After the Arab Spring, Israel Gets Its Own Protest Movement

Social justice, not the conflict with Palestinians, has pushed thousands of people into the streets to confront the government

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A sign reads: "The corner of Rothschild and Tahrir." The smaller sign simply says "Revolution." / Rafael D. Frankel

TEL AVIV--Last Saturday night, 150,000 people took to the streets of 12 cities across Israel in the second-largest demonstration in the country's history. But unlike previous mass social movements here, this one ostensibly had nothing to do with matters of war and peace, security policy, and the unending Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather, protesters chanted "the nation demands social justice," "affordable housing now," and "revolution."

When 25-year-old Daphne Leef pitched a tent on historic Rothschild Boulevard in the heart of Tel Aviv two weeks ago, along with a few hundred friends from a Facebook group she formed, she did much more than start the protest against housing prices in Tel Aviv which she intended. She touched on a strong undercurrent in Israeli society that has been brewing for years--the feeling, mainly among the secular majority, that the social compact upon which the Jewish state was founded had been broken.

Israel is a land that for 100 years has been preoccupied with issues of life and death. To build a state here demanded sacrifice from everyone and it was understood that everyone had to share in the many burdens.

But over the last 20 years, rapid market liberalization and privatization, coupled with the high birth rate of ultra-Orthodox citizens (who mostly do not pay taxes and serve in the army) have created a situation where the middle class, mainly secular majority of the country feels that it is carrying a very large, and very unfair load on behalf of everyone else. It is a situation wholly antithetical to the original Israeli ethos and it has struck a nerve.

"There is a small cult of families now that control all the money in the country and they have their friends in the government who help them," said Harel Maidani, 29, who came from two hours away to set up camp on Rothschild Blvd. on the second day of the protest and has not left since. "We are slaves to them now and that is not why we built this state."

Maidani echoes the sentiments of many who have joined the protest movement. For most of its history, Israel was among the countries with the least wealth disparity in the world. Today, the situation is the opposite, as Israel ranks fifth in the developed world in income inequality. And therein lies another dimension of the angst on the Israeli street. When the economy here was truly small, and the threat of the neighboring Arab armies profoundly acute, Israelis were content to struggle together. Now Israel has high economic growth, record-low unemployment and its own version of Silicon Valley. Most of the country sees this prosperity but doesn't feel it--and blames collusion between big business leaders and the government for the difference.

Indeed, if there was a standard profile of the person that began the protest movement, it would be that of someone in their twenties or thirties, who performed his military service, fought in war, went to university, pays some of the highest taxes in the developed world, works in a professional job, and yet still struggles to make ends meet and has no hope of buying an apartment in which to raise a family. What he believes about the two-state solution, Palestinian rights, and the West Bank settlements is beside the point. What is central to his struggle is the price of housing, food, and gasoline, and the feeling that others are getting rich or receiving handouts based on his hard work and creative talents.

That is why the protest movement has spread so quickly, and now encompasses old and young, parents and students, and people from cosmopolitan Tel Aviv and the underprivileged Israeli periphery alike. For the first time in decades, Israelis like Maidani, who voted for the far-right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu in the last election, and Miral Lividinski, a 38-year-old, left-wing director and script-writer, are speaking the same language. "This is about saying goodbye to fear and separation and hello to unity," she said. "It's almost being like one again after a long time apart."

What began as a protest against housing prices has become much broader, assimilating parallel protests into its ranks and gaining the full backing of the histadrut, Israel's most influential labor federation. The movement is seeking no less than a New Deal for Israel; a state based on free-market principles that nevertheless adheres to the basic Israeli compact developed by the parents and grandparents of the protest leadership.

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Rafael D. Frankel is a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University and has written about the Middle East and Southeast Asia for the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune.

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