Israel's Social Justice Movement Fades Silently Into Political Obscurity

Radical Transformation Gives Way to Modest Reforms

Sea of People: Israelis watch massive protest that drew 450,000 people on Sept. 3. Adjusted for Israel’s population, that’s the equivalent of 18 million Americans.
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Sea of People: Israelis watch massive protest that drew 450,000 people on Sept. 3. Adjusted for Israel’s population, that’s the equivalent of 18 million Americans.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published December 31, 2013, issue of January 10, 2014.
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As threats from Iran, violence in the occupied West Bank and instability in Syria and Egypt dominate public discourse these days, Israel’s once-buoyant movement for social democracy that topped them all just two years ago has, silently, all but vanished.

During the long summer days of 2011, in the tents of Israel’s protest cities, many young idealists believed that they could change their country forever. But developments over the last two months of 2013 have underscored that the future that they saw ahead for the movement was a mirage.

“We definitely thought that we were going to make it — we believed that we were going to bring about a radical change,” said Yossi Yonah, the philosopher who presented the movement’s demands to the government in a high-profile report. “But support for the movement dwindled and evaporated,”

The protest leaders wanted a bolstered public sector and a strengthened welfare state. And, to be sure, the protests had their impact on life in Israel — but not the impact that the young ideologues who led them were calling for. The government response involved far more superficial innovations; primarily, a decrease in cell phone costs, some limited affordable building projects and the elimination of family fees for three-year-olds in kindergarten.

In November, what was perhaps the most trumpeted decision the government announced in response to the discontent of that summer offered, at best, a muddled bottom line that split the poor and the middle class protesters who had marched together: The government, at the urging of Finance Minister Yair Lapid, waived an income tax increase scheduled for 2014 that ranged from 1% to 2% depending on an individual’s income.

This was the opposite of what the protest leaders had in mind. The scheduled tax increase was riling the middle class but had little impact on the working class and the poor, for whom welfare and services, not taxes, are key. After tax credits, poor and working class Israelis pay only minimal amounts in taxes. In a column, the deputy editor of Globes, Israel’s business newspaper, estimated that only 10% of the taxpayers, those making over $5,450 per month, would actually benefit significantly as a result of the cancellation.

Instead, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who rode to power on the wave of public feeling generated by the protests, cancelled the tax increase and thereby eliminated the expected revenue surplus. The scheduled tax increase was riling the middle class but had minimal impact on the poor.


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