August 17, 2011
Opinion: Israelis awakening to the power of grass-roots activism
On a recent Saturday night, my wife and I waded into a sea of 6,000 protesters in Modiin as part of 12 other similarly staged rallies across Israel to demand social justice and greater accountability from our elected officials in Israel.
This was Modiin, the newly created suburban retreat of the middle class—a far cry from the social challenges facing the country. Amid a wave of upwardly mobile suburbanites, we found common cause with the hundreds of thousands of protestors who believe that Israel must provide greater social mobility and opportunity.
It was a dream come true. When I lived in New York, I said that people deserve the government they elect and that real change will come about only when average people take to the streets and demand better. In Israel this is happening.
As one of the most heavily taxed nations in the developed world, Israel (with compulsory military service) extracts an incredible price from its population. The Israeli people have the right, and indeed the responsibility, to demand that their government be accountable and responsive to the needs of its people.
Just a few months ago I was inspired by young Arabs who took to the streets in capitals from Cairo to Damascus to demand dignity, economic opportunity and democracy. They risked far more than we do in a free and democratic state; they risked their lives. Today we are witness to young Israelis taking to the streets to demand more from their government and greater social equality in their society.
Many voices make up this movement, including many with political ambitions, but there is something different about it. These protests demonstrate a younger generation seeking ownership of our society. The young protesters understand that to have social justice requires a greater level of social cohesion. The purposeful spread of the protests from urban to rural areas reflects the desire for a movement that stretches across Israeli society and is both inclusive and comprehensive.
It is also the cry of desperate masses of middle-class citizens who want and deserve a better life. When average citizens and upper-middle-class citizens can barely finish the month with their salaries, they are unable to invest in their futures and the futures of their children. When young people with a college degree cannot find meaningful jobs, our entire society suffers from a deficit in human capital.
The people of Israel deserve more attuned leadership and are finally mobilizing to demand a more accountable government that will lower oppressive taxes. Until our elected representatives understand the burdens placed on Israeli citizens and fix the system of taxation without limits, this movement will endure.
Taxes, social justice and Jewish values have a deep connection. How a government collects and spends its tax revenue reflects the priorities of the society and the government itself. A more accountable and transparent system of taxation will result in a shift of government expenditures to areas that offer support for the middle class, reduce economic inequality, and enhance Israeli democracy and increase faith in the government.
The drive for social justice ultimately will come from the people themselves. The protests in Modiin and other cities are resonating across Israeli society, uniting young and old, religious and secular. It is a movement rooted in the Jewish values of our faith and in the teachings of the Ethics of our Fathers.
While the specific demands of the student protest leaders are unclear, and legislative change and affordable housing remain uncertain, what is clear is that student sentiment has tapped an untouched nerve in Israeli society.
Whether the results of the protest movement yield new elections, new legislation, new housing or none of the above, Israeli society has awakened to the power of grass-roots activism. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but like the seasons of the year, change is coming, like it or not.
(David Borowich Ya’ari is the CEO of Hillel in Israel. He made aliyah with his wife and family in 2009 and lives in Modiin.)