Social protest breaks 'unwritten agreement' of Israel's social order

August 6, 2011
Sarah Benton

The social order shakes: Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf on the Israeli social justice movement

By Alex Kane, Waging Nonviolence

If there was one country thought not to be in danger of catching the contagion of uprisings in the Middle East, it was Israel. Nobody thought much of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement on March 30 that, at a time when “everything is shaking and rocking…the only stable place, the only stable country, is this democracy Israel.”

But a month and a half later, Netanyahu’s statement is laughable. A mass movement has now erupted in Israel, shaking the status quo. What first started as a tent-city protest in Tel Aviv over the high cost of housing has mushroomed into tent cities all over Israel, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators pouring into the streets and disruptions of business-as-usual in the Israeli Knesset. Angry over the high cost of living and the yawning gap between the rich and the poor in Israel, the protestors have called for “social justice” in the form of public housing, rent control and a raise in the minimum wage, among other demands. Stanford University professor Joel Beinin recently wrote that the Israeli protests were a revolt against neoliberalism.

The movement is said to represent the strongest challenge yet to Netanyahu’s government.

Criticism of the movement, though, has been voiced by Palestinians and activists involved in the Palestine solidarity movement. They have pointed to the fact that the social justice movement has stayed silent over the occupation of Palestine and has not connected the dots between Israel’s massive and illegal settlement project in the West Bank and the housing crisis within Israel proper.

To go beyond the headlines, I recently caught up with Noam Sheizaf, an independent Israeli journalist based in Tel Aviv. Sheizaf, whose work has appeared in the Nation, Haaretz, Yedioth Ahronoth and more, is an editor and founder of +972 Magazine, a blog-based web magazine. Sheizaf recently authored a piece titled, “It’s all about real-estate: Understanding the tent protests.”

Alex Kane: What is your general take on the tent cities and mass protests currently making headlines in Israel?

Noam Sheizaf: I think it’s one of the most significant events I have seen in Israeli politics, certainly in the 20 years I have been following it closely. In the events I can remember that I witnessed in my own lifetime, this is one of the most important ones, most unexpected, and most promising one, perhaps.

AK: What do you think the political significance of the protests are?

NS: If you’re talking the narrow political games of the Knesset and the government, I don’t think we’ll see a lot happening right away. I don’t think this protest right now is a serious threat to the government. It’s more a challenge than a threat.

I think the protest is challenging something very important in the Israeli social order. There’s an unwritten agreement between various groups in Israeli society—I’m talking about the Jewish society. This is something that enables the entire system that we see here. So by declaring that the current social order is not suitable for us anymore, I think that the middle-class, the upper-middle class, the people who are protesting, are making a serious challenge against the structure of Israeli society. It’s more of something that represents an undercurrent in society than what you see on the surface. Because, ultimately, this protest doesn’t touch the significant political questions that we always hear about from Israel: the occupation, the future of the West Bank, the relations between Arab and Jewish citizens. But it touches on the layer beneath it that holds everything together. So, I think this is a major, major thing.

AK: You talked about how the protests are threatening the “social order” in Israel. What is that social order? Can you explain that?

NS: People speak about what’s happening in Tel Aviv as part of this Arab Spring. But that would be a mistake. If something is part of the Arab Spring, it is the Palestinian youth movement, the Palestinian popular uprising, which is forming right now. Israeli society is very different. And in the context of our conversation, the important thing is that, unlike authoritarian regimes, like Syria or Libya or Egypt, it was never persecution that held the social structure together, but indoctrination in Israel, as far as Jews are concerned. For Palestinians, it was persecution and oppression. [There was a] convincing of 99 percent of the Jewish public [who think] that they benefit from the current social order—and this is the best social order for them.

So, right now what we see is a [lot of people] actually saying, “I don’t see any advantage for me in this social order.” This can go many ways: it can go into a form of nationalism, or it can go to a way that says that the interests of the poor Jew in Israel are more like the interests of the poor Palestinian than those of a Jewish billionaire in Israel. This is such a radical notion that it’s even hard to explain. But these are the kind of doors that open when you challenge the social structure.

Also, I’m a bit of a Marxist in the way that I believe that the economy drives the political debate, even if on the surface it looks like it’s religion or nationalism or whatever. Right now, we’re seeing a major rift inside the Jewish middle class over the economy. This is something we’ve never seen before.

If you read through the Hebrew media, you’ll notice that those attacking the protests, the most vicious attacks against the protests, are coming from the religious right—from the settlers, from their supporters, and those people are like the litmus test for society here, because if you look at the settlers, you can understand almost everything. They were awfully quiet when Netanyahu traveled to his meeting with President Abbas in Washington a year-and-a-half ago. During the so-called settlement freeze, they didn’t say a word. You’d expect the settlers to go wild about that, right? But they didn’t say a word, except for some really radical forces inside the settler movement, because ultimately they felt that this doesn’t threaten them. Right now, you can hear the entire Israeli right, the expansionist right, those who promote Jewish supremacy here, those who advocate for the colonization of land, you can see them mobilizing against these protests in a way that they didn’t mobilize before, because this [movement] is a major threat to their interests. So, that’s a good sign as well for where things are headed.

AK: What’s your take on how the state of Israel has responded, both in terms of the policing of the protests and the government’s response?

NS: The policing was fair. As you probably know, Israelis are very hospitable to non-violent protests by Jews. So I wouldn’t say that the police were too tough on the protesters, especially when you consider what’s going on in the West Bank. So, talking about police repression would be a bit of an exaggeration.

But there is a very strong push against the protests in terms of the political debate. It’s not just the governments. It’s the entire elite that are pushing against these protests, and the more of a challenge they feel, the harder they’ll push. I’ll give you a few examples.

Chief of Staff Benny Gantz* said in a press conference recently that cutting funds from the army, which is another thing the protests aim for that is usually overlooked, would compromise national security. Israel Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu tabloid that is financed by Sheldon Adelson**, has been printing very negative coverage of the protests almost on a daily basis. Union leader [Ofer] Eini, the Histadrut leader, which is the largest worker union in Israel, met with the organizers of the protest, and then went and spoke against them in the media. He’s been known to have very good relations with Netanyahu. Last week, the deputy Defense Minister, Matan Vilnai, who was until recently a member of the Labor Party, warned that the protests would lead to anarchy.

And there’s also explicit attempts to tie this protest to left-wing organizations, to the New Israel Fund, and the leaders of the protest have been deemed radical leftists, and anarchists. There’s an attempt to demonize them in the media. And it’s partly successful. The first poll about the protests a week and a half ago had 87 percent of the public supporting them. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next figure will be below 60 percent, perhaps even below 50 percent.
[*of the IDF, **American casino owner, 5th richest man in US]
AK; Many Palestinians, as well as activists involved in the global Palestine solidarity movement, have criticized the movement for essentially being non-political and not taking on the conflict and the occupation. What is your take on that critique?

NS: If I were a Palestinian, I would say the same. If you were Palestinian under occupation, of if you were a Palestinian refugee and you were displaced and your family was not allowed to visit Israel, this would be my perspective. So I don’t blame the Palestinians, I actually think their position makes a lot of sense.

Having said that, as an Israeli I have a different take on things. If the protests would put the Palestinian issue on its agenda, or at the top of its agenda, you wouldn’t have 150,000 people. You wouldn’t even have 15,000. A couple of months ago, right after Netanyahu came back from Washington, the left mobilized protests against the attempt to bury the two-state solution and prolong the occupation. Almost every organization showed up to a rally and march in Tel Aviv, a pretty identical group that the latest social justice protest had, and the most optimistic assumptions had 10,000 people there. I was there, and I can tell you I don’t think there were 5,000. So, if you want to change the social order in Israel, and you start with the old political questions, you would probably not get very far, not in the current political field. There’s a reason that Sheikh Jarrah rallies, which got wonderful coverage, never had more than 3,000. There was an Israeli-Palestinian march a month ago in Jerusalem, and a Haaretz editorial told people to come to the march. It was a Friday editorial, the most widely read editorial in the left, and it called everyone to come to the march. I guess there were 2,000 Jews there.

So, I don’t think there is much sense in judging this protest with the old questions. If you expect it to be a protest about the occupation, you have that every month and you can see where it goes. It goes nowhere. The only way to advance a change in the social order is to focus on economics. People go to the social justice protests and they’re disappointed to see ordinary Israelis talking about their problems and not the occupation. You gather 150,000 Israelis, what do you expect to have? They’re Israelis, not Palestinians.

Now, I believe in political activism, and I think that activism changes perception, and that once people take part in this movement and go to the protests, then they’re more likely to challenge the social order, including the settlements and the occupation and many other issues related to the conflict. But I don’t think it will work the other way. I don’t think you can simply expect, one day, to convince the entire Jewish public that it’s better to end the occupation and have the refugees come back. It’s just not going to happen. It’s never happened in our history.

AK: Where do you see the movement headed in the future?

NS: Today [August 1] was a bad day for the movement politically—probably the worse since it started, because there was suddenly very clear voices against the protest leaders, against the direction it takes, and many people distanced themselves from the movement. So, we may have seen the peak on Saturday evening, and right now what’s happening is the inevitable decline. The protests are bound to lose energy very soon, in a matter of days or weeks. It’s been going on for 3 weeks, although the international community just noticed it right now. I think we’ll see the issues raised by this protest discussed in the Israeli public back and forth from now on in the coming few months.

I think the protests itself will disappear, but I also think that Netanyahu is coming to his showdown in September with the Palestinian leadership much weaker than he wanted. The entire world saw that he doesn’t have a consensus of Israelis behind him—I think that’s a pretty important achievement. These are the short-term implications of the protests. As for the long term, I think we’ll just have to wait and see.

One Comment 04.08.11
Nathan Schneider says:

This is a really helpful interview—thanks, Alex! I think Sheizaf is right to emphasize economics, but the way he describes it seems still too narrow. I would frame it this way: people are always more likely to protest, and will be better at protesting, for their own interests. They can have allies from the outside, but the greatest numbers will always come from those directly affected. This is what brought draft-prone college students into the streets during the Vietnam War, and what brought Arabs to the street this year. Mere economics is always a part of one’s interests, but I think we can have a bigger view of human nature here. Food prices did a lot to help bring Egyptians to the streets, but they could have just protested food prices—they didn’t. They protested an oppressive government, and they did so in moral terms, as well as in economic terms.

How does this apply to Israel? First, I think it’s clear that Palestinians will always be the best stewards of their own liberation movement and of their own interests. However, it also means that more needs to be done to merge the interests of ordinary Israelis with those of their Palestinian neighbors. If Israelis can be made to feel some of the consequences of their occupation, Palestinian interests will then become their own. This could be done through education against the “indoctrination” Sheizaf talks about, as well as through the economic measures of the BDS movement.

Much the same could be said, also, of resistance against militarism in the US. It is only now, as the economic consequences of US wars are becoming increasingly felt, that reducing military spending is even possible to mention, politically. As this happens, I think it’ll be easier to talk about the morality of the militarism, and that discussion will be incredibly important. So, yes, I think that economics opens political doors, but it takes more than just economics for a society to actually step through.

From Puerto del Sol to Tahrir Square
Matan Kaminer is an Israeli radical left activist and an MA student in anthropology at Tel Aviv University. He is currently active in organizing the protest encampment at Levinsky (HaKavkazim) Park in Tel Aviv, where native Israelis, migrants and refugees have joined forces.
Interviewer: Wladek Flakin, Junge Welt

Back in March, Israeli Premier said that, in contrast to virtually every other country in the Middle East, there would be no protests in Israel. But last Saturday, up to 150,000 people went out onto the streets demanding social justice, the largest social movement for many years. What is the social background of this movement?

First of all I should say that this explosion was totally, totally unexpected. If you had asked any radical in Israel three weeks ago what the chances were of a gigantic wave of social protest – you would have gotten laughed at. This is totally unprecedented and unpredicted. That said, in retrospect it’s obvious that the main trigger was the collapse of economic horizons for the younger generation of the middle class. All of a sudden people realized that their woes weren’t a personal failing but a consequence of the system. And then they rebelled. It was only later that the poor and disadvantaged among the Jewish population joined in. And now, the Palestinian minority is making its first steps to join the movement – on its own terms.

This protest movement began with a tent city on the Rothschild Avenue in Tel Aviv, very similar to the tent cities at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid or the Midan at-Tahrir in Cairo. Do the young Israeli demonstrators see themselves as part of an international movement?

Yes, definitely. Everybody’s talking about Cairo, and above the assembly area on Rothschild there hangs a large sign saying “Rothschild corner of Tahrir”. In terms of the actual forms of protest and organization I imagine we’re closer to Madrid – one of the most important organizers in Rothschild is Aya Shushan, who spent the previous months in Spain on the plazas. But it’s important to emphasize that in the Israeli context, taking an idea about protest or even revolution from an Arab country isn’t a trivial matter. The solidarity implied here with the peoples of the Middle East is perhaps the most potentially revolutionary aspect of the movement.

-In the last year, Israel has experienced a number of important strikes. Are workers participating in this movement, or is it mostly middle-class youth (as many right-wing commentators claim)?

It depends what you mean by workers and middle class. Israel has a post-Fordist service economy. The important strikes in the last year have been initiated by the new, militant trade union federation, Koah LaOvdim (Power to the Workers), and most of its unions are in services – from home day care workers to Open University lecturers. The one exception is Haifa Chemicals, a big industrial establishment which is on strike now. From what I hear, the workers there are taking an active part in the movement in Haifa. But “the working class” is not a category that people identify with and act as part of (as opposed to “the middle class” – somewhat like in the US). The struggle has not taken up the issue of work relations, with two exceptions: one is a demand to raise the minimum wage. The other is solidarity with public sector workers like doctors and teachers who are perceived as working for the general good.

Ofer Eini, the leader of the largest trade union Histadrut, said on Monday that he would not support the protests if their goal was to bring down the Netenyahu government. On the other hand, many demonstrators took up the chant: “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu!” Does the movement aim to bring down the government?

I saw a sign saying that, but I haven’t heard anybody chanting the slogan. The movement is split on the question of whether to call for Netanyahu’s resignation, mainly because people are afraid of being “political”. That may sound bizarre in this context, but in Israel “political” has two connotations that are relevant in this context. One is the idea of being involved in parliamentary wheedling, which is very much out of favor. The other, of course, is taking a stand on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

-One sign at a demonstration read: “Build apartments, not settlements!” Have the protestors been connecting the social question to the question of the occupation of the Palestinian territories?

Making this connection is not as straightforward as the question makes it sound. Of course, on a moral level one can say that “a wrong against one is a wrong against all” and that therefore any demand for “social justice” leads directly to opposing the occupation. But that logic is a bit too abstract. Some Palestinian activists have been voicing concerns that the demands of the protesters will be met at the expense of the Palestinians – by more land expropriations for example. In this context it is important to emphasize that if Jewish Israelis were willing to actively participate in the colonization process, in the West Bank as well as in the Negev and Galilee, then there would be no housing problem. Our extreme-right government would be happy to subsidize them. There is an implicit refusal to play that game in the current protest. This refusal is not idealistic or altruistic, but it is nevertheless there.

A whole different dynamic is based in the fear that the government will start a war or a mini-war with one of our neighbors in order to quell the rebellion. It is not out of the question – Assad, for one, would be happy to play this game with Bibi. A Facebook group called “Committed to continuing the protest even in the case of a military operation” set up yesterday already has 561 members, so there is some basis for hoping that the movement might turn anti-war for reasons of self-preservation.

But, these considerations aside, it has to be admitted that for the most part this movement has so far quite consciously kept its distance from the Palestinian issue. This is rapidly becoming untenable and dangerous. Yesterday the head of the Yesha Commission, which represents the settlements in the West Bank, visited the Rothschild encampment and was received cordially. While at first the right tried to isolate the protest by ascribing it to anarchists and left-wingers, the immense support it receives from all sectors of the public (excluding the settlers) has probably convinced them to try and take it over.

– What role has the radical, anti-zionist left in Israel been playing in these protests?

Organizationally speaking, almost none. Prior to the rally in Tel Aviv last Saturday there was an attempt to organize a “radical bloc” which apparently faded away. Exceptions are Koah LaOvdim, which I mentioned above but is not “radical left” though many of its militants are, and Tarabut, a mostly Jewish component of Hadash/al-Jabhah (the mostly Palestinian-Israeli Democratic Front for Peace and Equality).

But as individuals and as a vibrant, well-connected network, the radical left has been amply involved. While some activists dismissed the movement early on, wary of the distance it has kept from the Palestinian issue, most have now jumped on the wagon – limited as it may be, this is the most exciting thing to have happened here in a generation. I think most of us are busy working the interstices, trying to articulate the causes of the working poor and the Palestinian minority with the struggle, as well as working to build democratic institutions within it. Things are happening of themselves, but we can use our connections and our experience to help them along.

Being a radical left activist in Israel is at most times a pretty depressing proposition. We act not out of belief that we can change anything, but rather out of the moral conviction that we cannot do otherwise. Now, suddenly, everything is open, and our activity can make a huge difference. There is something scary about that, but also something very very exciting. Let’s hope it holds.

© Copyright JFJFP 2023