Rothschild Boulevard is Not Tahrir Square

The Israeli protesters are not the proletariat, they proudly announce that they are the ‘middle class.’


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on August 2, 2011.)

In Cairo’s Tahrir Square hundreds of thousands of people assembled and reassembled this year demanding a change of regime in Egypt. They succeeded in bringing down Hosni Mubarak, but in his place they got a military junta that has promised elections at some future date. While the protests in the square continue, at this point the people must be sorely disappointed.

They may have served as an inspiration to the thousands of Israelis who have pitched their tents on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard and elsewhere in Israel this hot summer. But that is where the similarity ends. The Israeli protesters are not like their Egyptian counterparts, or like the sansculottes of the French Revolution. They are well dressed and come well prepared to bed down in their tents for the night. They are not the proletariat, or the homeless – they proudly announce that they are the Israeli “middle class.” They are of the generation that asked what they could do for the country and not what the country could do for them. Now they feel that the time has come to claim what they believe they are entitled to. Now, what can Israel do for them?

They have seen Israel progress in recent years beyond their dreams to become a prosperous, even a rich, country. It’s a world leader in technology that has ridden out the global economic crisis better than most countries – with almost full employment, while America is struggling with 10 percent unemployment and Spain 20 percent. Most countries today are planning austerity measures that are going to hurt everybody, rich and poor alike, and certainly the middle class, while the Israeli economy keeps growing from year to year. And yet, as our “middle class” looks around it feels that it’s not getting its due, that it’s not getting what it’s entitled to.

There is no denying the authentic nature of the Israeli protest movement – people who feel that housing in desirable locations that meets their standards is beyond their reach, mothers who feel that providing care for their children while they are at work is too expensive, a medical profession that is providing Israelis with the world’s best health services and is completely underpaid.

And yet, when a Gallup poll last April tried to measure people’s well-being around the world, asking whether they were thriving, struggling or suffering, 67 percent of Israelis answered that they were thriving, and Israel was ranked among the first eight countries as far as its people’s well-being was concerned, ahead of the United States, Britain and many others. So, many Israelis, including the middle class, must feel pretty good about living in Israel. In reporting for service in the Israel Defense Forces, our young people are still asking what they can do for the country. So surely there is room for improvement, but things are not as bad as they seem when viewed from a tent on Rothschild Boulevard.

Even the protesters understand that nothing substantive is going to be accomplished overnight. One measure that can be implemented relatively quickly, a measure the government has already focused on, is the building of dormitories on the campuses of the country’s universities and colleges. This will provide housing for students and decrease the demand for rental housing in the cities. And of course, transportation that will make it possible to live in the periphery, where housing is cheaper, while working in the center of the country, must be given priority.

Maybe now, finally, a subway line from Petah Tikva to Bat Yam, which can provide commuting services to people working in Tel Aviv and living on its periphery, will finally get underway, overcoming the 15-year-old obstruction by treasury officials. And most important, in the next election the tent dwellers, if they haven’t changed their minds by then, will have a chance to “kick the bums out.” This is an option that the demonstrators in Tahrir Square will not have for quite a while.

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