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Why isn’t the tent protest in Israel covered in the global news?

Is Israel’s tent protest part of the ‘Arab spring’, or closer to the housing protests of 1960’s Britain? How we answer seems to determine whether or not this protest is newsworthy.
Tehila Sasson
2 August 2011

Why isn’t the tent protest in Israel covered in the global news? A quick search in the newspapers around the English speaking world suggests that the tent protest has not even been covered by its biggest newspapers. Why is that?

I was walking yesterday with my friend Carrie in Shoreditch, London, looking for a place to eat dinner, and tried to explain her about the tent protest in Israel.  “You see, it’s some kind of revolution,” I was telling her, “we haven’t had this big of a protest in Israel, maybe since the 1990s.” I was of course referring to the mass protest going on not only in Tel Aviv at the moment but across the entire country, and quoting many of the Hebrew blogs and news items I have read in the past week. In the past week and a half, Israeli society has gone to the streets, to protest against their right for affordable housing and other social rights. We’re talking about thousands of protestors according to online newspapers such as Walla, including about 450 tents in Tel Aviv, 60 in Haifa, and 34 in Jerusalem (see here).

Many of the protestors are young couples in their 30s who argue that unlike previous generations, the generation of the 1980s can barely afford to pay rent, not to mention to buy a house, regardless of how much they work. Some have compared this protest to the ones that took place across the Middle East this past spring, while others are using historical analogies to the mass student protests in Europe of the 1960s. And although the manifesto of the tent protest is completely ambiguous (ambiguity which some argue gives it its strength) it is clear that such a mass and organized gathering hasn’t happened in Israel in a long time.

A good historian of the British Empire, Carrie asked me how this protest relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the occupied territories. If we can think of the tent protest as a protest about the basic right to “a home,” then naturally this protest should have also included discussions about the many Palestinian homes being destroyed by Israeli government in the occupied territories as we speak. However, this issue, which has a far more political character, is of course barely discussed in the current Israeli discourse (or maybe just on its very radical fringes, such as the tent set up last week in Baqa al-Gharbiyye). In fact, many of the bloggers I read have already critiqued the current tent protest because it seems so apolitical.

For me, also immersed in British politics, the tent protest and some of its practices remind me not only of the current UK Uncut movement but also of 1960s social protest in Britain, which was particularly centred around issues of housing shortage. After the Second World War in Britain, housing became a major issue on the political agenda where it remained until 1980. Both Labour and Conservative governments tried to find solutions to the shortage of affordable homes. In the 1960s Family Squatting Associations were formed to take over empty properties while waiting for ‘council housing’, which was housing provided by the government. At the same time, local grassroots organizations such as the Notting Hill Trust tried to provide solutions for this problem by, amongst other things, buying large houses and splitting them into affordable apartment for low-income families.

The most known organization that developed in the 1960s (it still operates today) was Shelter: The National Campaign for the Homeless. Although it inscribed ‘homelessness’ in its title, Shelter was actually an organization that focused on the problem of housing in general, particularly of what they called ‘homeless families.’ By this, they did not mean families who were necessarily roofless but families that could not afford rent, and that were therefore living underpoor conditions. This was before homelessness began to be perceived as a mental and material problem specifically for single persons (particularly men) as occurred in the 1980s. The main target of Shelter, instead, was young families who were living in big cities and could not afford the high cost of living, in an ever more affluent society. They therefore started both conducting research – trying to estimate the size of this problem – and addressing their campaign to the government and the public, in an attempt to educate and inform both. They published reports, helped individual families and educated entire local communities of the housing rights each citizen deserves. Moreover they advocated for a redefinition within the entire social system of what constitute a reasonable “home.”   

Granted, this was a very different situation from what Israeli families are experiencing today in 2011. The majority of the young couples I know living in big cities such as Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem are not sharing an apartment with 3 other families, such as in 1960s Britain. Furthermore, those who do rent apartment in these cities have indoor toilets, an issue which was central to Shelter’s 1960s campaigns. Yes, standards of living have improved greatly since the 1960s. Furthermore, Israel is a much more recent state and therefore does not have the same Victorian housing that Britons had to live in. But the idea of home as a right belonging to each citizen, and particularly to young white families in a relatively affluent society, still remains at the centre of both. (And this comparison, important to note, does not even include the 1980s when a discourse about the right to home ownership developed). 

One way to think about it is to look at who is excluded from both the 1960s British discourse and the contemporary Israeli one. That is, if this is a discourse around a home, we should look at who counts as deserving of a home and who does not. In the post-war period in Britain, and especially in the 1960s, Commonwealth immigrants were often excluded from the social movement for housing rights discussions. This was not because these immigrants lacked housing problems. In fact many immigrants experienced housing difficulties and suffered from the housing shortage, not only because of financial hardship but also because they were denied council housing or because private landlords did not want to let them rent their property. And yet representations of ethnic minorities were never at the centre of this social outcry against the British welfare state. At the heart of the 1960s protest was the symbol of white, working class Cathy, not her West Indies equivalent. Although some groups such as Shelter tried to assist and solve the housing difficulties of recent immigrants, the fact remained that within a very lively discussions about Labour’s failure to find a solution for housing and the result of what they called “homeless families,” the hardship of recent immigrants was barely discussed by the public.

Similarly, in Israel of 2011 the protest focuses on young, Jewish (mostly Ashkenazi) citizens and not on any of the other ethnic minorities. The tent movement – which I fully support and respect – can only exist through a clear demarcation of who is part of the imaginary whole and who is not; who deserves housing from the state and who doesn’t; who is part of the national home and who isn’t. And we don’t even have to go to the occupied territories for that. In other words, in both cases this is a protest about a right for citizens and not a universal right to a home. Even within the so-called “social agenda” there are many who are excluded.

One very clear example of this is the tents built in south Tel Aviv in Levinsky. Although the authorities have supported tents in the centre of the city, in Rothschild Boulevard, the heart and soul of the 1980s pretty Ashkenazy community of lovely Tel Aviv, it dismantled the tents of south Tel Aviv, under the pretence that the protesters invited “Sudani refugees and junkies” (note the link). I am of course not the first or even second to notice this, but it is still maybe worth saying again, that although the imagery that the Israeli protest uses clearly refers to refugees (by making it centred around tents) it excludes the current refugees as ones who do not share the right to a home.

To put it somewhat differently, in both 1960s Britain and 2011 Israel, the protestors say - the state should provide us with housing - but they also still wish to maintain a very specific interpretation of ‘us’ in that demand. Perhaps this is why, in terms of global news, this protest has yet to be covered – after all there is nothing new about the social exclusions of Israeli discourse. To me, as a white (though non-Ashkanazi) Israeli, it is a very appropriate, exciting and moving protest. But maybe that’s why, for Carrie and others, this just isn’t ‘news’.

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