Something’s Got to Give

Until recently, Israelis could ignore the Occupation. People led normal lives: they drank their coffee and ate breakfast in the mornings, drove their kids to school, worked from 8-5, and went hiking on weekends. People did reserve duty, and some had relatives or friends who were killed in the line of duty or in terror attacks. But a majority, it seems, was able to keep the “conflict” neatly tucked away.

In recent years, something deep inside the Israeli consciousness has begun to rumble. Life is hard, really hard, now. Not because of suicide bombers (because they’re being stopped), and not because of the fighting in Gaza (unless you live in Sderot or one of the communities surrounding the Strip). But because every day Israelis from the lower and middle classes are finding it difficult to live regular lives.

We may be safe militarily, but we can’t pay rent and we don’t have enough food to feed our kids and keep them healthy.

Leftists in Israel tend to blame everything on the Occupation. It annoys me. It’s a convenient flick-of-the-wrist, a nice little scapegoat for all of life’s problems. But the longer I’ve lived in Israel, the more I believe it. It’s obvious, staring at me in the face every day.

If Israel were to withdraw from the Territories, it could provide its citizens with a decent standard of living: better education, promising jobs, and worthwhile lives. The Occupation always usurped funds that could have been used to better ends, but the difference now is that it’s not only affecting the poor – middle-class Israelis are feeling it too.

But the Occupation doesn’t act alone. It has a trusty ally.

With the same fervency Israel looks to the military for salvation, it has adopted capitalism – not just regular capitalism, but a freakish form of neo-liberalism on speed.

Starting in the 1990s, the government started chipping away at the social security net at an unprecedented rate. Israel now has an astonishingly wide income gap. The poor are VERY poor, and they are mostly minorities such as Arab Israelis, Druze, and immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. A majority of lower and middle class Israelis are caving under soaring housing costs, declining education, and higher health fees.

For about a year now, certain neighborhoods of Jerusalem have been referred to as “ghost towns.” When the second intifada petered out, foreign buyers snatched up the city’s prime real estate, but now only live there about one month of the year – during the Jewish holidays. Glossy ads beckon the world’s good Zionist Jews to invest in real estate in the center of our eternal capital.

A sardonic article in a Jerusalem Weekly recently described a scenario in the year 2027 wherein Hebrew University student from Tel Aviv got stranded in the central Rehavia neighborhood, after making a wrong turn. It was after dark, and she started to panic because the neighborhood was completely deserted: no residents, no corner stores, and no restaurants. Just empty luxury apartments.

Besides the eerie quiet, the most painful result of this trend has been a sharp increase in rental and housing costs. The price of an apartment in Jerusalem has doubled in some cases in just a few years, and renting an apartment in central Jerusalem is nearly impossible because demand is so high. Those of us who have succeeded in finding a place live in relatively poor conditions. Landlords don’t paint, fix minor to moderate problems because they know there are 20 people behind us ready to take our place, who won’t complain about the leaks in the faucets or cracks in the windows. In Tel Aviv, the scenario isn’t much different. That’s the price of living in the city.

As for education, the teachers’ strike in Israel is at once alarming and a ray of hope. Forty-five days and going strong, maybe this strike will be the one that reforms the dilapidated education system once and for all. But probably not. The state will likely raise meager salaries somewhat, and the teachers will strike again next year.

Either way, students have been out of school since mid-October. Parents are annoyed, students are bored, and Israel’s education standards continue to shoot downward, according to international measures.

The state of higher education, too, is bleak. University students and their professors also strike fairly regularly. “Olmert, education is not real estate” is their clever slogan, referring to our prime minister’s favorite – and only – form of investment.

It’s hard for students to pay for higher education, but once they’ve graduated it’s even harder. Teaching positions in academia are rare, and it’s virtually impossible in many fields for a PhD to find a university job because budget cuts limit spaces.

Israel’s graduates, disenfranchised, emigrate in droves in search of ANY opportunity, leaving the country short on intellectual prowess. The lucky ones who do get a position in Israel will end up striking for a good part of the academic year anyway. If brain drain isn’t enough to make a country insecure, I don’t know what is.

When it comes to health, we’re quickly approaching what Canadians call a “two-tiered” system: quality care for the rich only. Human rights groups are fighting the state’s attempts to provide incentives for health funds to operate as for-profit organizations. It plans to introduce a fifth health fund shortly to increase competition.

The result: the sick get sicker, and the poor hope not to get sick. Israel’s most marginalized populations – such as residents of the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev – do not have access to ambulance service and the nearest clinics are not connected to a regular electricity supply. That means they can’t get the medications and proper tests; their health care dates back at least a century.

What’s more is that Israel has one of the world’s most enlightened body of labor law, but enforcement is nearly non-existent. So not only is our pay the pits, most of us are exploited. And despite all the increases in the standard of living, our salaries remain the same.

I’m not the first to say this. Members of Israel’s Labor Party elected Amir Peretz, a former union leader, to lead them on a social platform in 2005. Peretz promised an increase in minimum wage and a plethora of social reforms.

The “social revolution” was quickly shot down in July 2006 by Hizbullah’s Katyusha rockets on the North. During the Second Lebanon War, we were all focused on the welfare of our husbands, brothers, and sons, and that of the residents of the North and the kidnapped soldiers.

When it was over, we realized that nothing had changed. The cost of living was still too high, the education system hadn’t improved, and investigative reporters on TV told us that our hospitals were unprepared for the last war and would be for the next.

Even bomb shelters were not adequate in most towns. Some Arab communities didn’t have any shelters.

The transformation from a welfare state to a free market economy is never easy. The poorest and weakest are inevitably left behind.

But here in Israel we have the Occupation, too.

Most countries don’t earmark a large chuck of their budgets to Occupying: to sending reservists and soldiers to guard groups of caravans on hilltops, to patrol Palestinian homes and markets, and to subsidize businesses and communities solely because they are beyond the Green Line, at the expense of the rest of Israelis.

If the state would funnel a fraction of the funds spent building homes and improving conditions for Israelis living beyond the Green Line on better salaries for teachers or medications, life would be better. Many of us could get by a little easier.

The Occupation coupled with unbridled capitalism has efficiently whittled Israeli society down to a brittle skeleton. We’re a nation of poor, exploited, traumatized, sick, and uneducated people. The “security above all” mantra won’t hold much longer. Something has got to give.

Israel must withdraw from the Territories for the sake of its own citizens, if anything.

Not because there will be peace, but because the Israeli government could do what all states should do: maintain law and order and ensure the welfare of its citizens within its borders.

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