing Protest and the Three Weeks.

Here in Israel, we frequently discover unexpected connections between current events and the Jewish calendar. Usually at the peak of the summer we get a war (2006), or a disengagement from Gaza (2005), or just some angry demonstration or another.

This year, in the thick of the "three weeks" [traditional mourning period for the Temple destruction and exile,] we have the widespread housing protests, and doctors' strike. And I have to say that this movement is very close to the heart of the message of the three weeks. I will explain.

What are people protesting? As regards the issues, it started with a boycott of the price of cottage cheese, and quickly followed with a protest of rising house and rental prices, along with the trainee doctors who scuttled a negotiation deal that ignored the ridiculously long hours that trainee doctors spend at the hospital without a break, and with little pay.

The government responded 2 days ago with a wide housing initiative, but unfortunately they are missing the point.

The main issue is that Israel's economy is run by a very small group of tycoons, monopolies and cartels - some are government sponsored like the electricity company - who fix the prices of cell phones, banking charges, electricity, water, food, clothing, etc. at a rate that merely increases the profits of the wealthy while severely squeezing the middle class. This has hit a point at which families who were relatively comfortable some ten years ago, are now scrambling to balance their budgets, and young families cannot afford to purchase a home. Israel has not suffered from a recession like the US and Europe, and yet the economic growth has affected only the highest paid sectors and life has become more expensive for the majority of the population. Wages for the lower percentiles (75%) of the workforce have dropped, whereas basic commodities have risen over 40% in the past 5 years.

The reason why this is protest reverberates so poignantly at this time of year relates to the special haftara next week, a haftara that is read in the Eicha tune and is meant to give us pause to think before the 9 of Av. Some people merely connect the "3 weeks" to Jewish infighting , sometimes called "sinat chinam.' But it is the opening chapter of Isaiah which labels a corrupt and uncharitable society as "Sodom and Gomorrah." Isaiah accuses the leaders of society of making a profit on the backs of the lower classes in society:

“Cease to do evil; Learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged,

Uphold the orphan, defend the cause of the widow.

... Your rulers are rogues, and thieving cronies.

every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts,

... Zion shall be saved by her justice,

her repentant ones with Tzedaka.” (Yishayahu 1:16-28)

Isaiah relates to the situation in which the poor are abused by the leadership whose culture is one of bribes and cronyism. The poor suffer and God finds it abhorrent.

This protest has a wide base of support and is likely to continue. It is not merely about housing costs. It is about the question of the widening division between rich and poor in Israel and the erosion of the financial security for whole sectors of Israeli society. I believe that Yishayahu would have parked his tent along Rothschild boulevard, or would have joined the doctors in their march to Jerusalem. The current protest resounds with the sounds of his words, spoken to a very unequal and corrupt Jerusalem, 2500 years ago

As for solutions ... who knows? When I listen to the protesters asking for the govt. to fund education/health/housing etc. I wonder what planet they live on ... Where do they think the govt. will get the money? But on the other hand, as I say, the fact that the economy is soooo centralized and that there is a dearth of competition -- those sorts of things can be changed as the economy becomes more efficient and more competitive.


Rami Levy in Gush Etzion – Arabs in Israel: Does an equal society mean intermarriage?

1 comment:

Ittay said...

Having heard Daphni Leef and Barak Segal about the J14 protests at Limmud, I still have hope that the movement they started will bear fruit.

To find out why, see: