Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Israelis protest over housing. Photo: David Buimovitch
This summer’s extraordinary wave of popular protest in Israel began with a successful consumer boycott protesting at the high price of cottage cheese. It continued with a tent encampment against high housing costs in Tel Aviv that escalated rapidly into mass camps and squatting countrywide. These were accompanied by weekly demonstrations and local protests on a variety of issues; and, in mid-August, a demonstration of hundreds of thousands in Tel Aviv. The demands were for everything from free childcare and better working conditions to an end to privatisation of services – all under the banner of an overarching demand for social justice and a restoration of the welfare state.
The uprising marked an abrupt end to years of apathy, in which citizens’ participation in politics steadily decreased, voting rates sank and, more recently, even typical political argumentative bickering, a hallmark of Israeli social gatherings, petered out.
It is marked by a rare vitality and enthusiasm. Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy, better known for his caustic critique of Israeli policies against Palestinians, has said, ‘From the first large demonstration on July 23, it was marked by an enthusiasm we never witnessed at any other demonstration, perhaps since the birth of the state.’ Israeli journalist and activist Dimi Reider pointed to the dramatic development of solidarity and cooperation among activists from completely disparate spheres of Israeli life.
It is the biggest protest movement in Israel’s history. The only comparable previous mass mobilisation was the ‘protest of 400,000’ organised by Peace Now in Tel Aviv in 1982, in response to Israeli involvement in the massacres of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon.
The comparison seems incongruous today. It would be hard to imagine any such protest on behalf of Palestinians in Israel’s current hard-line climate. Indeed, the protests have determinedly avoided the issue – a precondition for bringing so many out to the streets despite all the attempts of the Israeli government to discredit it.
To understand the roots of the movement and its overwhelming public support, it is necessary to examine Israel’s history.
The state of Israel was dominated in its early years by David Ben-Gurion’s party, Mapai (Workers Party of Eretz Israel), and its trade union, Histadrut. For the first decades of its existence, Israel defined itself as a socialist-leaning, or at least a social welfare state. Residues of its structures still survive today, and it would seem that even younger generations, which never knew the collective and the kibbutz first hand, still believe in its basic premises. In repeat surveys by the University of Haifa in 2008 and 2010 (and largely ignored until this summer), 86 per cent of Israelis said they believed the state should be responsible for basic needs such as minimum income, affordable housing, free healthcare and free schooling from nursery age. In a country with financial policies and inequality indices comparable with those of the US, such figures are striking.
The Mapai government was characterised by discrimination, however, not only against Israel’s Arab minority but also against Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, the Mizrachim, who were sent to remote settings and allocated working-class roles. Menachem Begin, leader of the rival Herut (later Likud) bloc – ultra-nationalist politically and liberal economically – used this exclusion to define Ben Gurion’s party as elitist and racist. In 1977 Mapai’s reign came to an end when Likud won a sweeping victory through the support of the Mizrachim.
Likud has consistently campaigned for a ‘Greater Israel’ and supported the settlements and Jewish supremacist groups, while Mapai (later Labour), originally a founder and supporter of settlements, gradually came to espouse separation and a two‑state solution, based on a partial withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territory. Since the late 1970s, every election campaign has centred not on the socio-economic and political image of Israeli society but on these differing visions of the relationship between Palestinians and Jews.
Israelis have voted, therefore, according to their position on the occupation, not the economy. By the mid-1990s, they could not have voted according to their socio-economic preferences even if they had wanted, because by then there was little to distinguish Likud from Labour. Both parties had relinquished all pretensions to collectivism and, gradually, the idea of the welfare state. From Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister in 1996, a drastic liberalisation of the market ensued and the gaps between rich and poor widened at alarming speed. Labour’s leader at the time, Shimon Peres, fully supported this process.
In 2000 a blow was dealt to Labour’s two-state position by its leader Ehud Barak, who declared at the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada that he had offered Yasser Arafat ‘everything’ and received violence in return. This declaration, although not supported by the facts, was taken at face value and led to a collapse of the Israeli peace movement, a mass defection from the two‑state aspiration (and from Labour itself) and a steady shift toward pessimistic, hard-line nationalist views. From there, it was a short way to the current ultra-nationalist parliament and its distancing from democratic and pluralistic traditions.
Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor has never been wider. Ten Israeli multi-billionaire families control more than 30 per cent of the economy. They do not hide their wealth and rarely give to charity, causing widespread anger. Israel’s richest 10 per cent percent are 14 times richer than the poorest 10 per cent.
Israel’s poor – Arabs, Haredi-orthodox communities, new immigrants and people living in the far north and south – have become much poorer and their access to public services and a basic income is steadily shrinking. Middle-class families have found that even two full-time salaries cannot meet the rising costs of housing, fuel, electricity, transport and basic household products.
The past two years have seen an erosion in social solidarity and aggressive, predatory social and economic competition, leading to an increase in the number of millionaires alongside deepening poverty. This has been accompanied by a marked hardening of nationalist and racist attitudes toward both Palestinian citizens of Israel and liberal Jewish critics of Israeli policies. This is expressed on multiple levels, through draconian legislation, police repression, media incitement and street violence.
The image of Netanyahu epitomises both trends in Israeli society. It is a telling fact that he is supported by Israelis for his unashamedly hawkish stance toward Palestinians, but at the same time heartily loathed as a ‘capitalist pig’. Israelis know that he, more than any other politician, is responsible for the growing inequality. Yet they have continued to support him for his position on the Palestinians because they know that elections and the current party system are irrelevant to their economic problems.
This reality underpins the Israeli social movement that burst forth this summer: the failure of an entire political system to address the needs and aspirations of the majority of its citizens. The polls suggest that the main drivers of this disgruntled mass are the middle classes. The protests directly threaten not just the government but the entire system in Israel. The government is well aware of this and has responded to the protests variously with dismissal, hasty ‘reform’ laws, committees, defamation and sheer panic. It fears that none of these will make much difference, because the street has decided that this is not a matter that can be addressed with the usual remedies, and that neither Likud nor Labour nor any other party of the old order can provide the answer.
The protest movement faces various challenges. It is in danger of co-option by the government, which has set up a committee to ‘deal’ with its demands and is presenting some of its privatisation initiatives as ‘reforms’ implemented in response to the protests. There is a danger that the middle class will be bought off, while the poor and marginalised are ignored. And there is a danger that the protest will just run out of steam as the summer holidays come to an end.
The most serious danger, however, relates to the Palestinians. And it is not just the silent complicity of the movement in the occupation or its failure to tackle racism against Arabs within Israel that are causes for concern. There is also a real danger that the movement could bring about change in this respect for the worse, not better.
Some Arab citizens of Israel have joined the protests, and indeed, as the poorest in Israeli society, they need to. But their concerns are voiced with caution and the leaders of the movement steer shy of being identified with ‘leftists’ (that is, opponents of the occupation and supporters of equal rights for the Arab minority).
Most public references to the settlements in the movement so far have been made by settlers themselves, who have suggested increased construction in the occupied West Bank as a solution to housing shortages. The government, for its part, has approved thousands of new housing units in the settlements since the protests began.
Criticism of the settlements has only been voiced by small parts of the movement – and even then usually with a heavy emphasis on unfair allocation of funds and the burden they impose on the Israeli economy (alongside the gargantuan security budget). The issue of social injustice to the Palestinians themselves is consistently avoided. More radical activists who are committed to justice for Palestinians have been vilified not only by opponents of the movement but also by organisers within the movement itself, who fear the loss of public support if these ideas are voiced.
The majority of the protesters seem to agree with would‑be Labour leader, M K Shelly Yachimovich, who is seen as a supporter of social justice and has addressed the issue publicly. In an interview in August she said that the settlements are not relevant to the struggle for social justice and that linking the two issues would be a mistake. She added that the settlement project is ‘not a sin or a crime’ and that she would welcome settlers to the movement, which she believes provides a ‘unifying language’.
The veteran anti-occupation journalist Amira Hass has referred to Yachimovich’s words as indicative of the movement’s current ‘selective justice’ approach. She pointed to a grave risk represented by ‘social-nationalist’ (not to say national-socialist) tendencies.
Other commentators have also voiced fears that the movement could usher in a blind, nationalist consensus, which aspires to social justice – but for Jews only.
Hass is adamant, though, that the Israeli anti-occupation left should not abandon the movement. If it were an academic exercise, she argues, the left might be justified in taking a purist approach. But it is not. It is a dynamic movement capable of – indeed, representing – change. The role of the left is therefore to contribute its experience and knowledge and to try to affect the final outcome of this still-evolving process.
A key activist put this idea to me more graphically: ‘If we want make a difference in the movement,’ she said, ‘we have to put our hands right into the shit that is there.’ Indeed, any political changes effected by the movement will be first and foremost to its own participants, who are currently in a process of politicisation and radicalisation.
Israeli journalist Dimi Reider argues that a positive potential lies in the fact that the movement is ‘gnawing away … at the principle of separation, of which the occupation is just one exercise’. If he is right, this could lead to a deeper process of political awakening, exposing the hidden power structures and inequalities at the heart of Israeli society, and ultimately opposing all forms of segregation and injustice, including the oppression of Palestinians. The activists – and the public – might then learn to read the occupation outside the ‘security’ and ‘survival’ language imposed on them by state propaganda and nationalist axioms.
The government is keenly aware of this potential and will do all in its power to undermine it. This includes initiating ‘security’-defined events to replace and supersede the protests before they are able to rise to the challenge. A first test of this sort for the movement was the short offensive against Gaza on 18–25 August, following an attack by unknown terrorists from the Sinai on soldiers and civilians in southern Israel. This ended after the killing of several Egyptian soldiers by Israeli forces led to fury in Egypt’s own social movement and popular pressure on its government to send the Israeli ambassador home. Israel’s protests, which faded to a whisper during the offensive, re-awakened promptly afterwards, suggesting that the developments underway are neither transient nor superficial.
A further challenge will be posed by the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood recognition at the UN. The Israeli government has been gearing up for mass action by Palestinians in support of the bid. This not only threatens to overshadow the Israeli protests but also to throw into relief the contradictions between current Israeli approaches to the Palestinians, which have veered sharply towards extreme-nationalist, racist and even fascist tendencies in recent years, and their declared wish for deep systemic change and social justice.
With the movement continuing to mobilise hundreds of thousands of protesters, it has come under attack from many quarters – not only from the right wing, the tycoons and those who benefit from the status quo but also from the Palestine solidarity movement in the occupied territories and overseas.
Palestine solidarity activists have rightly represented the situation in Israel/Palestine as echoing apartheid and other colonial regimes. Palestinians, Israelis and internationals who embarked on a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) in order to force Israeli governments and citizens to change may now be faced with the question of what kind of practical process of change they are seeking. If a potential for change has appeared, would they know how to recognise and influence it? Part of the answer lies in the ability of all activists – Israeli, Palestinian and international – to try to hold open, direct discussions with these agents of change, and to try to influence the direction they are taking.
That could contribute to a new vision of liberation and social justice for both Palestinians and Israelis.
The label: #j14, in Twitter format, means 14 July, the day on which Israel’s uprising began. It is a way of showing that Israeli protesters are emulating the uprisings in Egypt (tagged #Jan25), Bahrain (#Feb14), Syria (#Mar15), Spain (#15M) and so on.
The media star: Daphni Leef, 25, is the woman who pitched the first tent on trendy Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv to protest that she could not afford to rent an apartment in the city. Her action – and her Facebook page – inspired thousands. Within days, hundreds of tents lined the boulevard and dozens of other encampments appeared up and down the country, as well as in less privileged parts of Tel Aviv. Leef came to symbolise the protest, although she has repeatedly denied being its leader. She has come under personal attack from journalists and politicians opposed to the protest movement. In one case an anchor on a TV financial programme challenged her live on air to explain why she had not completed her military service (she has epilepsy).
The gap: The average income of the richest 10 per cent of Israel’s population is about 14 times that of the poorest 10 per cent. Recent years have seen a widening gap between rich and poor, echoing that of the US.
The cost of housing: Between 2005 and 2011, the cost of apartment rents rose by 34 per cent countrywide, and by 49 per cent in the metropolitan region of Gush Dan, including Tel Aviv.
Public support: On 2 August, polls suggested that the protests had the backing of a staggering 98 per cent of Kadima (opposition) supporters and 85 per cent of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, Likud, supporters.
The official demands of the protests (not final): A general shift back from neoliberal policies to a welfare state; an end to privatisation of state-owned enterprises; more resources for affordable public housing and transport; free schooling from an early age; a new taxation system lowering indirect taxes and increasing direct taxation. Demands for equality for Israel’s Arab citizens have been put forward but not officially adopted.
Participating movements (partial list): A movement for affordable and public housing; a movement of doctors and specialist registrars for better working conditions; movements of social workers, psychologists and teachers for better working conditions and for better public mental healthcare and education systems; single-parent families and young couples with children demanding free nursery age schooling; a movement for reduction of prices in dairy products; a movement of farmers opposing imports of dairy products; manpower company employees; trade unions; student unions; Arab rights groups; settlers’ groups (withdrawn in July); human rights groups; peace groups; socialist and radical-leftist groups…
Decision-making: By ‘popular assembly’ in the encampments, inspired by similar assembly committees in Madrid’s May protests.
Committees: In July, Netanyahu appointed Professor Manuel Trajtenberg to head a committee to recommend ways of meeting the demands of the protesters. He undermined his own decision a few days later when he said he could not guarantee he would follow the committee’s recommendations. The protesters established their own committee of 60 experts, chaired by radical leftist Professor Yossi Yonah and divided according to themes such as healthcare, labour and so on.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament