In the last several weeks Israel has been going through one of the biggest waves of protest ever. The people in the street are calling for social justice.
Most protestors define themselves as middle class. They’re raising a cry over the high cost of living and the unequally spread burden of maintaining the country. Many reasons, including Israel’s tiny size, other economic and geographic causes and speculative money invested in the Israeli real estate market, have pushed apartments in Israel to unaffordable prices. A four-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv costs nearly $1 million. In Kiryat Malachi, a low-income town with significant social challenges, the same apartment would still cost the unbelievable price of about $150,000.
The situation is complex: while middle class Israelis are leading the cry over high prices, they are also the ones who will suffer the most if prices drop. Most middle class Israelis own the apartments in which they live; for many, the apartment is their main economic asset.
This wave of protest raises big philosophical questions about the distribution of wealth and the burden of responsibility.
The wealth in Israel is in the hands of a very few — about 10 families hold most of the assets. But the burden is not only economic: an Israeli secular Jewish man, for example, serves about five years in the IDF — that is 10 percent of his career life (ages
18-67). The ultra-Orthodox haredim and Arab minorities are excluded.
This internal, democratic wave of social protest comes as the government faces significant external challenges. In September, the Palestinian Authority is planning to walk away from the peace process and try to unilaterally declare a state. While this formal declaration does not have any real impact on either Israeli or Palestinian lives, the Palestinians abandoning the peace process might bring more despair and less hope to the region.
Will the external challenge call attention away from the cry for social justice? Will Israel succeed in defining what social justice is, and how to make it real? Will the Palestinians come to their senses and return to the peace talks with a real intention to create two states for two peoples? The questions are huge; only the future will give us the answers.
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach (Israeli emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.