This article was jointly written by Dahlia Scheindlin and Joseph Dana, based on our shared experiences of the protests.
The popular, mass protests here that began as a cry of rage against housing prices have evolved admirably into a public outcry against a slew of deep-rooted problems in Israeli social and economic life. Visiting the tent camps early every day, we’ve watched the protest grow from a motley band of wishful Woodstockers at the tip of Rothschild Boulevard two weeks ago, to a sort of mini-metropolis spreading close to the end of the road. There’s a first aid tent courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights, “Settle the Negev and the Galil” tents, ideological discussions, guitar and drum sing-alongs, Kabalat Shabbat, Friday night dinner, outdoor films about revolutionary themes, families with babies, and endlessly creative slogans. There are tents down near the central bus station, in a cat and mouse game with the municipality, which is trying to break up their camp.
Every grievance is coming out: there are slogans against the huge concentration of the country’s wealth into the hands of a very few, slogans raging against enormous economic gaps between rich and poor in Israel, lists of demands for just resource distribution and for various elements of a welfare state, salary hikes and lower costs, better education conditions and health care; against the national housing committees law, against the government, for Tahrir. At 10pm on Friday night, when a song group spontaneously burst into chants of “The people! Want! Social Justice!” one young woman sang out beatifically, “The people! Want! All Sorts of Things!”
Many are saying that this is something new, especially after Saturday night turned into Israel’s largest-ever social protest, as Maariv’s print headline proclaimed. A new language is being developed: silent hand gestures replace Israeli shouting matches. The hyper-fragmented groups in Israel are listening to each other, hammering out common ground to combat shared economic desperation.
Just don’t mention Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, or even the neutral local euphemism “medini” [lit: political/diplomatic] issues. Just leave out the institutional inequality most Palestinian citizens of Israel experience here – inequality of other groups is welcome.
I learned this the hard way. After a number of conversations with protesters, including some of its organizers (the protests are actually notably non-cohesive) – it became very clear that one of the top strategic goals is to avoid being branded as “left.” Joseph feels the environment around this topic is so toxic, he has tried to avoid even raising questions about why a ‘social justice revolution’ does not address the inequality of all those living under Israeli control. Even soft questions are met with hard responses from many who passionately demand that the protests be given time, space and compassion to grow inside Israeli society.
In this revolution, strategic thinking says that the current government can delegitimize the protest by making it look like lefties. The whole country will believe the government, because everybody hates the left. Indeed, the Prime Minister tried just this, branding them left-wing rabble rousers in the very first week. He failed – perhaps because of the revolutionary success in focusing on social issues only.
If the protests are labeled “left,” in revolutionary thinking, then ergo they are either – a. a conspiracy to overthrow the current government by opposition parties or groups (which somehow delegitimizes the policy goals), or b. a conspiracy by anti-Israel leftists to tie everything back to the occupation and force this or any government to cave in to the Palestinians. The revolution is too important to be branded.
Anyway, as a young woman in a long skirt and a sweet smile pleaded with me at 1am on Friday night, the Israeli-Palestinian cause is a different struggle. Why do I have to bring it to Rothschild?
Many Israelis, not just right-wingers, deride the left for a reductionist “occupation, occupation, occupation,” approach as if it is the source of all social ills. We believe there are other sources – but that other social ills can never truly be solved without a just resolution of the conflict, whatever it is. Joseph and I agree on this, although we may not agree on what that resolution is.
As a political strategist, I can understand that with such deep divisions, perhaps we need to take baby steps toward an unprecedented effort – driven by citizens, not well-meaning NGOs – to unite where we can agree, before touching on the most sensitive problems.
But the mantra of avoiding “medini” is wearing thin.
On Friday, some protesters hassled other Palestinian protesters, citizens suffering from housing crises. It came to scuffles. The diminutive Palestinian flags they hung were removed. Joseph recalls the struggles against apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow south. Can we imagine the ruling classes there demanding “social justice” without addressing their gravest internal injustices? What does the term “social justice” mean if so many who don’t have it are left out? Sure, let’s protest exorbitant housing costs – but why call it “social justice” if the very crux of social justice, namely equality, is not addressed? Can Israelis have a social justice revolution without speaking about the rights of people they control and occupy?
Later still on Friday night, one of the organizers told me that if I were to raise these kinds of issues, specifically ‘medini’ I would be thrown out of “his circle,” of people or tents. Why? “Because the only war is a class war,” he said, as if he had just recently skimmed the cliff-notes.
“But why shut people’s mouths who do want to talk about this?” I asked. “After all, if everyone is here to speak his/her mind, why is one topic – and such a huge, relevant one – not legitimate?” The answer was a fumbling, “this is a different struggle. You can take that struggle anywhere else.” I believe they are the same struggle, I argued, or at least inextricably linked. It’s not a radical view – heaven help me, former Chief of Staff and now Kadima front-runner Shaul Mofaz made this very same point repeatedly in a Channel 2 television interview minutes before the rally on Saturday.
I tried to explain that they don’t have to agree, but to allow people to make any points they choose. “It it isn’t very democratic not to let people speak,” I retorted, getting frustrated.
“But democracy isn’t our struggle!” was the response.
And this was where I was left momentarily speechless. Here’s what I would have wanted to say:
1. Without a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that determines final borders and full civil, human and national rights for all people between the Jordan and the sea, Israel’s budgetary and resource allocations will always be wildly distorted and harmful. We will forever worship the military and its disciples, and privilege them with the best opportunities, perpetuating social and economic inequalities. We will never feel secure in our Jewish identity as long as the conflict is not settled – therefore, we will forever try to impose it on all, or exclude others however possible – including in housing policy. Once we do this against one group, we can do it against any group. Social and economic priorities will never dominate in national elections because security and defensiveness will reign supreme. The parties most committed to social justice and equality (not coincidentally, these parties are left-wing on conflict-related affairs) are unlikely to win power.
2. Without total freedom of all people in this ‘revolution’ to speak about all possible solutions to social and economic problems, there will be no true opening of minds and a great opportunity will be lost. The revolution will slowly begin to mirror the present, self-censorship will prevail, to be followed by the closing of minds and eventually the closing of democracy. The new language of civilized discourse will be wasted: It’s nice if we can cross our arms silently and respectfully to express disagreement over details of housing policy, on which most of the protestors largely agree. It’s useless if we can’t cross our arms silently and respectfully to talk about the most painful divisions – in that case, we can expect more of the same.
Lately there’s been critique of Israeli boasting its ultra-progressive attitudes towards GLBT rights, to deflect attention from illiberal, non-progressive attitudes towards Palestinians in the West Bank and inside Israel, or away from anti-democratic legislative trends. Some call it “pink-washing.”
We hope the housing and social protests don’t turn into “house-washing.” These protests might come and go and not a single word about the occupation will be officially mentioned. For a ’social justice revolution’ this is tragic or, perhaps, it is just not a social justice revolution.
I suppose it’s a good thing, but these haven’t been fruitful weeks for us military correspondents. Used to ruling the front pages, along with our colleagues on the diplomatic and political beats, we have been pushed to the back by the new “civil agenda.” Newspapers are feeding the public a steady diet of housing protests, with the doctors’ strike on the side. It’s been 15 days since the first tent was pitched on Rothschild Boulevard, and dessert is nowhere in sight.
It might end very soon, when Israelis sink into their customary August stupor. (Perhaps Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will suddenly agree to a prisoner exchange deal for the release of Gilad Shalit, cutting off the tent dwellers’ crucial oxygen supply of media attention. ) But if the wave of protests endures, generating real change in the political landscape, sociologists and political scientists will be arguing for decades over the causes of this sudden awakening of Israel’s middle class.
I think I have isolated the real motive for the outpouring of angst. It is not simply the disparity between income and expenses, nor is it just spiraling housing costs. Overdrafts have always been a way of life in Israel, and the housing market is cyclical. I think the key is in something one of the instant “leaders” of the housing protest said on the radio on Monday: “We deserve the same standard of living as in other Western countries.”
Hold on, I thought, where does it say that in Israel’s Declaration of Independence? I’m under 40, yet I distinctly recall a time when living here implicitly meant being worse off materially than in the United States or Western Europe.
Next month it will be 30 years since my family made aliyah from Britain. Even then I knew that in order to reach that great, intangible Jewish and Zionist fulfillment you had to exchange your large house with a garden for a small, stuffy apartment with thin mattresses and no air-conditioning. When you’re eight you don’t understand salaries and mortgages and tax burdens.
I noticed other things, like having only one, black-and-white television channel, instead of three color stations. I wondered why we couldn’t find smoked salmon for love or money. Instead of having bottles of milk delivered to our door we had to walk to the shop down the street and fish an unwieldy plastic bag from a tub of watery sour milk, checking for holes. Before asking our phone number, we were first asked whether we had a phone. We did, but many Israelis had been waiting for years. These were among the details denoting the dip in the standard of living that was part of moving to Israel, from the “First World,” in 1981.
Even then Israel was not a Third-World country, but few expected a high standard of living. It was almost a matter of pride.
For many of my classmates their first airplane was the one they parachuted from, their first visit to a foreign land made by armored personnel carrier, to Lebanon. Israel was expected to be a world leader in national collective endeavors, such as the army and the greening of the desert. No outing to the northern border or the Jordan Valley was complete without someone saying, “How green our side is, theirs is desolate.”
Some people are nostalgic for those simpler times, when children wanted to be farmers, doctors and engineers, not stockbrokers and fashion models. I’m not. How easy it is to forget today the poverty in almost every neighborhood. Every class had kids who came in the same patched clothing every day, whose parents could not afford to buy them textbooks.
Petty corruption was part of every transaction with officialdom, and it’s not as if cabinet ministers only began taking bribes and raping their secretaries in the 21st century. The difference is that it was rarely investigated. Schoolchildren often dropped out to support their families, or were herded into vocational schools to train for a life of menial labor. Higher education was a minority pursuit. Yes, there was public housing and apartments were more affordable, but so many were in soulless, Soviet-style tenements and “development” shanty towns. Most of these ills still exist, but the scope is much smaller.
In the mid-1990s, just after Israel successfully absorbed one million immigrants from the disintegrating Soviet Union and just before the twin burst bubbles of the Oslo Accords and the first dotcom wave, Israelis suddenly discovered that traveling abroad was as cheap as vacationing in Eilat, and that a new car was a legitimate middle-class purchase. Over the next 15 years Israeli consumerism accelerated to warp speed. Within just a few years, material aspirations and expectations underwent a transformation.
Until recently there were two Jewish ideals. The socialist founders saw Israel as a “model society,” fusing a pseudo-biblical heritage with collectivism. They saw no problem with sacrificing individual comfort for the sake of the new society.
The religious leaders and part of the Revisionist right, in contrast, adopted Bilam’s poisoned blessing of “a nation dwelling unto itself,” which over generations of exile and assimilation came to mean willing isolation from gentile temptations and aspirations.
Despite being on polar extremes ideologically, both camps essentially preached the same thing: self-denial and the greater good, whether as a “light unto the nations” or in a self-imposed ghetto. And while the socialists were the Zionist vanguard for decades and the religious right is now ascendant, the socialists were always a minority. It was the much-maligned, largely nonideological Fourth Aliyah of 1924-1931, with its petit-bourgeois shopkeepers who preferred Tel Aviv to the kibbutzim, who gave the real impetus to the development of the Jewish economy in Palestine. But they never got the credit.
When the kibbutzim went bankrupt, in the 1970s and ’80s, and nearly an entire generation fled to the cities, they were forced to transform themselves into privatized real-estate entities. It turned out that hedonistic Tel Aviv, for all its faults, had been the engine of Israel’s prosperity all along.
The West Bank settlement movement is mainly the preserve of the religious, but the great majority of observant and Haredi Israelis are pursuing the suburban dream, preferably near Tel Aviv.
Since the only subsidized housing built in the past 20 years has been for the ultra-Orthodox or in the settlements, the current protest is overwhelmingly secular. But the religious are part of the middle class today, and share the same concerns. Bialik, the quintessential Tel Avivan, famously wrote that Israel would not be a normal nation until there were Jewish thieves and prostitutes, and he was right. The socialist utopia failed, as will the attempts to theocratize Israel. The only sustainable way to realize the goals of Zionism is to strive for a better quality of life in Zion.