Last Saturday, nearly half a million people took to the streets of Israel to protest the country’s increasing economic inequities. Over 5% of the small country’s population flooded Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other towns and cities to rally against low wages, the rising cost of food, housing, transportation and education.
Fueling the mass anger behind these protests is Israel’s ever-increasing social inequality that has handed huge profits to a handful of billionaire “tycoons,” even as millions face social deprivation. It is widely recognized that the policies of the right-wing regime of Benyamin Netanyahu are dictated by the interests and demands of a tiny plutocracy.
In what might be seen as a twist of irony, Jewish workers are struggling with the same issues that prompted this year’s Arab Spring. The Arab Spring protests were the driving force behind the toppling of US-backed regimes, such as Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and now, Gaddafi in Libya.
I know it’s unpopular among progressives to admit to an allegiance to the Israeli people. Without getting into the political minutia of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I will be the first to admit that it is a wildly unjust and arguably inhumane society. In an unjust society, social inequities are rarely limited to a single demographic. Those in power will pretty much do anything to protect their power. In Israel, the powers-that-be don’t care if they stomp on the Palestinian people or fellow Jews. Their job is made all that much easier if they can turn the serfs against each other.
These tactics have been used throughout history. When the top is allowed to hoard a country’s wealth, the bottom is left to fight each other for the scraps. It’s called “divide and conquer.” In Israel, they turn their people against the Palestinians. In the US, they turn us against the Muslims/Mexicans/Gays/African Americans, etc. The faces change, but the game stays the same.
For 30 years, we’ve lived in a country where the rich are getting richer and the rest are getting poorer. We live in a country where the top 1% has more wealth than the bottom 90%. In a political climate where money equals speech, it means that the top 1% is able to control the political agenda, ensuring that their wealth is safe and that our financial security dwindles.
18.5 million American households spend more than half their income in housing, which leaves little for life’s other necessities, like food, transportation, clothing, child care and the ever controversial, health care. When people struggle to meet even life’s most basic needs, they get angry.
For now, the powered elite are enjoying the growing American anger. Through heavily corporate sponsored groups like the Tea Party, they are channeling our anger outward, toward our fellow struggling Americans. They divide us by race. They divide us by sexual orientation. They’ve even tried dividing us by our tastes in coffee. They don’t care why we are divided. They only care that we distract each other while they continue to take, take, take, while telling us that we need to sacrifice more…for the good of the economy. In the meantime, the rich are living large.
There are differences between the US and Israel, or are there? In Israel, the inflation rate is about 3.4%. In the US, it’s about 3.6%. The Israeli unemployment rate is only about 6%, while in the US, we hover at close to 10%. However…in Israel, nearly a quarter of the population lives in abject poverty. In the US, it’s about half that.
In theory, the Israeli minimum wage is about 22 sheqels an hour, or about $6, but many are earning far less. Palestinians often earn less than $20 per day!
In the US, the minimum wage is somewhat higher, at $7.25 an hour, yet employers are increasingly finding ways around the minimum wage laws. Many are forcing employees to become independent contractors. Many pay commission only.
One of the Republican platforms is to do away with minimum wage laws altogether, claiming it would increase employment. Conventional wisdom of supply and demand debunk that claim…companies aren’t going to hire unless they have orders to fill, regardless of minimum wage, however, the myth remains.
Decreasing or eliminating minimum wage will do one thing, though, it will increase poverty. As more Americans enter poverty, while watching our country’s Marie Antoinettes, we will become angrier. An American Spring (Summer, Autumn or Winter) may be inevitable.