Story by Daniel Estrin, PRI's The World. Listen to audio above for full report.
There’s a new revolt brewing in the Middle East. It’s not about bringing down a dictator, like in Syria or Egypt. It’s about bringing down the cost of living.
In Israel, one young woman, fed up with unaffordable rents in Tel Aviv, started a Facebook page calling on people to pitch tents on a downtown boulevard. That was a couple weeks ago, and now tent camps have popped up throughout Israel. Hundreds of tents line the center island of Rothschild Boulevard. Thousands of Israelis, mostly in their 20s, mill about.
One of the protesters is 28-year-old Tami Ben Tzvi, a fifth-grade teacher. She makes about $1500 a month after taxes. It's not enough, she said. "If I want to become a mother, I can't. I can’t afford myself. It’s a luxury for me."
At an ATM in an upscale part of Tel Aviv, people are overdrawing on their accounts -- taking out more than they actually have. Or Nahson says his salary doesn't cover his cost of living. He makes 4,000 shekels, about $1,160 a month, but his rent is almost 3,000 shekels.
These kinds of economic worries might seem surprising, given Israel's overall economic health. Unemployment has fallen to about 5.8 percent, the lowest level in 25 years. The economy is expected to grow by 6 percent. So why are middle class Israelis feeling the pinch? Economist Daniel Doron said it's low salaries, high prices and steep taxes on consumer goods.
"A car, a simple Toyota, costs what a Cadillac would cost in America," Doron explains. On average, Israelis make half of what middle class American workers make, but prices are double. Part of the reason, he Doron says, is that just about everything is monopolized in Israel. The centralization is rooted in the idealistic spirit upon which Israel was founded.
"The founding fathers of Israel -- David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir -- thought themselves to be socialists," says historian Tom Segev. "The basic belief was the state is responsible for the basic needs of its inhabitants."
The government and the trade union federation used to own nearly everything and there was only a very small private sector. This started to change in the late 1970s. The current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been one of the biggest champions of a free-market economy. But the protests over the past two weeks have forced his government to scramble to offer some quick solutions, including a promise to free up government-owned land for affordable housing.
Protestors say it's not enough. Historian Tom Segev said despite Israel's new economy, these young Israelis expect their government to take care of them.
The housing protest is quickly becoming a catch-all for all kinds of gripes about the cost of living here. On Thursday, thousands of mothers marched with strollers to protest the high costs of raising a family. Doctors marched to Jerusalem and set up tents of their own, to demand higher wages. Israel's federation of trade unions has threatened to stage a general strike.
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