Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Israel Discovers the Arab Spring (and HA'ARETZ admits it)

The spirit of Cairo’s Tahrir Square has come to Tel Aviv.  Actually, Kevin Connolly is a bit more glib about the matter in his report this morning for BBC News:

The atmosphere is Tahrir Square protests meets Woodstock, meets last-year's-camping holiday in the South of France.

Admittedly, the grassy divide that runs down the middle of Boulevard Rothschild is more than a little evocative of French elegance;  and the photograph accompanying Connolly’s piece at least suggests a certain slouching towards Woodstock.  There have also been efforts to trivialize this protest action by reducing it to a massive complaint over the cost of cottage cheese;  but the price of an Israeli breakfast favorite is merely a symptom of prices rising beyond the grasp of all but the superrich.  As might be suspected, the protestors come from a younger generation that are not part of that economic oligarchy and see only the slimmest of prospects for joining it.

This was enough to attract the attention of Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy, who was bold enough to publicly acknowledge the connection to Tahrir Square.  Here is how Connolly summarized his column on the matter:

Gideon Levy, a columnist on the influential, liberal newspaper, Ha'aretz, argues that the sudden upsurge of Israeli protest is connected to the Arab spring.

He is aware that some outsiders dismiss the Israeli protest movement on the grounds that where Arab revolutionaries were fighting for freedom of speech and the right to vote, Israel's are fighting for cheaper dairy products.

He prefers to speak of a butterfly effect, transmitting the energy of protest from Tunisia to Egypt to Israel.

"The goals are different and the system is different," he told me. "But the conviction is that crowds can count and that people have a choice. I truly believe that Egypt has given us a lesson."

This is fine as far as it goes, but it really does not go far enough.  The lesson has less to do with the gathering of crowds that have an impact and more to do with the shared motivation for gathering.  The first Zionists who settled in what is now Israel came to build themselves a better future at a time when they saw no prospects for any future at all in Europe.  As BBC reporter Lucy Ash recently wrote about relations between young Israelis and young Palestinians, their generation worries about whether or not they have a future and see peace as a necessary precondition for planning a future.  In that respect they are no different from those who gathered in Tahrir Square, at least according to Fareed Zakaria’s analysis on the Time.com Web site.

Connolly’s own account definitely appreciates this perspective:

The protests really are about how hard life has become for ordinary Israelis - the salt-of-the-earth, backbone of the country working and middle class families who work hard, pay their taxes, and uncomplainingly do their national service in the army.

They want to know how they have ended up in a situation where they have Swiss prices and Greek salaries.

And they are suspicious that corrupt politicians and greedy oligarchs bear a share of the blame.

Unfortunately, he does not apply this observation to his interpretation of Levy’s column.

I find it a bit ironic that this story appeared in that “middle time” between the debt ceiling vote in the House and the coming vote in the Senate.  After all, the TEA Party is also an example of a mass gathering inspired by a common motivation.  However, while both Arab and Israeli youth have been motivated by the prospect of not having a future, the TEA Party wants to see a return to the “good old days,” which, presumably, is some synthesis of the days of the Reagan Administration and that President’s aspirations for his own “good old days.”  This is all about ideology;  and, as we have seen, ideology can be manipulated by those same “greedy oligarchs” in ways that come close to disrupting just about every principle of government initially conceived by the Founding Fathers.

Ultimately, then, change is less about motivation and more about manipulation.  Our Congress should be providing a sobering cautionary lesson to both Arabs and Israelis who so crave a future of substance:  Those dim prospects for the future are simply the products of the current generation of rich and mighty.  Unfortunately, almost no individual has the psychological fortitude to give up either wealth or authority, even if such a sacrifice benefits the “greater good.”  History has taught us that manipulation through ideology is the strongest weapon of those who have the power;  and these past few weeks in Washington should have taught us all that this weapon is as effective as ever, even when it leads an entire country to the brink of economic default.  It is enough to make you wonder why such a country should have any “credit rating” (scare quotes intended) at all.

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