Middle Class Rising?
Wed, 05/29/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
The social protest movement, fueled by frustrated middle-class Israelis, drew huge crowds in the summer of 2011. Getty Images
The social protest movement, fueled by frustrated middle-class Israelis, drew huge crowds in the summer of 2011. Getty Images

The Knesset is back in session after a post-election recess of nearly two months, and the “first 100 days” that will set the tone for the new government are well underway.

The success or failure of this government, and particularly of Finance Minister Yair Lapid, will hinge on the population whose electoral power forms its backbone, whose rage and frustration fueled the recent shake-up in Israeli politics: the hard-working middle class.

During the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis camped out and demonstrated in the streets under the slogan: “The people demand social justice.” Though certainly a general expression of dissatisfaction with the country’s direction, the tent protests were fueled by the frustration of Israel’s middle class. Its members felt that as the country’s workhorses, they should be able to afford to live in decent home is close to work and to finish each month with a bit of disposable income in the bank after taxes; instead, they felt they were being squeezed on both sides — on one side by “tycoons” who control the economy and artificially inflate the cost of living, and on the other side by sectors of the population that in the public perception do not pull their own weight.

The initial protests had a distinctly socialist feel; they were characterized by nostalgia for a real or imagined idyllic era of state-owned industry, austerity and justice, and they culminated with a list of demands such as free education for all from pre-kindergarten through college and cheaper housing. “Piggish capitalism” and privatization were decried, and the Netanyahu government was viewed as the party responsible for the consolidation of Israel’s economic power in the hands of a small number of mega-wealthy families. It was a view filled with irony, as Prime Minister Netanyahu had done more than any other prime minister to promote free-market competition and break up massive conglomerates.

The protest movement evolved, and in some ways matured, in the two years since. It was not long before its key message morphed from a demand for social justice to a demand for “shivyon ba-netel” (equal sharing of the burden). Though fueled by the same criticisms and resentments as the original protest, the new demands were truer to the capitalist ethos that has emerged during the latter half of the state’s 65-year existence. (It is also possible that the protest movement had a far-left core that did most of the talking, to which a capitalist majority eventually added its voice). The shivyon ba-netel movement’s focus was on easing the burden borne by the middle class by reducing taxes on the middle class, conscripting Arabs and haredim into some form of military or national service, and ending handouts for the willfully unemployed.

In January’s elections, the frustrated middle class found its champion in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party, which ran on a platform of dragging the haredim, kicking and screaming if necessary, into national service and the workforce. Lapid won the plurality of votes in Tel Aviv (which gave a plurality to the center-left Kadima party in 2009), Modiin (where Netanyahu’s Likud won a plurality in ’09), and almost 20 other upper-middle class cities and suburbs. Though Labor, the party joined by the tent protest leaders, gained two seats, and the party to its left, Meretz, doubled its representation from three to six, it was ultimately Yesh Atid that channeled the middle class rage into electoral success. Lapid’s party picked up most of the seats that had gone to Kadima and even a few from the right-wing parties, winning 19 seats to become the second largest party in the Knesset.

By and large, Israel’s dati le’umi (Zionist-Orthodox) community sat out the protests of the summer of 2011. The reason for their absence is debatable, but it is clear by now that it was not due to any divergence with the overall aims of the protests. The dati le’umi community sends its sons to the army (it is currently estimated that 40 percent of all Israel Defense Forces officers wear yarmulkes) and works hard to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, whether in cities and towns or in suburban West Bank settlements. The party representing this population, Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), also did very well, bumping its representation from six to 12 seats.

Then, in a surprise move during coalition negotiations, Lapid and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett struck an alliance under which neither would join the government without the other. Though the two parties are far apart on matters of war and peace, they are very similar when it comes to socioeconomic issues. By forming a bloc of 31 seats, they made it virtually impossible for Netanyahu, whose Likud party also controls 31 seats, to form a governing coalition of more than 60 Knesset members without them. More significantly, it froze the haredi parties — expensive but reliable coalition partners — out of the new government.

Though the haggling over the coalition agreement came down to the wire, Netanyahu could not have asked for more compatible partners on socioeconomic issues. As finance minister a decade ago, Netanyahu began to implement many of the policies — reducing welfare payments and liberalizing markets — now being promoted to ease the burden of the middle class. Moreover, Netanyahu’s party is itself the alliance of Likud and the Russian-dominated Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home). In all, then, the four main partners of the current coalition, comprising 62 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, espouse socioeconomic views that are actually quite similar. Perhaps it is mere coincidence, but this amounts to 52 percent of the Knesset, just a shade under the 53 percent of Americans that Mitt Romney infamously claimed were supporting the other 47 percent.

The alliance between Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi may herald a sea change in the fraught relationship between Israel’s secular and Zionist-Orthodox populations. On one hand, Israeli Judaism has been undergoing a cultural renaissance wherein non-observant “secular” Israelis are re-engaging with Jewish sources. This has been going on for quite some time — as has been chronicled by Yair and Bambi Sheleg (she is the editor of Eretz Acheret magazine) — but really only burst into national consciousness with new Knesset member Ruth Calderon’s inaugural Knesset speech, in which she proclaimed that the Torah is not the province only of the ultra-Orthodox but must be open to all Jews. (See a transcript of her speech on page 9, and a story on her secular yeshiva on page 12.)

The analogue of this secular re-engagement is the increasing frustration on the part of Zionist-Orthodox Israelis with an institutional, politically entangled and haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate. Though many believe that the situation can be ameliorated by changing the personnel within the official rabbinate, more and more people recognize that its flaws are systemic and structural; a face-lift will not suffice when a heart transplant is required.

The result of the convergence between Jewishly engaged secularists and the anti-Rabbinate Orthodox is the emergence of a new sort of civic space. This space is anti-clerical but not anti-religious. It advances a vision of a state whose Jewishness is manifest symbolically and positively, not through coercive, narrow interpretations of Judaism. (A Shavuot night Torah study program in Tel Aviv, in which religious and secular Yesh Atid Knesset members were the featured speakers, is a good example of this.)

Nevertheless, this sort of change is only possible if the alliance between Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid can hold. How patient will the restless and frustrated middle class be? We will probably find out soon enough. Lapid recently posted on the wall of his Facebook page — his preferred venue for communicating with the public on all matters — about a hypothetical middle-class woman named Ricki Cohen from Hadera. Cohen, a teacher, and her husband, a high-tech worker, bring in 20,000 shekels (about $5,000) a month. Lapid wants to make sure that on those salaries they can afford to travel abroad every other year and help their three children buy apartments. The problem is that a take-home salary of 20,000 shekels is within the top 10 percent of the country — hardly middle class. Lapid’s blunder has led to broad criticism (especially on Facebook, naturally) and accusations that he is not really in touch with the realities of Israel’s middle class.

Furthermore, the promise to reduce the middle-class burden has foundered on the reality of a growing budget deficit. Lapid has vowed to get it under control by cutting tens of billions of shekels from the national budget and raising taxes; he has deferred his campaign promises for two years, claiming that the austerity measures are temporary. To show that he means business, he is making sure that however hard the budget cuts hit the middle class, they hit the haredim much harder. Lapid turned back to Facebook to appease his constituents, telling them that at least they will not be the only ones to suffer from increased taxes and decreased benefits.

Not everyone is buying his assurances, though. Earlier this month, thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the impending austerity measures. Lapid is getting hammered in the media for giving in to the unions, for going soft on the wealthy while harming the weakest classes, and for generally biting off more than he can chew — after all, his formal education ended short of a high school diploma.

Perhaps the government, with Lapid controlling its purse strings, will manage to ride out the period of austerity and usher in a time of greater prosperity. Perhaps then it will be able to institute desperately needed changes to the obsolete arrangements that govern the tense relations between synagogue and state. But to do so, it must pay close attention to the urban middle class that put it in power. 

Elli Fischer is a writer and translator who lives in Modiin, Israel.