Israeli Summer

This remarkable movement needs to strengthen its democratic decision-making processes, including marginalized groups in the negotiations, ensuring welfare for the poor, not only for the middle classes.
Naama Nagar
5 August 2011

Winds of change have been blowing in Israel over the past few weeks, as citizens are taking to the streets en-masse to protest "social injustices", including: the housing shortage, high costs of living in general, increasingly low salaries, lack of welfare services, deteriorating conditions of employment and many other topics. The protests are inspired by the Arab Spring, but especially by the Spanish 15-M, and are similarly led by the younger generation and organized using new media. What started as a one-woman initiative grew almost overnight into a massive popular power: last Saturday's multi-site demonstrations were frequented by some 150,000 people, and it is estimated that 80 different tent-camps are spreading across the country, with more and more groups joining it every day: mothers, youth movements, workers from various sectors, non-profit NGOs and more. Yesterday, riding the tide, the Histadrut, the largest trade union in the country also joined the struggle.

My peers, born in the 70s and in the 80s, came of political age to a neoliberal fait accompli: they have fewer chances than their parents did to own an apartment, less employment security, and so on. Now they have had enough, and have articulated a series of demands which include fair and direct employment in the public sectors, a tax reform to alleviate indirect tax and increase direct taxes (i.e. tax the rich more), and so on. Numerous 'consciousness-raising' circles at the tent camps bring together activists, academics, civil society experts and students to discuss economic alternatives. This generation is rediscovering social justice. 

Most domestic press and commentators are in general very supportive of this long-overdue revolt, and their supportive coverage has been instrumental in the movement's growth. Many opinion leaders agree that it is high time the state signed a ‘New Deal’, even if the shape of this deal is more controversial. Not everyone is impressed, however. Faced with some of the more radical claims made by struggle leaders - ("We do not want the replace the government", said one Stav Shafir, 26, on Saturday's demonstration, "We want much more than that... to change the rules of the game.") many observers are still bewildered by their sudden success. Protesters have been called everything from "naive" and "confused" to "haughty" and "irresponsible", but few can dismiss this phenomenon as a mere 'summer camp'. 

PM Netanyahu is on the defensive. While sending his 'social' government ministers to negotiate with the protesters, he is also trying to veer public rage towards the 'Tycoons' - a couple of dozen families who, combined, have a stranglehold over most of the large firms in the Israeli economy, including the media. Mr. Netanyahu's mantra is that "bureaucratization" of administration and "concentration" of capital are the source problems, and he has already seized the moment of crisis to quickly pass legislation that will speed up the selling off of state lands and the sidestepping of public monitoring over the planning process. While under attack, however, the government is stable. According to recent surveys, support for coalition parties is not seriously compromised by the protests, and, at any rate, the Knesset breaks for summer recess this week. 

Many wryly comment that Mr. Netanyahu ‘can't wait’ for September, when Palestinian president Abbas intends to declare independence at the UN. Busy with trying to quiet the current protests, it is unclear what the Israeli PM - or anyone in the government - has in store for that day. But to judge by his dealings with the protesters, he might pull the first rabbit he can conjure out of a hat when confronting that expectant audience, and only then stop to think about it. However, MK Shaul Mofaz has already said that it will be necessary to recruit reserve soldiers in order to deal with the mass protests planned in the West Bank on September 20. Movement leaders sarcastically (and truthfully) respond, that whenever social movements have sprung up in Israeli history, their generals decide to launch a war. At any rate, protesters know that they are working in a very narrow window of opportunity. If they do not make meaningful progress by that date, they risk not only losing attention and relevance, but also political cleavages within the protest movement that might break apart its fragile unity.

For despite the successful formation of a broad centrist consensus around the movement and its goals, the last week has seen this new political platform swept by old divisions: on the one side, dovish groups and spokespersons calling for an end to the occupation and investment in welfare within the Green Line. On the other, extreme-right settler leaders who, in an attempt to sabotage the struggle have decided to 'join' it, and who are calling for more settlements in the occupied territories as a solution to the national housing shortage.

Amidst the fighting Jewish camps, Palestinian citizens of Israel struggle to have their own voice and place. Marginalized within the general protest movement, after two weeks of protest they established "tent 48" on Rothschild boulevard in Tel-Aviv, the official "gallery" and headquarters of the movement, where they have gained visibility and support and managed to incorporate some of their demands (such as recognition for Bedouin villages) into the official list that will be negotiated with the government. 

Many are encouraged by recent developments. Journalist Ofer Shelah has called it a historical break from the "politics of fear", a moment when younger generations no longer agree to their status as mere 'subjects' and demand full citizenship and new national priorities. He is not alone. Many among the 'older' generation hold dear to themselves hopes that the new movement will restore some of the lost solidarity and the responsibility of the state to its people.

Indeed, the protest movement has already won many incredible achievements. For the first time in decades, the political discourse in the country has turned to social and economic rights. The Israeli middle class has finally awoken to see that the welfare state has been hijacked from under its very nose. Mr. Netanyahu regularly boasted on several recent public appearances, that Israeli society is prosperous and strong. This myth is finally shattered. The movement has further succeeded in pushing the Government into a corner where it is now invited to negotiate a New Deal for Israeli society. 

Having gained this remarkable support, now comes the time of greatest challenge for the movement. In the short term, it needs to use public leverage to maximize its achievements, without falling prey to the interests of the government or the Histadrut. It also needs to strengthen the democratic decision-making processes, including marginalized groups in the negotiations, and ensuring welfare for the poor, not only for the middle classes. This is all the more true for Palestinians citizens who are forcibly more and more excluded from the Israeli polity with every passing day. A new Basic Law proposed just yesterday would define Israel as ‘the national homeland of the Jewish people’. If (or when) this law were passed, it would, for example, diminish institutional recognition of Arabic from a formal language to a language with "special status" only.

As Tehila Sasson notes, so far the Israeli J14 refrains from taking a stand on the question of the Israeli occupation. Its leaders and most activists refuse to render it 'political', afraid to stray away from the heart of consensus and lose power, hence their failure to draw a red line when it comes to extreme right agitators. Most of us on the left feel enthusiasm mingled with disappointment. I can only hope that Mr. Shelah is correct, and that this generation continues to break free from the "politics of fear", to dispel more myths about Israel, for example, that it is a 'democracy'.

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