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

Rafaell Aug 3 p.jpeg

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.

Many also hope that it marks the reassertion of political power by the middle class, "tax paying" majority, which has seen successive left and right-leaning governments divert state resources and privileges away from them and toward special interest groups as a result of Israeli coalition politics.

The spontaneous display of unity among the secular majority has become dangerous to the Likud government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is now scrambling to respond, but he is hampered on two fronts. First, the rhetoric of some government members has been dismissive, referring to the protesters as "anarchists" and "radicals." This only fanned the flames of the movement and led to the massive turnout last Saturday night. Second, even if alone he could meet the protesters demands, his governing coalition depends on the votes of the religious and settler parties who benefit from the state's current structure for allocating resources.

For their part, organizers of the protests, who are cutting their teeth as leaders by the hour, acknowledge that Netanyahu may not be able to deliver what they demand. "We have very high demands that are very hard to comply with," said Stav Shaffir, 26, a journalist and graduate student who organized the original Facebook demonstration with Leef. "We want to change the system as a whole."

In targeting the "priorities of the government," however, the movement is toeing a very fine line. Left-wing politicians and commentators are making noise about diverting subsidies, tax breaks, and welfare checks away from settlers and ultra-Orthodox Israelis and redirecting them to those who live within Israel's pre-1967 borders and to the secular majority. Meanwhile, right-wing politicians are calling for increased construction in the West Bank in order to alleviate the housing shortage. If segments of the protesters support either of those causes, the movement may fracture and let Netanyahu off the hook.

To avoid that scenario and maintain the pressure on the government, Shaffir said, the organizers are trying to operate the protest as a big-tent movement which can continue to draw in more people from both the left and right of the Israeli political spectrum. That means making many "compromises" and not touching "controversial issues" like the settlements in order to keep everyone on board.

"To divide the people for so long wasn't an accident, it was a political strategy, because to divide is to control. And we're seeing that now that we're together the government doesn't know what to do," Shaffir said.

For his own part, Netanyahu has formed a committee of ministers and business leaders to devise solutions to the problems of the Israeli middle class. He has also ordered a reduction in the price of gasoline and a reexamination of the Israeli tax code to find where rates can be lowered. Neither are moves that have come close to mollifying the protesters or changing the conversation in the national media.

Just how long Netanyahu can remain in power will likely depend on what happens next. Will an even bigger protest erupt this Saturday night? Will the orthodox, but socially minded Shas party pull out of the governing coalition? Will Shaffir and the other organizers succeed in maintaining political unity? Will the secular right-wing come to believe that the resources Israel pours into the settlements and the religious schools are a raw deal for them as well? Will the coming Palestinian bid for statehood in the United Nations, or another perceived security threat, allow Netanyahu to change the national conversation?

While the country waits on these questions, tent cities continue to mushroom in parks and boulevards around the country. Organizers now say 40 such encampments exist around Israel, including in Arab and Druze villages, and each group is electing leaders to jointly coordinate their demands from the government.

By virtue of the sheer numbers and anger at the status quo, the protest in some ways resembles those of the Arab Spring. In their more honest moments, Israelis like Miral Lividinski, admit that the courage of their Arab neighbors was an "inspiration."

But this is not Cairo or Damascus and violence is highly unlikely. The last two weeks may have shown that the Israeli center is not as apathetic as many politicians made it out to be, but the movement has yet to demonstrate that it can endure the marathon it will likely require in order to achieve even some of its objectives.