Sunday, August 7, 2011

Israeli Protests in a Broader Context

As Israeli press reports 300,000 people protesting in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I watch from afar and wonder what they think will result from their efforts.

Summer evenings in Israel are warm, the lovely Mediterranean warmth that bathes your skin and lures you to outdoor cafes and the bustling carnival of vendors on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street that forms at the conclusion of the Sabbath. Tonight there's a solidarity among people who work hard and find their paychecks barely allow them necessities beyond rent, food, internet service and cell phones.  They swarm the streets, calling for "the system to change," according to a story in the New York Times.  Organizers, mostly university students, say they're keeping the marches purposefully non-partisan, joining together Israelis from all political persuasions to direct their national passion--and there's plenty--to something all share.

“We want a more correct balance between the free market and the human economy," said Itzik Shmuli, head of the National Union of Israeli Students, reported in the Jerusalem Post. "We are demanding serious attention to closing social gaps and for a more far-reaching answer to be given to the basic needs of the citizens of the country, in particular the country’s weakest citizens.”
Last time I spoke to The System, however, I didn't hear anything.  What "far reaching answer" do all these people expect?

They know they're the only Western-style free market Democracy in the region. They've got socialized medicine in an advanced, fair national program. Organizers insist they don't want to overthrow their leaders--to the contrary, they say they have confidence in their elected officials; they just want to earn more money so they can enjoy more of the pleasures and advantages that their society offers.

Also in the headlines the last few days is the pathetic and horrific plight of Somalis, dying of starvation in a famine that a heartless but justifiably paranoid government exacerbates, in the face of Shabab Wahhabi Islamist rebels.  Front-page photos of skeletal children and stories of aid spurned or stolen are wrenching and bring deserved sympathy and concern.

What the poor Somalis would give to have the system protested by the Israelis.

At the same time, one can understand Israelis' frustration at seeing so many accessories to modern life just out of reach.  The cost of real estate, food, restaurants, and durable goods in Israel is comparable to prices in the United States' most desirable cities, but the average wages of workers is about $2,476 per month converted from shekels. That's $29,712 annually. (Average wage is $40,711 in the US.) Technology is slightly cheaper there; housing a bit more; gasoline triple. Housing is especially high in Jerusalem, which draws people for religious reasons. They're not making many places considered to be closest to God anymore.

Back to the question: Given that Israel has an open, free-market economy, what can the government do to increase wages or hold down costs?  Israel, with a total population of not quite 7.5 million is smaller than the city of New York, which is more than 8.1 million as of the 2010 census.  Its national government has the intimacy of a city government; people's protests and complaints much more easily reach their leaders and gain response.

But the change these students seek is generic.  And perpetual.  It echoes the same vague, altruistic sentiment chanted on US college campuses in the early 1970s: "We want social justice!"  There's a spring or summer fever that propels students to the streets and quads where they can surge together in an aura of righteousness to assert their youthful beliefs.  The fact that the closely-knit country of Israel can join in this festival of both frustration and longing proves once again that it is a free society.  No one is asking for that to change.

The government can pass laws that like New York's rent control, suppress rental charged tenants, but it can't, nor should it want, to depress real estate prices.  And as long as willing buyers pay high prices for homes and businesses, they'll need to charge enough rent to cover that expense.  I just don't see how citizenry surging in the streets can effectively bring reductions in rent or real estate sales costs. Regarding other necessities, health care is socialized; cost for food is determined by its availability and production expense (and given Israel's small size, much must be imported).

There's something cathartic and therapeutic about protesting; it binds Israelis into a cohesive unit, and reminds leaders of their constituents' priorities.  But beyond that, sign-carrying, chanting and massive presence in the streets can accomplish little when the goals are so amorphous. And when the free market is, in the end, the arbiter of both wages and prices for goods and services.

The message I take away, reading the headlines so far from their datelines, is that democracy and a free market system allows us to claim ever-expanding expectations, and sometimes keeps us from remembering just how lucky and privileged we really are.

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