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Ben-Gurion University
[BGU Sociology & Political Science] Uri Ram, Dani Filc and the Gini Index Sleight of Hand

      

Professors Uri Ram & Dani Filc


Editorial Note:
 
The Gini Index Sleight of Hand

Uri Ram and Dani Filc, two neo-Marxist academics from Ben Gurion University seem to be truly disappointed that the mass protest of last year died down. This is understandable; Ram, Filc and their cohorts in social science all over Israel were persuaded that a socialist revolution is just around the corner.   Ideologues, whether left or right filter all events through their core beliefs.  It is regrettable but not surprising to find ideology masquerading as social science so prevalent at Ben Gurion University.
 
On the same note, Ram, Filc and their ideological colleagues use the Gini Index to prove the inequalities in Israel.  What they fail to disclose it the fact that the Index is skewed because of two large demographics;  the ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Israeli Arabs.  If they are really concerned with leveling the field, they should discuss this issue.
Finally, Ram who wrote a book about globalization some years ago, should know that Israel is not an island, and that the middle class is much worse in Greece, Spain, and other EU countries.  Remarkably, Israel was spared the worse of the global economic crisis that has hammered middle classes everywhere because of the market reforms and the economic policies of the government. 
 Maybe the protesters of last year know something that the professors do not; things are not great in Israel but they can be worse.  
 
  


[File:The social protest in Israel (6); January 8, 2012]
The Rise and (so far) Demise of Social Protest in Israel
Uri Ram & Dani Filc 1

A wave of social protest swept in Israel in the summer of 2011. It erupted on July 14th
– the most symbolic date one could have chosen for an explosion of a popular protest; 
the same day in which in 1789 French masses stormed the Bastille and heralded the 
turn on the "third class", the "commoners", into the "people". The events in Israel 
were dramatic indeed, yet not on a par with the French Revolution, perhaps more so 
on a par with the students revolts of 1968. Droves of protest tent-encampments spread 
out in the country and hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of
Tel Aviv and other cities Saturday after Saturday, between mid-June until the end of 
August, and demonstrated and shouted with great determination "the people demand 
social justice" ("ha-am doresh zedek hevrati"). It is without precedent in Israel that 
such large number of people takes into the street to protest; it is even rarer that such a 
turnout is related to social issues; and it is no less surprising that the media provides 
such an event a totally enthusiastic cover in front pages and prime-time broadcasts. In 
short, in the summer of 2011 Israel experienced a social event that has no precedence 
its history. 
The immediate trigger for this protest was the swelling prices of housing. The prices 
of apartments had been soaring and one upshot of it was greater pressure on the (very 
small) renting market, especially in Tel Aviv. In the decade between 1999 and 2009, 
the share of young families who own an apartment fell from 51% to 43%, and the rate 
of rent for this category soared in 16%.1F 1 Daphni Leef and Stav Shafir – the women 
who would turn to be "face" and "voice" of the protest – are students from Tel Aviv 
who initiated the placement of the first protest tents in Rothschild Boulevard, when 
they realized that they cannot afford the rent anymore. Before long the Boulevard was 
filled with hundreds of tents, and in the whole country protest encampments were set 
up with approximately 2500 tents. 2

The upsurge of the protest came after a period of local incubation, in which 
consumers mounted protests against retail chains because of high food prices, and 
concerned citizens campaigned in several cases against the "tycoons" – the 
contemporary "robber barons" of Israel. The upsurge of the protest also came 

                                                          
1 Uri Ram is a Professor of Sociology at Ben Gurion University of the Negev; Dani Filc is a Professor 
of Political Science at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. 
The authors Uri Ram and Dani Filc reserve full rights for publication of this article in any language 
other than German.
 

 simultaneously with a global wave of protests that took place in U.S.A., Latin 
America and Europe, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and shortly after the 
storming of Arab authoritarian and corrupt regimes in North Africa and the Middle 
East. The intersection between the local dynamics and the global atmosphere ignited 
the vital – but hardly organized and evidently unstable – movement of protest in 
Israel.    

Israel had been founded and formed by socialist parties (the Labour Movement) in the 
pre-state era (the 1920s to 1948), and was dominated for long time by a centralized 
developmental state, that operated a strong "visible hand" in planning and directing 
the economy (1948-1977). In 1977 a right-wing coalition came to power, composed 
of nationalist and liberal parties (the Likud), and since the mid-1980s it had gone 
through an intensive transition to a neo-liberal regime, post-industrial structure and 
populist politics.

3

This resulted in growing and eye-pocking inequality, in growing 
squeeze on the middle classes, and in growing impoverishment of Israel's poor. The 
data is astonishing: 20 business groups, mostly controlled by families, own half of 
Israel's financial market; 4 with an inequality Gini index of 0.378, Israel is but second 
to the US in the developed world in its social gaps; 5 and the rate of poverty in Israel is 
21%, compared to an average of 11% in the OECD countries. 6

These social failures look even worse, considering that Israel is highly placed on the 
world ladder of income per capita, which stands on $28,800, which is 84% that of the 
OECD average and 62% that of the American GDP;7F 7 and taking into account the fact 
that Israel was relatively unaffected by the crisis that begun in 2008. 
The protest of 2011 was the first spike stuck in the wheels of the neo-liberal 
transformation, that rolled uninterruptedly for some 25 years and fashioned a non
contested hegemony of the American model of capitalism. Yet, in September the tent 
encampments and mass demonstrations terminated. It was expected that the "street 
phase" of the protest will exhaust itself with the approaching of high holidays, the 
winter and the return of students to the universities. Nevertheless the sudden fading of 
the social protest to the pre-summer level was as astonishing as had been its very 
outbreak just two and a half months before that. Whether the protest signals a change 
of course of the neo-liberal regime, or just  a momentary interlude in it, is yet to be 
seen. 
2
The protest was initiated spontaneously, and had been led throughout its summer peak 
period by a group of young academics, of the ages 20 to 35, students and employees 
in communication, media and journalism or with associated skills, who live and work 
in the old-gentrified districts of the city of Tel Aviv, the hub of Israel's secular culture, 
youth entertainment and business headquarters. Two organized movements that joined
the protest and mobilized many participants, were the Students National Association
(headed by Itzik Shmueli) and the "Dror Israel", a movement that uplifts the 
pioneering and social values of the bygone historical Labour Movement. These three 
core groups of the protest are affiliated with what is roughly described as the "middle 
class", and the protest was identified by and large as representing this class.
Nevertheless, as the protest amplified it was joined by masses from peripheral zones 
in Israel (especially in the north and south of the country), and by a significant 
number of people who belong to the "lower classes". 

The umbrella identity for all these groups became that of the "people", and in the 
explicit discourse it was emphasized that the protest represents "all the people", with 
no distinctions. This self-portrayal of the movement as the movement of the people is 
an important novelty in Israel, where the common identity is usually marked by the 
"nation" in its ethno-nationalist sense (the Jewish nation; or the Palestinian nation 
etc.). It is the first time in the public discourse that to such an extent the term "people" 
acquired such an inclusive trans-national and trans-ethnic sense. The support of the 
protest was really the widest possible, and reached at its peak some 88% of the 
population. 

With that, the protest was still coached within the confines of the dominant Zionist 
national ideology. This was expressed above all in the republican discourse of the 
protest, based on the logic of: "we serve the state (through military service and 
taxation) and it owes us in return social services". Such position of "her majesty's 
opposition" was nicely symbolized by a national white and blue flag covering a wall 
building in the boulevard, only dotted with tears, as well as by major speeches of 
protest leaders who praised the "new Israelis" as inheritors of the Zionist founders of 
the nation. 

Playing the "new Israelis" card was inclusive in some sense, yet it also left out some 
social sectors, or gave them an excuse to stay out. And so it came to be that not all of 
the people joined "the people" of the protest, or even supported the protest. Some 
public opinion polls that were taken at the time of the protest show that the support of 
it was conspicuously divided politically, between Left and Right respondents, as well 
as between secular and religious respondents. Left and secular respondents (who tend 
to be "middle class") were more supportive of the protest than Right and religious 
respondents (who tend to be "lower class"): among voters affiliated with the Labour 
party, 98% supported the protest; among Likud (nationalist) party affiliates the 
support declined to 85%; among the Shas party affiliates (lower class Mizrahi and 
traditionalists) the support declines to 78%;  and among Jewish Home party affiliates 
(middle-class Ashkenazi religious-nationalists) the decline is to 50%. 8

Five sectors of Israeli society either took minor active part in the protest or even 
actually ostracized it: Palestinians citizens of Israel, who felt the protest to be too 
Israeli in the Jewish sense; Jewish immigrants from Russia, who felt the protest to be 
too much Israeli in the "native Israeli" sense; orthodox Jews, who felt the protest to be 
too secular; religious-nationalist Jews who felt the protest to be too leftist, and thus 
prioritizing (potentially) social welfare  over expenses on the Jewish settlement in the
occupied territories; and the main worker’s federation, for which the protest was too 
"yuppie" (and it refused to play second violin to the leaders of the protest). A sixth
and major "sector" that was caught by surprise was the wealthy elite, the high 
bourgeoisie and the industrialists, the reaction of which wavered between caution and 
dismissal. 9
  
Considering this social configuration, one may conclude that the "people" were in the 
main "the middle". In the last twenty-five years the center allied with the upper 
classes and supported neo-liberal policies. Yet, as of recently the middle class found 
itself under distress and unable to afford what it considers the level of services that it 
is entitled to. 10

This social concern has been combined with a political aggravation: 
the repugnance of this sector from the neo-nationalist and ethno-religious stance of 
the ruling coalition, and its frustration from years of government preference of two 
sectors: the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories and the Jewish orthodox 
community. The social distress and the political aggravation are interconnected, 
because, arguably, the state divests huge budgets from welfare inside the "green line" 
to the occupied territories and to the social sectors who settle there. 11

It is on this compound background that in July 14th 2011 parts of the middle classes, especially of 
the young, educated and liberal sections, allied with parts of the weaker and 
peripheral population to conjure the new demands of "the people" for "social justice".

3

The root cause of the protest were, as mentioned, the social consequences of the 
economic turn of Israel towards thorough neo-liberal policies since the 1980s and the 
direction of state resources to the ethno-national sectors. But why was the protest 
fanned through extra-parliamentary channels such as street encampments and mass 
demonstrations, rather than via the articulation of demands through the mechanism of 
political parties? The reason for this was a deep crisis of representation, and a 
consequent widespread feeling of distrust of the political system as a whole.
One of the major features of the protest was that it was declared by its participants as 
"non-political" or "a-political". This was expressed in dodging identification with any 
political party and in avoiding ties with any political figures. The heads of the protest 
were especially careful to deny any leftist inclination (though most of them are 
leftists) or even an anti-government intention, in the face of right-wing accusation that 
the whole protest is about toppling the Netanyahu government. In the particular 
circumstances in Israel, declaring oneself as "a-political" means above all that one 
does not side with any party with regard to the controversy over the future of the 
occupied territories and the relations with the Palestinians. The protesters indeed 
avoided this issue by all means (even though it has a great economic relevance). To 
raise it, would have meant an immediate split in the unity of "the people" which they 
aspired to present. 

Even the demands for deep changes in the social and economic policies were 
implicitly presented as "a-political". It was declared that the political establishment as 
a whole is a problem and that the politicians have betrayed their duty of serving the 
citizens.Such stance is familiar from youth protest also in other western democracies, 
where the populace lost faith in its political representatives. In Israel the level of trust 
in the political parties is the lowest compared to all other institutions, and only about 
quarter of the populations trust the parties and the politicians. 80% of the public place 
parties and politicians are at the top of a corruption ladder. Membership in parties 
declined from about 20% in the 1960s to about 6% in the first decade of the century. 
Voting turn out went down from the height of 85% in the past to only 60% recently. 12

The causes of the crisis of representation are not detached either from the neo-liberal 
turn. The coalescence of all the large parties around the neo-liberal program tended to 
blur their differences and thus make the choice among them less relevant. This effect 
was augmented by the creation of center parties that conjoined past Left and Right
senior figures, thus again questioning the very relevance of choice among the parties.
The parties lost much of their major functioning as mediators between civil publics 
and the state and left the political sphere open to commercial mediatization, on the 
one hand, and to appeals to pre-political communal affiliation, on the other hand. In 
the post-materialist and post-modernist spirit of the last decades, socio-economic 
affairs were deferred to professional specialists and to non-governmental 
organizations. The novelty of the protest was to bring back to the forefront of political 
discourse questions of social justice; yet this could only had been carried through 
"non-political" means and rhetoric. 

The new "non-political politics" was expressed not only in the negative attitude to 
conventional democratic politics (parliament, parties, representation) but also in the 
invention of forms of direct democracy and in the transformation of public spaces into 
places of and for the public. The tent encampments turned overnight into hotspots of a 
new hectic public culture that attracted tens of thousands of visitors from twilight to 
the small hours of the mornings. In every street corner of Rothschild, and in other 
encampments around the country, there were rock bands, artists’ performances, 
circles of discussions, screening of social movies, all kinds of music, dancing and 
praying, eating and drinking. Observers were reminded of the Woodstock concert 
from 1969, that heralded the culture of the 1960s' (during the days the encampments
were largely vacated because of the hot and humid weather, and because people 
continued their everyday lives and regular employment commitment). 

Questions of political representation troubled the protest from within. The initial 
group that started the protest received a huge and positive exposure by the national 
press and media, and became overnight recognized as the "leaders of the protest", or 
the "Rothschild headquarters". But the homogeneous nature of this group, and its 
location in the symbolic and social "center" of the country, could not have passed 
unnoticed by "local leaders" of tent encampments from the country peripheries. The 
relations between center and periphery thus turned into an internal tension within the 6
protest movement, and there were discussions and attempts at the creation of a more 
openly democratic and representative leadership structure. But these moves never 
consolidated and when the protest wave came to its end it did not leave behind any 
operative organ that could have carried it beyond the summer.  

4

The main slogan of the protest was, as mentioned, "the people demand social justice". 
What in fact was meant by that? The protest emerged, as mentioned, spontaneously
and without prior preparation, and led by students and graduates trained in 
communication skills. Except for the feeling of daily economic stress and the sense of 
not being able to make ends meet, they did not really come prepared with a social 
vision, let alone an economic program. In the first two-three weeks the very 
expression of rage against injustice and inequality was a purpose in itself. But with 
the passage of time the pressures grew to define the actual demands of the movement. 
The leadership used an existing document of the Dror movement in order to draft the 
first document of its demands. 
The document opened with an indictment of the government for tens of years of 
policies which increase inequality and decrease social services. A line of issues that 
require a new orientation is enlisted. They include measures to reduce poverty, to 
enlarge the expenses for social services, to make the tax system more progressive, to 
intervene in the housing market for the reduction of prices, to offer free education to 
children from age 3 and so forth. The overall framework is moderately social
democratic and classic Keynesian (no direct challenges to capitalism or globalization 
are mentioned; no deep institutional reforms, only the mentioned proposals for 
improvement). 

The instinctive reaction of the government was to admit that there are social failures, 
but it ascribed them to insufficient level of market competition in Israel. And so, from 
the government's point of view, neo-liberalism was not seen as the problem, but rather 
as the solution. More competitive market became the discoursive framework into 
which the government translated the public challenge. 

There is a well trodden manner by which governments defer public pressures for 
change: they establish a committee. In this case, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided 
upon the establishment of a committee to investigate the demands of the protest and 
consider how the government can meet them – without reopening the already given 
governmental budget. The committee was manned with mainstream professionals, 
close to the government. As its head was nominated Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, an 
economist of the conventional school, though a person of the best intentions. He 
conducted a process of public hearing of social and economic demands, which in
itself was an exemplary democratic event. In his report, which was published in the 
end of September, he adopted the view of the protest as an expression of young
working families of the "middle classes", who make the backbone of Israeli society, 
in military service and in productive work, but are not receiving their fair retribution 
from the government. He listed a long number of policy proposals to redress this 
situation – but without transgressing the neo-liberal framework.  At the end, the 
recommendations were adopted by the government in a declarative gesture, but not 
really implemented. In fact the main effect of the Trachtenberg Committee was, as the 
radical protesters feared, to defer and diffuse the impact of the protest. 13

As a response to the creation of the governmental committee the heads of the protest
felt the need to summon up a committee of experts on their own, which was filled by 
tens of volunteering experts from universities and non-governmental social 
associations, headed by Prof. Aviya Spivak and Prof. Yossi Yona. The process of the 
working of the Spivak-Yona teams was also an exemplary for democratic hearing and 
mobilization of popular experts and intellectuals for the service of social causes. They 
produced a more far reaching program of change, but also in this case there was no 
anti-capitalist radicalism involved, no deep reforms aiming to overcome capitalist 
modes of production, distribution and consumption, but rather a good old common 
sense Keynesianism, i.e., a demand for more state intervention in the economy for the 
attainment of social goals and the reconstitution of the welfare state. 14

5

All in all then, the protest in Israel was indeed a radical event, pulling out to the street 
hundreds of thousands of angry citizens in protest against the economic and social 
inequality and injustice that the neo-liberalism of the last 25 years generated. It was 
the first show of force of its kind, and as such it was very impressive. Yet the protest 
movement had its drawbacks. The major shortcomings of the protest were the 
following: 1. That it did not articulate a legacy of radicalism that can tackle head-on 
the neo-liberal hegemonic project, but rather occupied itself with "solutions to 
problems" attitude; 2. That it did not establish any organizational foundation that 
could have turned the initial energy that it mobilized into an infrastructure for an 
ongoing political social movement; 3. That even when it formulated a more inclusive 
understanding of the people (as demos), ultimately it did not succeed in building a 
cooperative, stable collaboration with the the social and geographical peripheries and 
with the Arab minority (nor did it resolve to tackle the question of the occupied 
territories); and 4.That it was not able to overcome the limitations of the 
individualistic (“consumerist”) approach to social policy, thus failing to address the 
concerns of organized labor.

When the tent encampments were folded and streets demonstrations faded the 
supporters of the protest comforted themselves with the thought that this was just the 
"end of the beginning" of the protest, the end of the first phase of it. But would there 
be a next phase, and what shape would it take, was unclear then, and remains so to the 
days of drafting this essay in the end of December 2011. The promises of the 
government to be responsive and to implement a reform came to naught. This is not 
surprising since Benyamin Netanyahu, the Likud (nationalist party) Prime Minister, is 8
an avowed free-market neo-liberal (or in American terms neo-conservative).  Some 
months after the blow-up of the protest, different forms of social activity may still 
simmer subterraneously, and the heads of the protest are still in search – yet each on
his or her own – for a way to continue the protest in a new  way. Daphne Leef 
declared the initiation of a stocks business group dedicated to social projects; Stav 
Shafir is involved in extra-parliamentary studential politics; Shmueli will most 
probably find his place in one of the political parties of the center. The radical 
democratic organizations and the organizations in the peripheries remain relatively 
small and so far unable to provide an alternative leadership at the national level. 
The question many wonder about these days, is whether and in what manner will the 
protest affect the next national elections, which are due in 2013. But politics in Israel, 
and in the Middle East at large, is so volatile, that any prediction made when drafting 
this text, may not worth the paper it is printed on at the time when it is being read. 
After all, in the morning of July 14th 2011 nobody was aware that an outstanding 
movement of social protest would sprout in that very evening.


Photographs:
"Justice" sign and Daphni Leef: The "face" of the protest. The social protest in Israel, 
2011. Cell phone photograph by Uri Ram.
The major tent encampment; Rothschild Avenue, Tel Aviv. The social protest in 
Israel, 2011. Cell phone photograph by Uri Ram.
The Weeping Flag. Tel Aviv. The social protest in Israel, 2011. Cell phone 
photograph by Uri Ram.1213

Endnotes:                                                          
1 Gottlib, Daniel & Alex Fruman. 2011. Ownership of Apartment and Expenses on Rent by Age Categories, 1999-2009. National Insurance Institute.  
2 Walla News. 2011. Map of the Protest. August 16th. http://news.walla.co.il/?w=/90/1851173
3 Filc, Dani and Uri Ram eds. 2004. The Power of Property: Israeli Society I the Global Age. Hakibbutz HaMeuchad Press & Van Leer Institute. 
Ram, Uri. 2007. The Globalization of Israel: McWorld in Tel Aviv, Jihad in Jerusalem. Routledge.
Filc, Dani. 2010. The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism. Routledge.
4 Kosenko Konstantin (Bank of Israel, research department).  2007. Evolution of Business Groups in Israel: Their Impact at the Level of the Firm and the Economy. Israel economic Review 5(2): 55-93. 
5 Israel. Central Bureau of Statistics. 2010. Report No. 3, p. 119.
6 Israel. Central Bureau of Statistics. 2010. Report No. 3, p. 121.
7 Bank of Israel. 2010. Annual Report. P. 34.
8 Channel 10. Public opinion survey. Published in Y Net News, August 2nd 2011. http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4103617,00.html
9 For critical studies of Israel's social structure and the relations among its sectors see Kimmerling, Baruch. 2001.The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military. University of California Press; and Gershon Shafir & Yoav Peled. 2002. Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship.  Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press. 
10 For critical analysis of social-economic data about Israel see Shlomo Swirski and Etty Konor-Atias. 2011. Israel: A Social Report – 2011. Adva Center. 
http://www.adva.org/default.asp?pageid=1002&itmid=673. For the political economy of the occupation see Swirski, Shlomo. 2005. The Burden of Occupation: The Cost of the Occupation to Israeli Society, Polity and Economy, Adva Center.
11 See Gutwein, Daniel. 2006. "Some comments of the class foundations of the occupation". Monthly  Review (June). http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2006/gutwein160606.html
12 Arian, Asher et al. 2006.The 2006 Israeli Democracy Index. The Israel Democracy Institute. 
13 For the full text of "The Committee for Economic and Social Change" (The Trachtenberg Committee) see http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/1.1484032.
14 For the Spivak-Yona Report see: "Document of Principles for Social Policy – Submitted to the Public by the Spivak-Yona Team". In the official site of the protest: http://j14.org.il/spivak/?p=236%20%D7%9E%D7%A7%D7%95%D7%A8
 
 



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