Thursday, December 15, 2011


Social Upheaval in Israel

by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths


Commentor Eli asked…

Can you comment or write on article on these recent events with the hilltop youth Israeli police and IDF? Is Israel sliding toward civil war ch'v or are these minor disturbances that are being sensationalized?

Good question!  It’s hard to get an accurate feel for what’s going on in Israel as every event is picked up an blasted as a sensation world wide.  Is something big happening or is the huge event a few misguided individuals who will now be dealt with by the authorities?

Something big is happening in Israeli society.  Actually, many big cultural things are happening simultaneously…

The left wing, with it’s foundation in “sacrifice for peace”, has been discredited as every sacrifice resulted in less peace.  Israeli PM Sharon’s last great sacrifice for peace, the evacuation of Gaza, resulted in an ongoing low intensity war putting the southern part of Israel under constant enemy fire.  This was ignorable when it was a distant poor town (Sderot), but the enemy fire keeps creeping northward and eastward, reaching now Be’er Sheva and Ashdod regularly.  This doesn’t mean liberal Israelis and peaceniks have disappeared.  Rather, their ability to sway the center has faded.

In the midst of right-left security politics Israel has been suffering from social protests, where the middle class of the future (university students) has taken note of market monopolization resulting in high prices coupled with high taxes means a middle class struggle to stay above water.  They don’t want to struggle the way their parents are while watching the richest get richer while they control complete markets and distribution channels.  (As a recent example it was noted that purchasing Osem products, a major Israeli food company, is much cheaper in London than in Tel Aviv.)

Simultaneously ultra-orthodox religious society in struggling with decreased donations and overseas support for Torah institutions, increasing society pressures to engage in the workplace and army, increased government scrutiny over government funding, and the increasing influence of a secular world with wifi and cell data networks that are becoming impossible to block out.

Again at the same time Israel has encountered a major housing market problem.  Housing prices have increased too much for the average Israeli to dream of home ownership, partially due to the slow rate of land released for development, partially from the results of the building freeze, and partially from the south being a rocket target.

Traditionally there’s been a few outlets that prevented the slow release of land from being a problem.  One is the Shomron (West Bank), where housing prices range from 25-90% lower and offer a relief valve for those who can’t afford to live in more central areas.  The other has been living in outlying areas such as the south.  But in response to U.S. pressure, Israel stopped all building in the Shomron (West Bank) for over a year, and even though it’s “officially” been resumed, enough people and builders were financially hurt by being frozen plus the bureaucracy has not been aggressive in reactivating processes that building is no where near the rate it was prior to the “temporary freeze”.  And people are neither moving to the south nor developing in the south while it’s a rocket target.

With all of this there’s another major societal move happening.  Liberal leftist Israel has had a lock on official institutions, government and media throughout most of Israel’s history.  This is the liberal Israeli ashkenazi power elite.  But through demographics and immigration the balance in Israel has changed, and that change has begun to have radical impact in the last few years…

1. Suddenly high ranking army offices, high ranking police officers and even the head of the Mossad has shown up wearing kippahs (meaning the new people reaching those ranks are religious Jews).

2. Similarly, many are sephardi and some are even Russian immigrants (who have now been in the country for 20 years and are reaching management levels).

3. Several Russian immigrants have reached “rich elite” status, having built major companies and now having the money and influence that goes along with that.

4. Like everywhere else, the “new media” has eroded the power and influence of the traditional media channels.  So while 10 years ago Israel was shutting down Arutz 7 because of too much influence not under control of the system, today they and tens of others have much more influence, as well as separate outlets for every area of societal interest (such as the charedi web sites, publications and stations).

In the midst of all this upheaval, the Shomron (West Bank) has been a whipping boy for the U.S. (a way to blame Israel for the Palestinian’s lack of making any peace moves).  And to balance the interests of liberal Israel and provide a “centrist” coalition, the current government gave power of West Bank management to the left (via Defense Minister Barak) while NOT including any “settler” representation in the government.

Israel’s government and politics style is a winner take all model.  Whoever’s in power controls and does whatever they want, whoever’s out of power has no representation AT ALL. 

The residents of the Shomron (West Bank) rightly feel they’ve taken a beating to provide the government with cover against the desires of the United States, while at the same time the portion of the government that administers their area has also been operating “against them”.  And under the previous Israeli government they took a literal and physical beating. 

But those youth learned something from that.  They learned and believe the system is rigged, playing fair doesn’t work.  They have no representation, the judicial system consistently rules against them (with claims being brought by foreign funded NGO’s, not the government, with the judicial system – which has empowered itself to only appoint itself – then rules the government must enforce), and protesting “the right way” is no longer accepted (since the Olmert government instituted the beating and bloodying of protestors).

By the way, the charedim learned this lesson long ago in Israel, which is why whenever they have an issue they immediately move to semi-violent protest (instead of judicial moves or social marches).  While this has been effective it’s had a long term negative effect of radicalizing charedi activists, removing respect for the authorities and secular rule of law, and now that charedi participation in the government and system has become significant leaves them no easy way to transition to participate in the system.

So the “settler hilltop youth” (who are now in their early 20’s) have learned how to be heard (and not get beaten to a pulp in the process).  Radical actions that shock.  And they definitely are getting attention.

But note, they’re not killing anyone nor even seriously (physically) hurting anyone.  They are protesting in the only avenue that the Israeli government has taught them is open to them. 

This is actually sad and negative.  It’s exactly at this time when Israel is shifting to the right and in a more pragmatic pattern that they’re taking actions empowering the leftists and existing security establishment. 

There is a lot of social and societal upheaval going on in Israel as it rebalances to changing demographics.  Generally this is not happening in a violent or dangerous way.  The hilltop youth would be advised to take advantage of shifting power structures to build new alliances and have new impact rather than causing high profile negative actions that have the potential to turn violent and become international incidents.

(Photo, a video shot from Im Tirzu’s response to being kicked out of an Israeli bank’s charity contents after winning due to a complaint by foreign funded Peace Now.)


  1. Thank you for the insight. Sorry, this really doesn't sound like democracy to me - as an American, I am used to representative democracy. If you have no one to represent you in the system, if it's winner take all and you are on the out, then you have no vested interest in the system. I would riot also. I was shocked to learn that supreme court justices there are appointed by a 9-person committee. Here in the US, that's the House and Senate's job - meaning hundreds of people who represent constituents who can contact them and give their opinion.

  2. The court situation is even worse than that...the court has veto power on the committee members!

  3. It is problematic but not completely as bad as it sounds. In the last 15 years the parties have grown smaller and correspondingly more numerous, which means a larger group of parties is necessary to form a government. So it's more likely that there's some party that is in line with some of your interests.

    But Israel is not a representative democracy.

  4. It's "contest" and it was "Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer issued his *threat* to Bank Leumi and warned that he also would encourage Peace Now members to close their accounts." See Blackmail

  5. Akiva, this is a brilliant sociological analysis. You should found a Charedi Journal of Social and Political Thought! For real.

    Israel's a representative democracy, in the sense that it is run by a body of representatives elected in free multiparty elections. The big differences with the US are 1) US is more regional, so even if you don't like the federal government the local government rules in accordance with the locals' wishes, and 2) Israel has proportional representation, while the US is a winner-take-all two party system. The result is that numerous parties can exist, which makes sense for Israel's uniquely divided society. The realities of coalition-building can mean that even a party that does well in elections and is more or less in line with the overall desires of the electorate can end up without power (as in the case of the settler parties).

    The least democratic aspect of Israel is the Supreme Court, which needs to be reformed so that the legislature has control over appointments (as it does everywhere else). Even popular elections for judges (as in state judges in most of the U.S.) would be much better than the present Israeli system. But Akiva is also very right that semi-violent protests are also very worrying, because the natural response to violence is -- more violence, and authoritarianism.

    The settlers should be advised to take their message across the country, trying to convince people of their ideas peacefully and rationally and cordially. Most radical political activist sects (including small leftist groups in the US like anarchists) go nowhere because they seek conflict and small communities of like-minded people instead of doing outreach, using all kinds of methods to reach out to the public and convince them to join them (politically or religiously).

    As Chabad has long recognized, you convince people with honey, not vinegar -- nice, positive messages, not fire-and-brimstone, violent protests, and halachic/hashkafic extremism.

  6. Thank you very much Akiva , I appreciate the analysis and article!

    A gut Shabbos



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