By Michael Freedman
By Michael Freedman
Exclusive for Shalom Magazine www.ShalomMA.com
It would seem that the now-legendary tent protesters of Rothschild and other boulevards of Tel Aviv claim to represent a broad sweep of Israeli middle class society. But although they count among themselves many economists, strategic consultants and philosophers, they have yet to coalesce around many coherent and practical solutions.
The protesters have now had plenty of time for introspection on what society has become, and what it could be, as a result of individual behavior practiced by ordinary citizens on a daily basis, or that of tycoons, small business owners, state employees or politicians.
Odd as it may seem, perhaps there is a direct link between the cause of the problems being protested, the lack of solutions, and the way people treat each other on a day-to-day basis. This theory by extension leads to a radical socio-economic solution involving those same groups; the state, large and small business, and we the public.
Israelis use the Yiddish word "freier" to define society’s "sucker," for example, the guy who spends a few shekels more than he absolutely needs to on shopping, the girl who didn’t negotiate on her rent, the fool who lets someone else into the traffic instead of shaving four more seconds off his own journey.
It seems that to the many professionals among the protestors, who are qualified accountants and lawyers yet are still unable to do better than just cover their living expenses each month, nobody wants to be the "freier" who retained the best available legal advice when he could have just Googled the answer, got some free help from his brother-in-law, or hired a cheap suit for the odd hour of really necessary work (and still haggled on the price).
Meanwhile, there is a well-reported concentration of wealth, with a handful of families unwilling to let go of their oligopolies, lest they too become "freierim". And yet they may find that an efficient, streamlined business holding 40 percent of a competitive and growing marketplace yields a larger profit for them than do the unwieldy conglomerates they currently have, which control 80 percent of a marketplace half the size.
So the "freier" mentality, cumulatively, clearly has a huge effect on our whole economy, not to mention our values. In a nutshell, we have no real sense of "paying it forward," but instead retain a defensive, survivalistic approach to most daily interactions with each other.
The irony is that as soon as anyone is really in trouble here, and crosses that threshold of not wanting to appear the "freier" by asking for help, everyone gathers round and supports them unconditionally – the cliché of Israelis as "sabras" applies – hard and prickly on the outside, soft and sweet in the middle.
This is the legacy we have hard-wired into us from the pioneers, kibbutzniks and fighters that built and defended our state. They are our parents, grandparents, teachers and guides, and they still live among us.
Somehow then, we have to translate the spirit of the protests, which are ultimately triggered by understandably inward-looking concerns such as paying the rent or affording child-care, into the New Society that Herzl envisaged for us.
How do we, in modern, built-up Tel Aviv, take the wave of unity and passion back from Rothschild to our apartments when this protest finally ends, and use it to become the urban pioneers and kibbutzniks?
How will those fortunate dozen families, who have such wealth and power, be persuaded to step up and become the new Rothschilds and Montefiores that modern Zion needs, to make this transformation and become a part of the solution, and not the problem?
Perhaps there should be a campaign to reclaim the word "freier." As it stands, nobody wants to be one, because they know everyone else will take advantage of them. Such is the nature of a society where for so long it was enough to survive. Now we live in one where people can foresee the possibility to thrive, while the frustration we see on the streets is that some of us clearly are thriving whilst others are left behind.
If we all decided to be the "freier" at once, then we would have a society that started paying things forward, investing in its future, and moving from the mentality of survival to that of thriving.
Asking the government to hand us the solutions on a plate, by forcing a change from on high, so that we can go back to the ordinary lives we led before, is the language of survival; if we are to thrive, we have to change our own behavior and be a part of the solution ourselves.
And of course this brings us full-circle. The protesters sit on Rothschild Boulevard, named after the most famous family of Zionist philanthropic tycoons, opposite Independence Hall, where the State was declared, and in the city that is named after an ancient mound ("tel") and the season of renewal ("aviv"), the poetic translation by Nachum Sokolov of Herzl’s "Old-New Land."
What better place could there be for the beginning of a new social compact between the public, the private sector and the state? In Herzl’s words, if we will it, it is no dream.
Michael Freedman is the Executive Director of Asquith Israel Merchant Bank, which will launch in November, and will invest in Israeli growth businesses. Freedman will be in Boston this week on Sept. 12, as well as elsewhere in the U.S., and is giving a series of talks on the subject of "Beyond the Start-Up Nation" as a precursor to this launch.