Israel's middle class has traditionally carried the Jewish state on its back—paying the taxes that fuel the state's budget, manning the officer corps and elite units of the IDF that defend the state's borders, providing the educated manpower that runs the universities and education sytem.
They have also paid for the upkeep of the country's unproductive ultra-orthodox community, whose men and women by and large don't work, don't pay taxes and don't serve in the army (to which other Jewish Israelis devote three years of their lives while young and months of reserve duty until they are 45 or 50). The ultra-orthodox tend to have very large families (five-to-eight children a piece) —again, paid for, in government child benefits, by the middle class that has two-three children per family. (Equally large, if not larger, incidentally, are the families of the Negev beduin Arab community, who also often subsist on governmental child support and unemplyment benefits.)
And the middle class—largely secular, largely left-wing or centrist politically—has, of course, paid, since 1967, for the settlement enterprise of successive Israeli governments in the occupied territories, principally the West Bank. Without doubt, tens of billions of dollars have been expended in the territories over the past forty-plus years.
All, or some of this, may now be coming to an end. Last Saturday night saw the largest demonstrations on socio-economic matters ever seen in Israel—the police reported 250,000 demonstrators, in gatherings in Tel Aviv (the largest, with more than 150,000 protesters), Jerusalem and a cluster of smaller towns. And for the past fortnight protesters' tent camps, akin to the one erected in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the months of the Arab uprisings, have thrived in boulevards and squares in the centers of Israel's cities.
The protesters, mostly aged 20-45 though with contingents of the elderly also prominent, are demanding a larger, and fairer, share of the national pie. The protests began as a rail against expensive housing: Few in that age group could afford to buy apartments and most were having a hard time paying the rent. The demonstrations, apart from accessible housing, are now demanding, more widely, a fair deal for the middle class: Less indirect taxation and higher taxation for the rich, free kindergartens from age three and free university education, and better wages for civil servants, including policemen, teachers and doctors (all poorly paid).
The demonstrators' leaders and placards have been careful not to identify themselves politically. But the implication of what they seek will mean a smaller share of the pie for the settlers and the ultra-orthodox living off their taxes.
Which is why aides of Prime Minister Netanyahu and leaders of right-wing parties, such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, have lambasted and belittled the demonstrators as "leftist extremists" and described the demonstration turnouts as "artificially exaggerated.” There have also been some minor clashes between demonstrators and settlers, who have set up a small encampment next to the main protesters' tent-city on Rothschild Boulevard in downtown Tel Aviv.
But Netanyahu appears—like the leaders of neighboring Arab states during the past few months—to slowly be giving way to the demonstrators. He has appointed an informal seventeen-man commission of inquiry, made up largely of senior civil servants and academics, to talk with the demonstrators and review their demands, headed by Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, an independent figure (two of his daughters reportedly participated in the demonstrations), and the body is to hand in its recommendations within six weeks. Netanyahu's aides said that, in appointing the economist Trachtenberg, the prime minister conceded that he will have to change his "socio-economic outlook,” which has always favored capitalism and big business. They promised that the government would endorse new economic guidelines by late October or early November. Trachtenberg, chairing the body's first meeting, said it would try to deliver "hope" and "social justice.”
But many of Netanyahu's critics pooh-poohed his seeming concessions, deeming them another stratagem to parry the necessary process of reform; he simply appointed "another committee.” One Arab Knesset member, Ahmed Tibi, criticized Netanyahu and the commission for failing to include an Arab in its ranks.
Above all, there is a real fear among the protesters that the momentum for change will dissipate next month, when the Palestinians have promised to declare independence and launch mass demonstrations of their own inside the West Bank and along Israel's borders. Faced by such an external Arab challenge, the protesting middle classes might rally to the colors and abandon their own drive for economic self-improvement.
Image by Hanay