August 28, 2011
“The People Seek Social Justice”
As governments are being overturned by massive protests across the Arab world, another kind of movement is being shaped elsewhere—by members of the middle class. In India, frustrated by politicians who seem out of touch and arrogant and corrupt, they’re taking to the streets and calling for economic reform. A well-respected 74-year-old political leader named Anna Hazare has been fasting for more than 11 days and has become the focal point of the campaign against pervasive government corruption. Meanwhile, in Brazil, the middle class has mobilized because “prices of meat and petrol have doubled, highway tolls have risen, and eating out or buying property have become prohibitively expensive”.
Counterintuitively, the declining standard of living for some of the Brazilian middle class is a side-effect of the growing literacy and financial success of a population segment that used to be poor. The middle-class’s cause may well deserve sympathy since their financial challenges are all too real, but it isn’t exactly a question of social justice as we usually think of it. Their situation is a side effect of a greater equalization of opportunity, not from corruption or a declining economy.
Here in Israel there are protests too, of course, and not just the ones involving tents along city streets. Facebook says that 4,499 people are “attending” a week-long boycott of the Shufersal (also called SuperSol) Supermarkets starting tomorrow. It’s called שבוע ללא שופרסל, A Week Without SuperSol. The argument is that SuperSol has a 37% market share and they set their prices a lot higher than those at other supermarkets. Those dry statistics are colored by recent accusations that SuperSol unfairly pressured its suppliers for preferential treatment over their competitors. Many consumers also resent the fact that SuperSol’s profits enrich billionaire Nochi Dankner, whose IDB Holdings is the largest shareholder in SuperSol. The bottom line is that the protesters want lower prices.
Over the past month hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel have rallied under the banner The People Seek Social Justice!, inspiring hopes that Israeli idealism has finally reawakened in the tent cities across the country. At the same time, Haaretz columnist Aviad Kissos waggishly wrote last week that he would glad support “the protest of the people whose therapists go on vacation at really bad times” and “the protest of the people whose friends are going to Greece next week while they have to stay here and work.” Are the tent-city protesters selflessly seeking social change? Or are they looking for a conveniently located apartment at a lower rent? As in any popular movement, motives are mingled.
UPDATE: Anna Hazare has now ended his fast.
Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, lives in Jerusalem.