Israel: Tahir Square in Tel Aviv?
My guide Zevit was particularly happy to show me around Haifa, a post-card Israeli town by the Mediterranean. This was her hometown after all.
“In Jerusalem you pray, in Tel Aviv you play and in Haifa, you stay,” she told me. It is a well-known local maxim.
Like all affluent Israelis in Haifa, Zevit lived in an apartment in the uphill part of the town, from where you could see Lebanon to the north, across the sea.
During the second Lebanon war, rockets would come straight in from that direction, shattering homes and the peace. Now, only a constant, soft Mediterranean breeze takes that path and strokes the skin of residents who can afford to stay high up in the expensive hills.
Haifa is not a place where you can easily get aggravated or despondent. If its beautiful gardens don’t calm you down, the sea will. Its boisterous waves can put you to sleep. It’s like San Francisco of the movies.
Zevit told me life in Israel was expensive, so expensive that she piled up all her laundry for a once-weekly wash. Water is scarce and carries a price tag.
If wealthier people like Zevit were mindful of their spend on laundry, I muttered in my thoughts, people at the bottom rung of the Israeli economy must be having a tough time. But Haifa and its hallucinating beauty undercut all thoughts of social inequity and middle-class struggle.
When, protesting government apathy, a socially disillusioned Jewish man set himself on fire on July 14 in Haifa – beautiful Haifa – Israel suddenly found itself vulnerable again. Not to the terrorism of Hamas-fired rockets but to misplaced national priorities.
Moshe Silman, 57 years old, poured gasoline on his body and set himself aflame, leaving behind a typed suicide letter that said, “the state of Israel robbed me”.
Sixty years on since Israel’s founding, how inclusive is Israeli society? What does the future hold for its citizens?
Silman blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz “for the humiliation that weakened citizens go through every day, taking from the poor and giving to the rich”.
Is Silman Israel’s very own Mohamed Bouazizi, the twenty-six-year-old Tunisian vegetable vendor who set himself on fire, triggering the Arab Spring? Click here.
Silman wasn’t a second-class citizen. He wasn’t an Arab, but Jewish.
Last summer, half-a-million Israeli demonstrators protested on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, a hip and happy crawl. Its restaurants bubbled with life. Half a million is a huge number for a country of just 8 million people.
The main lane in Tel Aviv’s sprawling souk-like old grocery market opened up, on the other end, to a square that could be Lyon in France. Old people, seated on public benches, enjoyed the sundown to live music by a street guitarist who had set up his wares on the cobbled pavement below. Young girls and boys filed in and out of a Burger King outlet. Life in Israel was blissful to the naked eye.
What had changed — or was changing? “Moshe Silman died on the altar of the settlements,” screamed an opinion column in the Haaretz, the day after Silman had taken the drastic step.
Many feel Israel was concentrating too much on keeping the Occupation of the West Bank going, spending 16.4% of its GDP on defence and 12.4% on healthcare. Housing is Israel’s most expensive commodity, despite a constant supply of precious real estate from land grab in Palestinian West Bank.
The Bank of Israel’s June 2012 review of inflation of 2010 reads: “In the fourth quarter of 2010 the recovery of economic activity and employment that had started in mid-2009 continued, and indications of increased inflationary pressures are evident. The CPI increased by 0.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010; excluding the seasonal components–fruit and vegetables, and clothing and footwear–it increased by 0.2 percent in the quarter. The 1.4 percent increase in the energy and food components of the index was faster than that in the other items, and they pulled the overall index upwards. The housing component (based on rentals), the prime inflationary factor in the previous months, moderated in the fourth quarter. Inflation over the previous twelve months increased slightly in the fourth quarter compared with the third, to 2.7 percent. According to the survey of house prices, the purchase prices of houses accelerated in October-November following two months of slower increases.” Click here.
Israel’s growth is expected to slow down to 3.1% this year from 4.8% in 2011. Exports to Europe account for over 40% of Israel’s GDP. Consumer prices grew 1% in June 2012 from a year ago, the lowest since August 2007, compared with 1.6% in May. But incomes aren’t keeping pace even with these nominal rates of inflation.
A Knesset Research Institute finding says 10% of Israelis account for 70% of the country’s income. Even as Israel focuses and spends to ward off foreign security threats, inequality rules the roost. Arabs fare even worse, with their earnings being only a third of the national average.
A nation of too many tycoons, corruption could be deep seated. A former prime minister has stood trial on graft charges.
There is more to worry about. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, there is “intensifying infringements on democratic freedoms”. It alleges Parliament is considering or has passed more than 25 bills that amount to restricting freedom of speech and the press; provide for tighter controls over nongovernmental organisations; and limits judicial independence and minority rights. Click here.
Silman’s suicide note blamed the government for being insensitive. As the Haaretz columnist wrote: “Silman – I apologize for the cliche – was a soldier who fell in battle. Therefore his death, like that of every soldier, was not a private death but a very national one. Against him were pitted three enemies, three monsters of power. The first was the Netanyahu government’s neoconservative policy, which is dismantling all the social safety nets. Until last summer Israel was apathetic toward this dismantling; astonishingly, even this summer most of the country still supports those guilty of it. Many of the weak voted (and will vote) for the Likud, the first proof of blindness and unawareness.”
“The defense and settlements budgets have bypassed the social protest and economic slowdown without knowing they ever came close to them. Even momentarily-protesting Israel accepted them as an axiom, as holy cows not to be touched.
These two monsters’ innards know no shortage, no cutbacks, no desperation and no Silmans. There, in the land of monsters, everything comes easy. Only six minutes were needed last week to approve the allocation of over NIS 6 billion (! ) to buy new training aircraft for the Israel Defense Forces from Italy. Only four of the 15 members of the Finance Committee bothered to turn up for the discussion, and only one objected.
No less quickly, the government approved tens of millions of shekels for relocating the houses of the Ulpana neighborhood in the Beit El settlement. And, even quicker, the finance minister approved tens of millions of shekels for the university in Ariel. For this there is money: always and unlimited. After all, when have you ever heard of a real cut in the monsters’ budgets?
When has any military caprice or settlement whim ever been blocked because of budgetary considerations? These two carnivores control the strongest, wildest and most aggressive lobbies in the land that no government can withstand. These two draw their sustenance from a never-changing menu: paranoia and nationalism.
The paranoia feeds the defense budget and prevents any cuts in it; the nationalism feeds the settlement budget, which rides over every wave of social protest and economic slowdown with containers and construction. No economic consideration or social reasoning matter when governments discuss the budgets of these two monsters. What’s the connection? What’s the connection?! Silman died on the altar of the settlements and defense.”
The column is almost about ranting and raging at the system. It appears to reveal a very dark underbelly of a seemingly prosperous state. Yet, Israelis are a tenacious race, hardworking, sincere and dedicated.
The Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, mirrors the tenacity of the Jewish tribe. Zevit showed me a small room from where Israeli scientist Ada Yonath, 70, worked. She had just been announced the Nobel Prize winner for chemistry. She didn’t give up on the puzzle on how ribosomes work, a discovery that has implications for antibiotics and human health.
Israelis don’t give up. They should not. They will win this war on “terrorism” of inequality and misplaced priorities, as the Haaretz columnist put it.
When protestors had put up tents on the glassy Rothschild Avenue last year, many compared it with the Arab Spring. The protests were touched off by a Facebook page created by a 25-year-old Tel Aviv woman named Daphni Leef. If the Arab Spring demanded installation of democratic governments, the Isrealis want a government that is truly democratic.