These are troubling times in many places around the world. We have all learned new facts in these past months. We now know that Misrata is a city in Libya and that the people in Hama are Sunni Muslims. We know about Gaddafi’s daughter and sons, about the intrigues of the Assad family, about the multi millionaires who benefited from the corruption in Egypt. We know about the politics of Yemen and the relations between French business community and the families of the Tunisian leadership. These exotic places have entered our consciousness and our living rooms whether we live in NYC, London or Tel Aviv (I am also aware that there are additional centers of urban sophistication beyond these cities). Many of us have shaken our heads and talked with great ‘understanding’ of the need for the Arab world to modernize, to begin to embrace democratic institutions. In fact, up until a few weeks ago we thought we were in the period now known as the “Arab Spring” (the exceptions such as unrest in Belorus could possibly be explained away as the result of a similar totalitarian regime).
And then, something happened. In Israel the people decided that change had to come. The Israeli Middle Class used to bearing the burden of an economy which was doing very well thank you, but which also had to carry the burdens of an unequal distribution of services to Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox Jews), settler society and its huge costs to the economy and an Arab population which is largely under employed as well as a gigantic Defense Budget, said “Enough”. And not only said enough, but did something unusual for this part of society, it took to the streets. Initially in the thousands and then the tens of thousands and finally in the hundreds of thousands. If I were to open a shop in Israel right now, I would sell camping equipment. Everyone is out there: the Youth Movements in their blue shirts and red cords, students, young doctors, old age pensioners, Holocaust survivors, people with disabilities, veteran social activists, people who are really homeless and those who wish one day to own a small home of their own, and many more. Huge demonstrations everywhere involving numbers never seen before in Israei society (with the exception of the outpouring of anger after the Sabra and Shatilla massacre carried out by Christian Militia in Lebanon on the Israeli Army’s watch in 1982). And yet, not one shot fired in anger, not one car set alight, not one shop burned to the ground.
Fast forward to London, and now tragically additional parts of England, over the past few days. Unprecedented scenes of mob violence, looting, burning, wanton destruction and violent attacks on people and property generally. 16,000 policemen posted in London in the greatest level of violence since WW II.
And of course the question becomes: Why? Why in Israel when hundreds of thousands of people take to the street with serious grievances with a strong desire to change the social and economic systems does it look like a summer camp? While in the UK it looks a lot like the War of the Worlds?
I will take a chance and suggest an answer: the core question in many societies today is what is the level of social solidarity and singularity of narrative in the society. I believe that in Israel in spite of a serious process of erosion over the past years we still have a central narrative that the vast majority of Israelis buy into and a level of social solidarity which does not allow people to contemplate attacking the society and its symbols in the way they are doing this right now in London as it would feel like self harm. In the UK there is no such social solidarity; there is no such narrative to which people are committed. The country has done little to build a sense of a common purpose to which all are asked to commit themselves. The notion of commitments to a nation has been left behind but people have only the nation state to look to for solutions to the issues they face.
But this is not a pat on the back for Israel. The opposite is true. This is a final warning for those who believe that wealth can continue to move into the pockets of the few. It is a final warning for governments who buy their power with payoffs to small sectors of society who hold them ransom in coalition agreements. It is a final warning that in our neighbourhood we would not survive what the UK is dealing with and will survive. We could not survive the scale of internal unrest coupled with the external threats to our existence. Social solidarity in Israel (which can only exist in a fair and equitable society where the burdens and the profits are shared) is an essential weapon in our defense of the country. The United States could supply us with the most sophisticated weapons systems on this planet, but if we do not know how to care for every part of this society, if we do not understand that every Israeli has the right to share in what we produce and has the right to enjoy our lives in this country, Hackney and Croydon will look like Sunday School picnics (and I do not mean Cheder).