Among the Protesters in Israel

The largest demonstration in the country's history prompts questions of what comes next

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An Israeli protester chats to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man near tents pitched on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard as part of a demonstration / Nir Elias / Reuters

This past Saturday night, 450,000 Israelis, representing over six percent of the country's population, took to the streets to demonstrate for social justice in the largest rally in the country's history. This event, known locally as the "March of the Million," was the culmination of weeks of protests throughout the country, with tent cities popping up in every major population center. In the days leading up to the demonstration, one question lingered: could the "Israeli Summer" survive into the Fall?

The summer of 2011 will be remembered as the time when Israelis of all ages and political stripes decided that they had had enough. Enough of rising prices, enough of privatization that has benefited the few at the expense of the many, and enough of the feeling that they were being ignored and abused by their elected officials.

Seven weeks ago, a young woman from Tel Aviv named Daphni Leef failed to find affordable housing. Feeling that she had no other options, she pitched a tent on Tel Aviv's upscale Rothschild Boulevard and started a Facebook page inviting people to join her protest. Then a funny thing happened: first hundreds, then thousands of people began to join her. Rothschild Boulevard rapidly transformed into a large protest community, lined by tents from end to end. Protest marches were held on Saturday nights, and in early August, 300,000 people demonstrated around the country.

The movement was an amalgamation of long-ignored issues and interest groups. Daphni Leef had opened the floodgates: anyone who had any kind of grievance that had been pushed aside over the years in deference to the country's defense and security needs had finally come to the fore. The movement is of people who feel that their government is in the thrall of the rich and powerful and that there is no longer a role for the common person - a far cry from the socialist ethos of Israel's founders. Young people complained about how hard it was to make ends meet even with advanced degrees and often more than one job. Apartment rental rates, which were the catalyst for this movement, have become prohibitively expensive in the center of the country.  The prices of basic goods have skyrocketed as well.

But there was something missing. The leaders took great pains to define theirs as a social protest, not a political one. The traditional ideological battles of right and left as it relates to Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank were downplayed, much to the dismay of many on the left. While this strategy was designed to ensure that the protests attract as wide of a following as possible, it's impossible to talk about social justice in Israel without including the occupation as a subject for discussion. Israel is in desperate need of a change in national priorities. So much of the state's annual budget is allocated to the settlement enterprise, which truly benefits a small minority over the vast majority of the population; the status quo cannot be changed without confronting this fact.

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Brad Rothschild is an independent filmmaker living in New York City. He wrote and produced the feature film, Homeland, and is currently producing a documentary on the efforts to save children within the Buchenwald concentration camp during the Holocaust.

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