Strikers and demonstrators win some economic relief in Israel

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By Rabbi Dow Marmur

Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz may be right when he claims that the agreement signed on Sunday between his ministry and the labour federation resulting in somewhat improved conditions for contract workers, particularly in the unskilled sector, is due toIsrael’s robust economy. But there’s more to it. The four-day general strike that preceded the agreement may be viewed in a wider context.

Its roots are in the protests of last summer that brought out large crowds against the growing gap between rich and poor in the country. The protesters rightly concluded that the main beneficiaries of Israel’s prosperity were the wealthy while the rest saw very little or nothing of the economic boom.

 The demonstrators maintained that while the country is getting richer, a large proportion of its population is getting poorer. The gap is widening at an alarming rate.

People who were there report that the demonstrators didn’t belong to any one discernable group or political party; it was a spontaneous endeavour across a very wide spectrum. Students were particularly active, but there were many others.

 Another feature of the protests was the way the demonstrators related to each other. By all accounts, it was something of a love-in that brought together people from different backgrounds and occupations. They wanted to show solidarity and to be there for each other, not to hurl abuse at those in power or storm government institutions.

Then came the disappointment. Once the demonstrators went home and their tents were dismantled, things seem to go back to what they had been before. Yes, the government appointed a commission that made some recommendations, but these had very little traction on the ground, perhaps with the exception of the effort to provide day care for very young children so that both parents could go to work.

The strike, on the other hand, suggests that things may be changing at a quicker pace. Because of the agreement, the minimum wage has been raised, albeit modestly, but it’s a promising beginning. And contract workers will now have access to benefits.

Many of those in the know insist that it’s mainly window dressing, but others concede that sweeping social reforms that the country needs are bound to take a long time. It may, therefore, be justified to conclude that what has been achieved this week is a promising, albeit as yet very inadequate, beginning.

Once again Ofer Eini, the Head of the Histadruth Labour Federation, about whom I’ve written before, is in the centre of it. The spontaneous protests of last summer set the scene but it was only organized labour that turned it into something of a drama with a somewhat less tragic outcome than anticipated.

Eini’s critics continue to maintain that all he cared for is to secure his re-election with the added incentive of compensating for having been painfully invisible during the original protests. They may be right on both counts, yet it’s doubtful if without him anything at all would have happened.  

Israel isn’t yet, alas, the Promised Land. Neither a socialist country, which Israel once aspired to be, nor a capitalist one that it has become, ever is. Nevertheless, the effort to keep fewer of its unskilled and unschooled workers in virtual slavery sentenced to build pyramids for the very rich should be acknowledged as a promising start.

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Rabbi Mamur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  Now dividing his time between Canada and Israel, he may be contacted at [email protected]

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