The Loud Awakening of Israel's Secular Middle Class

In the largest protests in the country's history, more than 300,000 people demanded economic reform and help from the government


A protest in Tel Aviv with a sign reading "Bibi go home, will pay for fuel." AP.

TEL AVIV--The Israeli people delivered a resounding response to the government Saturday night after a week of attempts by Benjamin Netanyahu's government to contain the growing protest movement here. Between 300,000 and 400,000 people took to the streets under the banner of demanding "social justice," doubling the numbers from the week before and rivaling the largest protests the country has ever seen.

In Tel Aviv alone, around half the city's population turned out in front of the Defense Ministry to listen to speeches from community leaders that span the political spectrum. Proportionally speaking, the numbers that turned out Saturday would be the equivalent of 14 million people protesting in the United States.

What's now clear is that the secular plurality of Israel is seeking to reclaim the political power it has lost in the last decade-plus. It is an "awakening"--a word now common in the protest parlance--of historic proportions that comes after a period of political apathy by secular Israelis. That apathy was attributed by many here to society-wide post-traumatic stress following the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the second Palestinian intifada, the 2006 Lebanon War, the 2008-09 Gaza War, and the resulting desire to escape the grind of daily conflict.

In part, that escapism produced what Israelis refer to as "the Tel Aviv bubble"--a world-class city with a hi-tech corridor that is dedicated to the proposition of enjoying life and ignoring the conflict around it. But it also led to the secular plurality ceding much political power to a group of around 20 exceedingly wealthy families, the ultra-Orthodox, and the West Bank settlers, all of whom were far more politically organized and determined to transform Israel in their image.

Just how much of that power secular Israel can reclaim remains to be seen. On Sunday, Netanyahu announced the formation of a special committee comprised of leaders from the government, business, and academia to look into measures to reduce the burden on the middle class. An emergency session of the Knesset will take place later this week.

Netanyahu himself comes from the ranks of secular Israel that is disenchanted and as a result of that, and the movement's desire to maintain unity, the protest to date remains largely free of explicitly anti-Netanyahu rhetoric. But it is difficult to see how the prime minister will be able to deliver on the chief demands of the movement for three reasons.

First, his government coalition cannot survive without the participation of the religious and settler parties, each of which stands to lose from any reorganization of government priorities.

Second, Netanyahu is a firm believer in neo-classical economics. It was during his tenure as prime minister and treasury minister that most of Israel's market liberalization and privatization was enacted. Redistributing wealth and boosting social programs runs against his beliefs.

Third, the prime minister remains distinctly aloof from the struggle, and has had moments of treating participants of the movement with the disdain he normally reserves for political opponents and foreigners he considers ignorant of Israel's complex realities. Indeed, last week, he derisively referred to the protests as a "populist wave" that threatened to engulf the country, alienating many, including right-wingers who express affinity for the protest causes.

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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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