Social Rupture in Israel

Social-justice protests over settlement and budget policies threaten to rip apart Israeli society.

Moshe Silman, an Israeli who torched himself during a demonstration commemorating a year since the beginning of last year’s protests for social justice, was buried on the same day that the Netanyahu government made a bold new move on illegal settlements. The coalition secretly voted for an additional funding of 7.6 million shekel (approximately $2 million) to the scores of millions already allocated to the relocation of the settlers of Migron, the largest illegal outpost in the West Bank.

This allocation for Migron is a paltry sum in terms of the state's overall budget. But, coupled with Silman's death, it illustrates an underlying reality of the settlement policies pursued by Israeli governments for many decades—namely, that they are a drain on the country’s economy. There is an irony here. While the Likud Party for years has been supplanting the country’s old social-democratic welfare state with more austere free-market sensibilities, it has just as firmly been pursuing welfare-state-type policies for Jews in the West Bank. The result is a skewed budget that has been getting attention from many Israelis.

The street protests that descended upon the country a year ago, for example, demanded “social justice,” which meant a better economic situation for citizens at large. Many attributed their financial plight to ongoing erosion in the egalitarian socio-economic model that guided economic policies during the days of the Labor Party’s political dominance. But for West Bank settlers, the picture is quite different.

Consider what the budget process of local councils in Israel looks like. The five most well funded of the 253 local councils and municipalities, on a per capita budget basis, have one thing in common: they are all in the West Bank, east of the Green Line that is known as the border of sovereign Israel. At the top of the list is the local council of Mount Hebron, where the per capita budget is eight times that of the per capita budget in Jerusalem, the neglected capital of Israel (the same city that every politician declares himself or herself committed to unifying).

The Mount Hebron area also hosts some of the poorest Palestinian villages. But these are not entitled to the level of state funding enjoyed by their Jewish neighbors. Their fate is subject to military destruction orders. Another example? Twenty-five percent of the budget for crèches, or daycare centers, goes to the settlers, who are 4 percent of the Israeli population (not including East Jerusalem). Only 12 percent of these funds goes to Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who represent approximately 20 percent of the country's population. An overall calculation shows that in proportion to their relative numbers, the average settlement receives 70 percent more total expenditure per capita than its counterpart in sovereign Israel.

These examples, which don’t include huge expenditures on the security needs of the settlements or the infrastructure built for them, are only one part of a larger picture. The budget numbers stem from a political choice and a value system. They reflect a long-term process during which the Israeli ethos changed from a philosophy of mutual responsibility between the state and citizen and solidarity of the people to a new outlook of deeper control over the occupied territories, national-separatist values and a neoliberal economic policy far removed from the social democratic convictions of old.

The ascendancy of these new values led leaders of the social-justice protest movement to avoid any political identification. The Israeli spirit, encouraged by the government, is quick to differentiate between "us" and "them" and to make a connection between the social-justice protestors and those who dare to criticize the government. Thus, the young leaders of the movement took pains to avoid any "leftist" coloring, which is not considered a legitimate mainstream view. "This is not a left-wing protest," they kept saying. "We are neither Right nor Left," they cried during the crowded demonstrations. But the government’s priorities, as reflected in the budget, reveal a policy that isn’t affordable and hence cannot last.

The second summer of the demonstrations, which began recently, is thus split between two main groups: The first, supported by the media and given a bear hug by the politicians from the Centrist parties, works toward keeping the status quo while cleverly channeling the discourse of rights into a discourse of duties. The second group is going through a period of maturation and clarification. This requires a somewhat painful departure from the comforts of the consensus that typified last summer’s demonstrations.

The first group points to the ultrareligious Jews and the Arabs, two underprivileged sectors of Israeli society, as a burden on the society at large. The second group tends to focus more on the common issues concerning poor Jewish neighborhoods and Arab villages and towns, recognizing them as fellow casualties of the current social construct. The media either ignores this group or is suspicious of it, and the police treat its demonstrations with intolerance and at times violence. The public often condemns members of this second group as radicals, anarchists and anti-Zionists.

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