The Protests

     “I want school books for free!”

     Here in Israel, public attention has been focused in the last month on “social justice” protests in cities across the country, at least until yesterday’s brutal Arab terror attack murdered eight Jews and reminded people of the more existential problems they face. Beginning in Tel Aviv but encompassing protests in every major city and town, university students between semesters have erected tent encampments and made a number of demands of the politicians. So much as I can deduce their demands runs something like this: they want free education, free health care, free housing – and low taxes. I exaggerate only slightly, and the quotation above appeared in a picture in the local newspaper that featured a child protester carrying a sign with those words.

      Apparently these college students’ education did not include economics, for which I happily recommend “Basic Economics” by Professor Thomas Sowell, recently reprinted and too short at 640 pages.

      The protests and protesters are actually multi-faceted, and the establishment does not yet have a handle on the identities of the leaders and their real issues. Obviously, they originate on the far-left of the political spectrum and the protests have successfully, and dramatically, lowered PM Netanyahu’s approval rating down to almost Obama-like numbers. Credible reports have circulated that much of the funding for the protests – tents, food, air-conditioning, rallies, etc. all cost money in the real world – has been provided by the usual European suspects, with their primary goal the weakening of the Israeli government so a new, weaker, more concession-oriented government will take power and restore the good, old days of “land for peace.”

      Undoubtedly, the protests are timed conveniently during school vacation. That, too, is a staple of Israeli life, as every summer also inspires Charedi protests always related either to the discovery of graves on a building site or some violation of Shabbat in official Israel (this year the latter, but the summer is not yet over. Somehow, graves are never discovered when the students are actually learning in Yeshiva. This keeps them busy.) Nor are all the protesters on the same page. Some want unspecified “change” and others want revolution. The Tel Aviv protesters are mainly middle-class, while in other cities the real poor have emerged.       

       But aside from the political dimensions of the protests, and the timing that is contrived, what can we make of their complaints? The media have certainly exaggerated the protest figures – estimates are wildly disparate – but some of the grievances are legitimately grounded if not easily resolved. More troublesome is the persistent demand for “social justice,” one of the staples of the left across the globe.

     “Social justice” sounds meaningful without quite meaning anything. It is indefinable, and has no discernible yardstick by which either problems or solutions can be measured. It does provide full employment for activists and the disgruntled with unassuageable grievances. What is the difference, therefore, between “justice” and “social justice”? David Mamet explains (in his excellent “The Secret Knowledge”) that “justice” is rooted in law and can only be achieved through adherence to law (even though “law” and “justice” are not identical – as any lawyer could report).       Justice means inflicting pain on one party” – “to one of two litigants; to the assaulted who sees the assailant go free or to the family of the convicted, etc.” Someone wins and someone loses – because if the choice did not require adjudication in a court, the parties could have resolved it through good-will and compromise.

      “Justice” recognizes there are disparities between people that will never be reconciled, but that law, properly legislated and fairly enforced, can allow equality of opportunity for similarly-situated individuals. It was the hallmark of the Judeo-Christian ethic that was the foundation of Western society. “Social justice” is its illegitimate offspring, conceived disproportionately (and ironically) by Jews who abandoned Torah and mitzvot –i.e., abandoned the Torah as the basis for their actions and beliefs and embraced something wholly amorphous but nice-sounding.

     “Social justice” is not rooted in law or even justice but in the fantasy that society can achieve absolute equality and fairness through manipulation of government, restrictions on property rights, and redistribution of wealth. It is, in a nutshell, the justice yearned for by socialists. It demands not equality of opportunity but equality of result. (Oddly but not surprisingly, Israel’s Communist party has been resurrected by the recent protests.) Mamet, again: “Social justice…is not merely an oxymoron. It is inherently, the notion that there is a supergovernmental, superlegal responsibility upon the right-thinking to implement their visions.” Unfortunately, it inevitably leads to more government power, less freedom for their citizenry, and most often to dictatorship. (The reason is simple: implementation of “social justice” mandates requires government to confiscate wealth from the productive in order to transfer it to the unproductive. That can only be accomplished through force – through heavy-handed legislation or heavy-handed police action. The only variables are: will the population acquiesce, and if some object, will they be allowed to emigrate with their wealth?)

      Hence, the claims here for “social justice.” Israel has a hybrid economy, but has been liberated from the shackles of its socialist past by embracing – in stages – a free market economy. The transformation has not always been smooth, and some people will always prefer the cradle-to-grave support of government, modest as it is, of the socialist state. (They may prefer it, but it is presently bankrupting Europe.) One obvious change in Israel has been the increase in food prices, with government subsidies either eliminated or reduced on many items. But price supports have always been an element of even free-enterprise systems like in the United States, and adjustments are certainly possible to moderate the cost of food staples (including lowering the VAT that adds 15% to most consumer goods) and gasoline, which is not tied to the market, and hovers around $9 per gallon. That is outrageous.

    Another issue has been the dominance in the Israel economy of slightly more than a dozen families, who control almost all manufacturing and production and curry favor with the government. But the high-tech field especially has been very democratic, and has boosted incomes and job opportunities for many.

      Somehow, the demands for “social justice” have been more preached than practiced. Many Israeli residents of the areas in which protests have occurred have complained to the police about the noise, filth, drugs, and vandalism of some of the “protesters” – all to no avail. The police have said they cannot act – certainly strange in light of their haste and violence against illegal outposts…elsewhere in Israel. These tents, after all, are just as illegal. But that element of “social justice” – to real people with real claims – has not yet filtered down.

      One focal point of the protests here has been the high cost of housing – true per se but somewhat specious in tone. Housing is expensive – in the heart of Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim – but where is it engraved that every college student or graduate must live in the heart of Tel Aviv ? Think Manhattan – or Teaneck, for that matter – and the reality becomes clear. Does government have an obligation to ensure that every person who wants to live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan can get an apartment there? That would be insane. Apartment prices are high there – and in Tel Aviv – because there is great demand and limited availability. So, move to the periphery, work hard, earn money, and then purchase the dream home in North Tel Aviv. (This was suggested to me by an Israeli, who is less than sympathetic to these protesters.)

     Another possibility, and what has made at least part of the political response fascinating to watch, has been the proposal that the housing crunch in Israel be alleviated by lifting the building freeze in Judea and Samaria. Thus, the leftist leaders of the current protests have been nonplussed by the participation of the Council of Judea and Samaria (!) in their Tel Aviv demonstrations. The proposition is so simple, and has left the left flummoxed: land is plentiful in Judea and Samaria, and there are many settlements that are literally 15-20 minutes away from Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim – a short commute. Build in YOSH, and – voila!- the housing shortage is history, and Israeli control over the heartland of Israel strengthened. It is a win-win situation, almost a divine gift in its potential – and a nightmare for the left.

      Thus, most of the student-leaders have ruled out such an arrangement, calling their sincerity into question. Worse, many have insisted that the housing shortage not be resolved by private contractors but rather by government intervention – they don’t want anyone to get “rich” by building housing. They should spend a little more time in school.

     Every city in Europe – and I have visited almost two dozen major cities – is filled with government housing (in America, they became known as the “projects;” need I say more?). All the buildings look alike and are alike. One size fits all. The rooms are small, and so families are small. No one person is accountable for them, so maintenance is sporadic and such housing quickly becomes dilapidated. Modernization is nearly impossible because funding becomes hostage to other government needs. See the Stalinist-era housing (not just in Moscow) in Tel Aviv where this deterioration has set in and it should be clear that no healthy, self-respecting person would choose government housing. The free market has the incentive to build it, sell it – and the private homeowner to maintain it.

      With that, the real housing problem in Israel has been a result of the free market: builders have become focused on building luxury homes for foreigners at prices that maximize their profits and that the average Israel cannot afford. This has also adversely impacted neighborhoods – there are residential neighborhoods in Yerushalayim, for example, where local businesses have closed because the neighborhoods are mainly populated by their foreign residents on the holidays – and the resident population is too small to sustain those stores the rest of the year.

      That particular problem is harder to fix, but the general problem should be easier to resolve by an appropriate use of government resources: incentivize the building of middle-class housing by a partial VAT refund to the consumer, by lowering the tax rate on construction companies, by eliminating or drastically transforming the draconian bureaucracy of the Israel Lands Administration that artificially inflates the cost of housing, and, yes, by opening the vast swaths of Judea and Samaria to settlement. All of the above would drive down the cost of housing and greatly improve the quality of life for the average Israeli.

       Of course, it would not be surprising if the rigid ideology of the leftist protesters trumped the rational solutions of the free market. Those who want everything for free – i.e., at someone else’s expense – would, in an American context, be derided as parasites or bums. Here, where almost all of the protesters served honorably in the IDF, such characterizations would be inappropriate and wrong.

      Nonetheless, something has to give: a society in which too many people have an expectation that government will care for their every need cannot long endure with a happy public. Nothing is free; someone always pays for it. When it comes from government, which, after all, has no money of its own, you and me are paying for it, in the form of confiscatory taxes. Those who want free education, health care, housing, etc. cannot long complain when their tax rate hits 45% at the equivalent of $120,000 per year – and they find that they cannot make ends meet. Nor should they contemplate raising taxes on the rich – too many wealthy Israelis have already taken their money (and themselves) elsewhere.

     What they can do is embrace freedom and liberty, personal responsibility, self-help and less government – and they will find a better quality of life and an even better Israel. Not every problem can be solved (conservatives live in the real world) and even a great country can have intractable problems. But major problems can at least be alleviated by the appropriate and limited use of government and the freedom of entrepreneurs to earn money in creative and productive ways. It must also be done through teaching values, especially self-reliance, that sends young people out of their tents and back to the drawing board to plan their futures and develop their society.

      And, from that perspective, society will be better equipped to care for the truly needy (as opposed to the willful poor who do not work and eschew education that will prepare them for gainful employment), the handicapped, the elderly and the otherwise unfortunate in a way that is consonant with Jewish law and tradition.

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2 responses to “The Protests

  1. David Albalah

    Shabbat Shalom Rabbi and, as always, excellent blog post! David Albalah

  2. “Social Justice” as become this throw away term that means helping… Often times it is justified, but I think we spend a lot of times talking past each other with this term that has all of a sudden taken on a vague meaning.