Sunday, July 31, 2011

Why are Israelis protesting for social justice?

When I was in Israel earlier this summer, the big local protest was about the cost of cottage cheese, which had been raised greatly in the last 2-3 years. The protest was started on Facebook by a haredi man and eventually gained 100,000 signatures. The three big dairy companies in Israel finally conceded and lowered the price. But this was only symbolic of the increasing discontent with rising prices of food, real estate, and everything else. I've commented for several years to my friends in Israel that the only housing being built in Jerusalem seems to be extravagantly expensive developments that only rich people from outside of the country can afford to live in. This has created the phenomenon in the city of "ghost" neighborhoods - blocks of luxury apartments that are largely uninhabited for most of the year, when their wealthy foreign owners visit the city. 

I was talking to some new friends this summer - a young couple with two children, one working as a teacher's assistant in a school for severely handicapped children, the other working in construction (yes, there are Jewish Israelis working as construction workers) - but he recently quit that job and started one that probably pays quite a deal less, working as a clerk at a grocery story. My guess about their income is that they make around 7,000 shekels a month (=about $2000). They're living in a rented apartment, where I would guess the rent is around 2500-3000 shekels per month. The night I got together with them, they were discussing an apartment for sale that a friend had told them about - for 900,000 shekels (=about $264,000). Could they afford an apartment at that price?As a young couple, they could get some funding from the government, but that wouldn't cover very much, and they'd end up with an enormous mortgage, if a bank would lend to them.

It's the situation of people like them that is driving these protests.

Another significant development over the past years is the privatization of big parts of the Israeli economy that used to belong to the government. These companies now belong to enormously rich people (the "oligarchs" - like the Russian oligarchs who ended up dominating that economy after the fall of communism). After talking to some friends this summer, I finally grasped that this is one big reason why the gap between rich and poor has grown so immense in Israel. Israel is also a high-tech incubator, but that has also added to the increasing gap. Of all the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (which Israel just joined last year), Israel has the biggest gap.
..... the country is still at the bottom of the rankings. Every fifth Israeli is twice as poor as the average person in OECD member states. Most of the poor come from Arab and ultra-orthodox communities, where poverty rises to 50 percent and 60 percent, respectively. More than half of Israelis are paid less than NIS 4,000 a month, while only a very few make many times as much.
You don't hear much of this in the foreign press, or even the Jewish press in America - the economic stories I have read recently about Israel are all about the high-tech sector, leaving behind the more than half of Israelis who don't make more than $1200 per month.

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