As I sat for an early dinner with my friend the manager of a boutique hotel in Tel Aviv, I wondered why she was so glum. Our last conversation was just before the elections so I was sure that she would be pleased with the unprecedented victory of Yair Lapid. After all, he had trumpeted easing the burden on the middle classes and an equaling of that burden across the board. Israelis were so tired of not being able to afford housing and a decent style of living despite high levels of education and good jobs…”It’s simple, she said: Lapid has betrayed us.”
I hadn’t really kept up with the news and the budget. I was shocked.
“If his ridiculous tax for tourists goes through, it is the end of our hotel. We cater to the middle class tourists. If we add 17% to our prices, the average tourist who stays with us will be pushed away. Even if we are a great hotel destination in Tel Aviv, we have built our reputation on service and affordability. If we are no longer affordable, we will lose our guests and have to close down. It’s as simple as that.” I sheepishly inquired what the profit margin was for the hotel and was astonished to find it so very marginal.
It was only then that I began to to understand that our Diaspora middle class reality is not the same reality lived by the shrinking middle classes in Israel. Theirs is a highly precarious state. It surprised me to know how little it would take for someone as industrious, as creative, as patriotic to go under financially while raising a young family. “And what would I do? I might have to think about going elsewhere. I won’t raise my children in poverty.”
It was also then that I remembered a talk I gave at a synagogue not too long ago on the nature of the sacrifices Israelis make on all sorts of levels.
We, in the Diaspora, often have idealistic and romantic versions of Israel. After all, when most of us visit, we do so on guided tours and see the incredible beauty, the intensity of life, the ability to live Jewishly without recrimination, the remarkable combination of the ultra-modern and the ancient. We see a diverse people who have created and sustained a thriving Western democracy, the “start-up nation”, a country whose army is vaunted, whose values we can appreciate and admire.
What we don’t often see is the true cost of living in Israel. The constant stresses.
We hear about protests when the price of cottage cheese increases. We hear about well educated young people not being able to afford decent housing…but it is really hard for those of us living on a tight but manageable middle class budget to imagine. What’s worse, we rarely, if ever, add the cost of living to the sacrifices that all Israelis make for the sake of the Jewish homeland, of the protection of the land that we all call ours. Do we think about the psychological stresses of raising children who will go into the army? Or the anguish of parents whose children are in combat units or in the reserves? Or of grandparents who have been through it all and now will do it all over again when their grandchildren come of age? This is something I can appreciate, having had a son in an IDF combat unit. But even with my experience, I can never fully appreciate the silent and ever-present scream in the pit of the stomach of every Israeli whose child will serve. Do we in the Diaspora add this to the economic stress of the middle class who are struggling to hang on to their gains but see themselves backsliding into the working poor? Or to the pain of knowing that despite the extraordinary joie de vivre of Israelis, the strength and solidarity of purpose they live, that the fear and pain of loss of a child coupled with the fear of losing one’s economic foothold can simply be too much?
We are all wonderful armchair analysts. Some of us still talk about Samaria and Judea as ours. After all, we gave back Gaza and what did it get for us? Others among us support giving up the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We have the luxury of speculating about what is right and wrong with policies and governments. We are polarized over the issues of land for peace, peace negotiations, etc. So we were taken aback when in the weeks leading to the elections in Israel peace was off the radar in some political circles. We are surprised with the outcome giving a Yair Lapid such power, considering that this election was his first foray into politics. We, in fact, simply didn’t understand what is at stake in Israel and what the election said about Israeli society.
As I left Israel last week, I left the complex land I would like to call home one day somewhat saddened and worried for my friends. We need Israel and Israel needs us – not only in times of war or in times of peace. Always.