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An Israeli spring?

Miri Weingarten asks if Israel’s surge of social activism heralds a new dawn

November 28, 2011
15 min read

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.

Roots of the movement

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.

Rich and poor

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 protests and the Palestinians

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.

Positive potential

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 facts

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.

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