Nathalie Rothschild reports from the Tahrir-style tent city in Tel Aviv, where a mish-mash of middle-class grievances is rocking Israeli society.
It started with a boycott of cottage cheese after a steep price hike in that Israeli breakfast staple. A month later, on 14 July, a young Israeli woman pitched a tent on Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv, in protest against rising rents and the lack of affordable housing. Soon, ‘tent cities’ were appearing across Israel. Over the past month, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demonstrate against rising living costs.
The movement has come to be known as J14 (after 14 July). Intent on proving that it isn’t only focused on the pocketbook issues of Israel’s metropolitan middle classes, last weekend J14 called for demonstrations in 18 different parts of Israel. Around 75,000 people turned out. This was far fewer than the 300,000 people who took part in a J14 demo in Tel Aviv the weekend before, but a significant number nonetheless. The sight of mass demonstrations and political discussions (rather than shouting matches) on the streets of Israel is unusual. And for many here it’s an exciting sign that Israelis are finally ditching their alleged apathy and disunity and getting political.
It is not hard to see why the Israeli left would feel energised by these events. In recent years, the Labor party has been reduced to insignificance and the liberal peaceniks have gotten used to seeing the same old faces at their small protests. Now, at last, something bigger seems to be happening. It is also not hard to see the appeal of the protests to many of Israel’s secular middle classes. They pay Scandinavian-level taxes, yet welfare provisions are shrinking – and at the same time, large sections of Israel’s religious population continue to enjoy state subsidies and also get to avoid the military draft. While many Israelis are struggling to make ends meet, the wealthy upper echelons have benefited from cuts in direct taxation. A major target of the tent protesters has been the wealth concentration among ‘the tycoons’, a handful of families who dominate the Israeli economy.
Israel’s economy has largely weathered the global crisis, and the Bank of Israel recently forecast economic growth at 4.8 per cent for this year. Israel’s widely admired hi-tech sector is still growing and unemployment levels are lower than in many other developed countries. At the same time, however, inequality has grown over the past 25 years. Among the 34 OECD nations, Israel has the fifth largest income inequality levels and only Mexico has a higher income poverty rate. One in four Israelis lives below the poverty line.
Perhaps energised by the talk of people power around the world, especially following the Arab Spring, the squeezed Israeli middle classes have decided enough is enough. The tent city in Tel Aviv is like a boulevard of grievances. Teachers, nurses, students, art therapists, single dads, mothers of disabled children, animal-rights campaigners, anti-occupation activists, homeless people: they’re all bringing their plights and complaints to Rothschild Boulevard under the vague slogan ‘The people demand social justice’. The so-called ‘Israeli Summer’ has become a free-for-all.
It is not surprising that a protest movement that started spontaneously and with no clear objective has turned out to be amorphous and all-encompassing. It is awaking all sorts of hopes among people longing for some kind of change. For some, it shows that the Arab Spring has reached Israel. Others believe it signifies a return of true Zionism and some even think it signals the breakdown of barriers between Arabs and Jews in Israel and the beginning of the end of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories.
Since the uprisings kicked off in the Middle East and north Africa, disaffected Western leftists have lazily compared their various so-called fightbacks with the often bloody struggles of Arabs who want regime change and political freedom. This Arab Spring-envy also seems to have affected some Israelis. For instance, the #J14 Twitter hashtag mimics the #J25 one used during the Egyptian uprising; a section of Tel Aviv’s tent city has been nicknamed Tahrir Corner; and demonstrators have been carrying a huge banner saying ‘Egypt is here’ in Hebrew.
These comparisons might seem like a political stretch, but there are some similarities between the Israeli Summer and the Arab Spring. As Daniel Ben-Ami has pointed out, one aspect of the Arab Spring has been the squeeze in living standards for much of the Arab populations. One of the triggers of the Arab revolt (though it wasn’t the fundamental cause) was the growing disparity between expectations and social reality amongst educated young people, often the same section of society that tends to coin Twitter hashtags. It’s a similar situation in Israel.
More pertinently, both the Arab world and Israel have witnessed a serious corrosion of nationally binding ideologies in recent years. As Ben-Ami argues, in the Arab world ‘neither pan-Arabism nor political Islam have the purchase they once did’. And in Israel, regardless of the flag-waving that has been taking place at the J14 protests, the old political project of Zionism has lost its purchase, too.
In recent weeks, some Israelis have claimed that the current protest movement, with its calls for an egalitarian welfare state, signifies the return of the ‘Zionism we almost lost’. In the Israeli daily Haaretz, a well-known political scientist wrote that ‘the ability to maintain social cohesion and a relatively large degree of equality’ were among the ‘most impressive achievements’ of the Israeli state when it was born six decades ago. ‘This combination gave the Labor movement an edge over the Revisionist movement, which grew focused solely on national and diplomatic goals.’ A 21-year-old activist in Tel Aviv echoed this thinking when he told me that he is a Zionist, complaining that ‘the idea [of Zionism] was kidnapped and became something nationalistic rather than a popular movement’. ‘Zionism’s deep, humanistic ideas have been flattened by the nationalistic right’, he said.
The idea that Zionism was hijacked by the right, or that it was snatched from the secular left by religious right-wingers, is an increasingly widespread one. It is a convenient way of avoiding examining and owning up to what really led to the demise of the left in Israel. Rather than being destroyed from the outside, it imploded from within. The Israeli Labor party, which held power for 50 out of 63 years of Israel’s existence, has virtually disintegrated in recent years. The secular Zionist project, spearheaded by European settlers and upheld by the secular Israeli left, has all but been abandoned. Today’s unapologetic Zionists tend to be on the right, but the vanguard of the Zionist nation-building project was once drawn from the European-descended elites. It is their descendants who make up the bulk of the tent-city protesters, yet they are not in the business of reviving a nationalist project and nor are they posing a radical threat to the current order.
On the contrary, the protest leaders have insisted on keeping the movement non-political and non-polemical. They have teamed up with a bunch of ‘social thought teams’, made up of economists and other experts, which are helping to draw up a list of demands and advice for how best to use the state budget to achieve them. The pragmatic rather than ideological nature of the protests, the replacement of Politics with a capital P with small-scale, carefully budgeted ideas, also echoes the Arab Spring, where there has been a similar disdain amongst the more middle-class agitators for ‘old-fashioned politics’. It also suggests that the left-leaning Zionism of old will not be revived by ‘tent city’ anytime soon – where that kind of Zionism was underpinned by ideological beliefs and a political drive, J14 is consciously aplotitical, and even passive, in the way it simply lists practical demands and hands them to the authorities.
There have been some inspiring flashes of unity on the recent demos. Jewish and Arab Israeli activists who set up ‘tent 1948’ on Rothschild Boulevard told me that their presence was initially intended as ‘a protest against the protest’. The name of their tent was a reference to the year when Israel was founded, which Palestinians refer to as al-Nakba, ‘the catastrophe’. Two of the activists said they were not welcomed at first. Fellow protesters told them that, until they arrived, the protest had been ‘clean’, that they wanted it to be for and not against things, and that it should focus on housing and rising living costs rather than Arab-Jewish relations or the occupation. That is, on practical issues rather than complex political matters.
Yet by last weekend, Arab-Jewish solidarity had become a prominent feature of the demonstrations, with Arab speakers taking to the podiums and many protesters waving placards saying ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’. The list of demands presented to prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu includes recognition of Bedouin villages in the south of Israel and the expansion of the municipal borders of Palestinian towns and villages. But the question is: is this unity a powerful political force, or does it reflect that both old-style Zionists and Arab campaigners have watered down their ideological demands, meaning that they can now meet in a middle-ground of making quite small demands for technical change?
J14 is an exciting moment, and it provides at least a semblance of unity to what is a highly fractured society. But despite the large numbers of protesters on the streets, so far it has been a protest led by, and in the interests of, a narrow section of Israeli society. It is understandable that many would choose to stand ‘inside the tent’ at a time like this. But those yearning for a revolution, for the reappearance of a golden era or for full Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, should not invest all their hopes just yet in these not-so-happy campers.