TEL AVIV — On any other day, Rothschild
Boulevard is known for its hip restaurants, beautifully renovated
Bauhaus buildings, and the headquarters of Israel's largest banks. Today,
walking down the tent-filled boulevard, one could mistakenly feel as if he or
she has landed in the heart of a Middle Eastern Woodstock festival. Couples
smoke waterpipes as jazz musicians compete with folk bands for their attention,
jugglers play next to political art installations, and people walk by ad-hoc
kitchens that offer free food to all. Yet passers by are called to join
discussion groups addressing the erosion of the Israeli welfare state, and
inside the larger tents talks are given about cartels and corporate
accountability. In this Israeli Hyde Park, a new discourse has been ignited.
Rather than focusing on security and peace, the conversation centers on social justice, with Israelis articulating their aspiration for a state that cares
and provides for all its citizens.
the future they promised us, a future in which we could own a home, give our
children adequate education and have a functioning health system," says Efrat
Melter, a 34-year-old law student who runs a Facebook gender equality group.
"We don't want to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore. When
doing that we are only throwing sand in our eyes, while the government and the
rich are stealing our money and the country's infrastructure." All of
a sudden, middle-class Israelis are refusing to play according to their
prescribed roles. At least for now, for the duration of this protest, the core
issues around which they mobilize are not only the right/left and anti/pro-occupation
fault lines that have divided Israeli society for the past decades. Instead,
they are now fiercely rallying for economic justice. The enemies are no longer
the Palestinians but are instead the "tycoons," Israel's wealthy elite, which is
blamed for corrupting politicians into allowing them to form unofficial cartels that keep salaries low and the cost of living
About a month ago, Daphne Leef, a 25-year-old
Israeli film student who could no longer afford to pay rent for her Tel Aviv
apartment, formed a Facebook page
calling friends and strangers to join her and move into tents on Rothschild
Boulevard. Ten young Israelis, almost all under 30 and with no prior political
experience, joined and became the unofficial leadership of the movement. "On
the first night we were sure that we will be alone," said Roi Noyman, a
27-year-old insurance salesman, who is now the group's spokesman. "The
municipality tried to kick us out, but now they are afraid to touch us because
of the mass support." The 25 tents that housed only 200 protestors on that
first night have since snow-balled into an unprecedented grass roots movement,
with last Saturday night bringing 300,000 Israelis to the streets. That number,
just to put things in perspective, constitutes nearly five percent of Israel's
population and is the equivalent of 15 million Americans taking to the streets.
was founded as a socialist welfare state, and despite shifts towards
capitalism, Israelis expect their government to provide adequate education,
free health care, affordable housing, and help to the disempowered groups. Recent years have seen a wave of privatization
that was coupled with GOP-style economic policies led by Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, which focused on cutting government spending, trimming down
government bureaucracy, and encouraging free market competition with little
government regulation. In parallel, Israelis experienced a steep rise in the
cost of living, with no comparable rise in the Israeli average salary. "It's
hard here. An average apartment costs nearly one million shekel (roughly about
$280,000), and a young couple with a child could never dream of saving the 40
percent cash down payment they would need to buy a home," said Eitan, a
31-year-old cab driver, who is divorced and has a child. "I live with my mother
because I can't afford to live alone. I don't want to leave the country, but it
is impossible to live here."
Israel is a country that is
mostly associated with the violent conflict with the Palestinians. One of the
most astonishing features of the movement taking shape on Israel's streets,
however, is how peaceful it is. In stark opposition to the recent riots in
London, in Israel there is neither violence nor looting, and the protestors aim
to engage with and improve the communities in which they set the tent camps. The
relationship with the police and the municipalities is collaborative, and the
police wives association has officially aligned themselves with the protesters.
Yet a society can neither run away from itself, nor can it avoid its own
divisions. The old fault lines that divided Israel into pro or anti-occupation, and secular versus
religious affiliations are still there. Last week, Baruch Marzel, a notoriously
known extreme settler provocateur, set tents in the Rothschild compound. His
solution to the problem, his said, is a mass settlement in the "empty lands" of
the West Bank. Despite a few minor clashes between anti-occupation anarchist
activists and the extreme settler youth notoriously known for setting up illegal
camps on the West Bank hills, there have not been violent confrontations until
now. Residents of the Rothschild
Boulevard camp have found an interesting way to deal
with the intruders. They have not engaged with the settlers in a quarrel over partisan
politics. Instead, they took a megaphone and loudly announced which of the high
rises around them are under construction and empty, and how many people each
building could house, implying that at least Tel Aviv's housing problem would
be solved on the spot should they be allowed to take over the empty apartments.
Yet, how long the predominately pro-peace Rothschild camp can tolerate the
settlers' t-shirts that state "Tel Aviv is for Jews" and "Sudanese to Sudan"
(referring to African migrant workers who want to stay in Israel instead of
going back to their war stricken impoverished countries), remains to be seen.
For the sake of unity and
strategic leverage, no one in the movement is talking about what they call
"real" politics, namely, the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the
rights of Palestinian-Israelis. Yet, last week, Hagai Matar, a journalist and one of Israel's vocal anti-occupation activists, was
optimistic about the inclusion of these problematic issues in the near future.
"I hope that what we are creating here is a new discourse that will exclude all
those who themselves want to exclude others," he said. "Once the struggle will
become purely economic and socialist, it will erase division lines based on
religion and nationality." At least for now, however, the unfolding of the
events since last week exposed just how challenging taking on this issue could
At the rally last Saturday, an unlikely duo
shared the stage: Rabi Beni Lau, who is an orthodox
Jew and a Zionist; and Odeh Bisharat, an
Israeli-Arab poet and social activist. Lau told the crowds that the people of
Ofra and Beit El, two well-known Jewish settlements in the West Bank, are
carrying as much of the burden as the predominately secular crowd in front of
him does. The crowd was silent, as Lau continued. "Let's not talk in division
and in hatred," he pleaded. "Let's talk with love, and with love we will win." Bisharat
echoed the same sentiment. "The Arab population, who has had its own share of
suffering and fighting, is looking with appreciation on what is going on," Bisharat
told the ecstatic crowd. "We are all in this fight for social justice, for
equality and brotherhood, we are all united." He even spoke of land
disenfranchisement of the Israeli-Palestinians, an extremely sensitive topic in
Israel these days, echoing the Nakba
law that was passed recently, which sanctions institutions that mention the
expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. While Lau and Bisharat shared the same
stage, their speeches express a very basic contradiction. Justice for Ofra and
Beit El, who represent the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and imply
allowing them to stay where they are, means no justice for the Palestinians and
de-facto no Palestine.
This contradicting discourse points to one of the most dividing cleavages in Israel, namely, whether to leave the West Bank and evacuate the settlements in return for
peace with the Palestinians, or stay there for ideological and religious reasons
and continue with the occupation of the
Palestinian territory. The protesters decided not to deal with this issue right
now, but it is an issue they will need to take a stand on if they want to include
all Israelis, both Palestinians and Jews, in the protests and in the social
change they aspire to bring about.
divisions seem to be less important in the tent camps, some of which house both Arabs
and Jews, and who all cannot make ends meet. The Levinsky tent compound in Tel
Aviv, less hip and less happening than the Rothschild camp, is located in the
heart of one of Tel Aviv's poorest neighborhoods. It has the highest concentration
of Israel's temporary foreign workers, some documented and some not. Due to
this high concentration of "illegals," the neighborhood was the
site of attempts by the far-right to organize to incite racist social divisions earlier this year.
These divisions seem to have melted away in the August heat, as the Levinsky
camp recently allied itself with two others in Tel Aviv's poorest
neighborhoods, the joint Jewish-Arab Jaffa camp and with the Hatikva camp.
Together, they call themselves "The Roar of the South." Even more astonishing
is the fact that one of the representatives of the Levinsky compound is a
foreign worker from the Congo, who is now allying with Jewish and Arab Israelis
against economic repression.
roots movement, which its founder Leef defined as "uncontrolled as a camel
without a head," is exposing the myriad of internal contradictions that caused
a country with less than six percent
unemployment and a strong currency to see the collapse of its middle
class. Unlike 25 years ago when Israel was much more of a welfare state, today
the country has one of the highest disparities in equality of the OECD. "This
is only the beginning," says Doron Timor, 29, one of the Levinsky camp's leaders.
"It is a struggle to create a new consciousness, and it is a struggle that will
take a long time. We want to go back and yet again be a welfare state that
takes care of its people."
Prime Minister Netanyahu, the neoliberal
free-market advocate, has refused to meet with the protestors' leadership. Instead
he organized two economic-social committees to deal with the problem. The first
is made up of academics, professionals and government bureaucrats who will investigate
the protesters' demands and report their recommendations in September to the
second committee. There, 17 ministers representing the government's coalition,
which will be led by Yuval Shtainitz, the minister of treasury, will pass on
their own assessments to Netanyahu based on the previous committee's
conclusions. This dual committee, however, has been described in the Israeli
press as an attempt that is "too little and too late," and the protesters'
leadership is pessimistic about it. "There is no one there who is committed to
real social change," they said this week, "and we were not invited to any committee."
Yet, in this process to reinstitute a true welfare state,
something else is happening, which goes beyond providing economic equality. On
the ground and away from the spotlight, a new consciousness of all those
affected by the same economic disparities is being formed. It seems harder and
harder to retain the old separation lines as the economic and the political are
inevitably intermixing, both on stage and in the tent compounds. "It is
impossible to talk about a state that will treat its people equally and fairly
and at the same time use a discourse that speaks to the separation between Israelis and
Palestinians. Yet changing the
consciousness takes time, and I am not sure that we can achieve everything at
this phase of the struggle," said Timor.
protesters will hopefully manage to translate this popular support into
concrete demands that will be addressed by the government, and to this end they
might even need to form new political parties that focus on social issues. Yet,
the most important change in this social movement is the creation of a new
discourse of care and compassion that replaces, at least for now, the old one
of security and defense. To be truly successful, however, the movement
must apply the same universal values of equality of freedom
which it advocates to its relationship with the Palestinian people. In other
words, it is time to stop throwing sand in our eyes. Doing that will not be
easy, and will inevitably bring out the old frictions, but perhaps this is one
of the few rare moments of strength and unity that can change perceptions of
who are the enemies and who are the victims.
Hadas Cohen is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at
the New School
for Social Research in New York.