It is an old cliché that for journalists history is what happened the day before yesterday. Ancient history is what happened last week. No better example of this axiom can be found than in today’s New York Times story about various protests going on in Israel. The conceit of Ethan Bronner’s feature is that the wave of protest movements that spread across the Arab world this year has had some influence on the Jewish state. According to Bronner, Israelis have been inspired by their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria to demonstrate against their government’s economic policies.
The foolishness and sheer ignorance of the country’s history of protest movements is staggering. Not only is there no analogy or even the faintest connection between Arab efforts to overthrow authoritarian tyrants, the idea Israelis needed Arab inspiration to generate protests against the government of the day is simply absurd.
Anyone who has spent even a small amount of time in Israel can tell you that street demonstrations, protest tents or movements based on dissatisfaction with the status quo is not only not an innovation, it is a staple of the country’s political culture. I can say from personal experience that in my visits to the Knesset or the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem during the past decades, I am hard pressed to remember a time when there weren’t protests of some sort going on. If it wasn’t Ethiopian immigrants wanting the government to bring their relatives left behind to Israel, it was the families of prisoners of war, victims of terror, the elderly or the poor.
While this year’s Knesset dustup over the price of cottage cheese may have been unusual, the notion of protest marches and demonstrations about the economy or unemployment is not. There have been many marches in past years from the Negev and various other places to Jerusalem highlighting economic issues. The only difference today, as Bronner rightly notes, is Israel’s economy is more prosperous than ever, and the economic stewardship of the Netanyahu government is widely perceived as sound.
But the main point here is not to debate the justice of contemporary Israeli economic protests. It is to point out an all too obvious fact about the country the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief seems to have missed. The political culture of Israel is inherently anarchic. Israel is not Prussia. Protests, strikes and all forms of public disagreements there are not exceptional, they are ordinary. The “new consumer protest culture” is merely a variation on one of the country’s oldest themes. Moreover, the notion that a nation in which cynicism about politics and politicians is as deeply ingrained as it is in Israel and where public respect for the rules is so scant has anything to learn from the fledgling Arab attempts to hold their rulers accountable is laughable. While the Times has run many far more damaging and fundamentally misleading articles about Israel, I doubt they’ve ever published a piece as foolish as this one.