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.

"First they called us 'communists,' then they called us 'fascists,' 'anarchists,' 'radicals,' 'sushi-eaters,' and even 'ugly people,'" protest leader Stav Shaffir said, referring to a series of comments made by members of the Netanyahu government toward the protesters. "After three weeks of seeing the government mocking our demands I'm not really sure we can go into negotiations with them" at the current time.

But if the Likud-led government cannot at least partially mollify the protestors soon, the building pressure on the political coalition may cause it to crack, paving the way for early elections. As the popular columnist Nachum Barnea wrote in Israel's largest newspaper, Yidiot Acharonot, Sunday: "The general sense is that the government is out of touch with the difficulties faced by the average citizen, has failed to provide adequate services and has taken an unjust approach in terms of the division of the burden and the division of privileges. Netanyahu and his ministers won't be able to ignore this outcry. Not because they believe that that outcry is justified, but because it reflects a force that threatens their continued hold on power."

The job for Netanyahu got even harder on Sunday as the Tel Aviv stock market plunged seven percent in response to a global market downturn. While he now says "enormous changes" are coming in the Israeli economy, the prime minister is also insisting that Israel continue to curb overall spending and reduce its debt.

In the meantime, the ranks of the protest movement continue to swell. The crowd in Tel Aviv on Saturday was much more diverse in terms of age and ethnicity than the crowds in the last two demonstrations. And since last week, smaller but significant protests by students, doctors, dairy farmers, retirees, parents, and many others have become a daily occurrence around the country. This adds to the sense that a popular, non-violent revolt against the status quo has been joined by nearly all of secular Israel.

In addition to its sheer size and popularity, the mood of the protest is also far different than others in Israeli history. "Israel has had sad demonstrations, angry demonstrations and demonstrations that radiated a show of force and determination. I don't think Israel has ever had a demonstration of this size that evinced so much happiness, positivity and solidarity," Barnea wrote.

In essence, Tel Aviv is now a potent mix of joie de vivre and political activism. It is a combination that has spontaneously galvanized an entire generation of Israelis and is presenting a forceful challenge to the social and political paradigm that has dominated the Jewish state for the last decade.