Op-Ed: Jewish Revolution — Israel, Tent Cities and 40,000 march Tel Aviv

Posted Jul 24, 2011 by Stephen Morgan
In Israel “Every political controversy has to do with land, every social battle, and obviously, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict itself. If you understand real estate here, you understand it all.” Blog +972
The city of Tel Aviv  Israel  as seen from the rooftop of the highest tower in Tel-Aviv.
The city of Tel Aviv, Israel, as seen from the rooftop of the highest tower in Tel-Aviv.
Rubinstein Felix (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Back in May, I was involved in a discussion on Twitter to which I tweeted the following reply, “@Siegfried_Sz They said there would never be a revolution in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Yemen, Bahrain or Syria- For Israel the day will come too Sun May 15 17:20:22 +0000 2011”
In June, a follower sent me a link to an article to which I replied, “@oicw65 Thks Bobby-Great article PPl r going 2 b amazed by what will happen in Israel-Regime will split+eventually Rev Thu Jun 02 21:35:36 +0000 2011”
Yesterday, I'm glad to say, it appears my faith in the Israeli people has come true. Last week Cairo-style tent cities sprung up in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Kiryat Shemona, Beersheba, Kfar Saba, Ramat Gan and Sderot and yesterday evening up to 40,000 Jewish youth and others took to the streets in Tel Aviv to protest against house prices and social problems in general. Clearly influenced by the Arab revolutions, “the Jewish revolution” seems to have begun.
In what could have equally been a description of the tent cities in Cairo or Madrid, the Jewish blog “+972” (named after the area code shared by Israel and the Palestinian territories) described the scene in the plazas; “The scene is at once warm (26c) and chaotic; a motley crowd of starry-eyed young people with signs proclaiming their support for love for everyone....someone is grilling meat; someone else is preaching vegetarianism; playgrounds and playpens for the young children” and a popular assembly where all types of debates and decision-making is taking place.
In the Israeli paper Haaretz, teacher and veteran activist Ronen Eidelman says "People are really doing analysis, economics analysis, they're talking about how the system is built, about why the prices are like this, who is controlling the housing market, what is the responsibility of the government, what is the responsibility of the city council, and what is the relationship between the government and what they call the tycoons, and who is selling off the city to who," he says. "And this analysis is happening here every minute. You hear people sitting around circles, writing and talking. And that is truly exciting."
In blog +972, journalist and photographer, Dmitry Reider gave his feelings and impression of yesterday's march. “The enormous surge of people stalking up Ibn Gavirol Street in central Tel Aviv to the museum was sweaty, hyper, young and noise-making – music, drums, groovy dancing and all.” Protesters sang “Stand by me” and everyone repeated “we’re all together.”
As elsewhere, like Spain and Greece, the protesters have emphasized that the protests are non-political, but as Noam Sheizaf explained “they are clearly anti-government. More than anything, they seem to resent the entire current political establishment, and while this does not mean that they support the opposition, such feelings are more dangerous to the ruling parties.”
Wide layers of Israeli society were present on the demonstration, not just the youth. There were professionals and the unemployed, students, doctors and nurses, Holocaust survivors, Zionist youth movements, LGBT activists, secular and religious people and even some ultra-orthodox Jews. In many ways it was a Jewish version of the mix of secular, Islamist and Christian witnessed during the events in neighboring Egypt.
The central issue is the cost of housing, rather than jobs or debt, but the character and focus of the demands are very similar, if not infrequently almost identical to similar protests in the Arab world and Europe. The young Israelis demanded “The people want public housing,” “Welfare state now” and banners and chants acclaimed “the people are calling for social justice,” “The answer to privatization? Revolution!” “The government against the people and the people against the government” and “Netanjanu equals Mubarak” with demands for his resignation.
Later in the evening, when youth attempted to block a key intersection, clashes began with the police and protesters created barricades. But like Cairo and elsewhere they also appealed to the police, offering flowers and explaining how the police too faced the same social problems and telling them they should create a trade union. Things got a little out of hand and 43 were arrested and the crowds responded as in other capitals in the Middle East, “revolution, revolution, non-violence, non-violence.”
As elsewhere, the beginnings of the protests first arose in the social media. Yesterday's demonstration was rallied by a Facebook page with the title: “Democracy takes to the streets.” Its organizer, 25 year old Daphni Leef explained the issues being raised to the Jerusalem Post, “Most of this country has been deprived of its basic rights until we got to the situation where [people] aren’t free anymore. We are enslaved. Most of us barely manage to survive, and others are no longer supporting the burden.” “This is our country, and the time has come to return it to the people.”
Roots of the protests
Youth and students often act as a weather vane of gathering social unrest. The first signs began this year with smaller protests over rising prices, not only of housing, but also gas, electricity, water and bread. This was followed by a strike movement involving tens of thousands of social workers, hospital workers, railway workers and even doctors, lawyers and foreign ministry employees over low wages.
This was followed by a Facebook protest about food prices, especially the increased cost of cottage cheese- a staple diet of Israeli's. The campaign resulted in a successful boycott called the “Cottage Cheese Intifada,” which attracted more than 100,000 followers.
This week medical students and doctors are striking over pay and conditions and many also joined the tent city protests. Medical students demonstrated carrying placards saying "It's better being a dog than a doctor" and calling for resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while resident doctors at Kfar Sava's Meir Hospital have begun a hunger strike.
In this sense, the current protest movement represents wider accumulated anger over the economic predicament faced by the majority of Israelis. Despite a boom in the economy, only 13% of the population have benefited. Wealth is highly concentrated in Israel, with the majority of the economy controlled by just 18 oligarchic families and, while there have been big tax cuts for the rich, some 25% of the Israeli population live in poverty.
An OECD report revealed that Israel has the one of the biggest disparities between rich and poor in the Western world, standing at a staggering 14:1 ratio and that it has also seen the largest increase in children living in poor homes in the OECD countries since the 1990s. Moreover, while Israel receives the highest aid of any country in the world - $3billion annually from the USA- on top of the massive prices rises (120% for water), the government has slashed spending on education, health care and public housing.
Israelis work longer hours than Europeans and often two jobs to make ends meet. Unlike some impressions, the general standard of living, according to the World Bank, is more similar to Greece or Portugal, rather than Germany or the US. (The same report noted that in Gaza and the West Bank, the situation was on a par with Honduras or Sri Lanka.) and, of course, at the bottom of the heap are the Arab Israelis, 75% of whom said in a poll that their living standards had fallen in the last year.
A poll by Tel Aviv University and The Israel Democracy Institute showed that the economy was now people's biggest concern with eighty percent saying they were "very disturbed" or "quite disturbed" by the socioeconomic situation, a figure higher than for issues concerning Palestine, settlement or Iran.
The average salary in Israel is about $2,500 (1,700 Euros) per month, while people like teacher, social workers and hospital staff receive less than $2,000 (1,400 Euros) a month. A modest apartment costs $600,000 in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and $200,000 to $300,000 outside. Youth and students simply cannot find affordable housing and the cost is a huge burden on the population at large. Rents and mortgages now take up 40-50% of average incomes and have risen from 1,000 to NIS 1800 in the last two years.
Housing cost are just one of the most striking examples of the disparities in wealth and this has not been lost on the demonstrators. The protests began on purpose on the super rich street of Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv, where many rich Israeli's own palatial apartments, which they occupy for only part of the year. The protesters have renamed the street “If I Were a Rothschild” Boulevard.
On the demonstration, there were chants and placards like: “Danger, construction – for the rich” and when there was an appeal to clean up the area, a speaker said to great applause “clean up your stuff, because after we succeed they’ll send subcontracted workers to clean up our mess for slave wages, and we can’t allow that.”
So as Ilan Evyatar explained with regard to this movement in the Jersualem Post, “It is about a lot more than Tel Aviv, and it is about a lot more than housing. It is about a shortage of 2,500 hospital beds;... It is about the decline of public services. It is about excessive profiteering, lack of competition, and prices for many goods that are way above those in other countries. It is about free education that is anything but free – and more than anything, it is about the fact that for the vast majority of people in this country, making ends meet has become nearly impossible.”
So far the demonstrations do not have any coherent set of demands. Indeed, leaders are saying that giving solutions is not up to them, but its for the government to work out. Nevertheless, the protests have caused panic and confusion in ruling circles and Ministers have been publicly attacking one another over the crisis.
The Israeli paper, Haaretz reports today that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has promised reforms by next week and “slammed Likud ministers for not trying to solve the housing crisis.” "Give me ideas for a solution," he demanded desperately from ministers.
The dream of a land of milk and honey seems to have gone sour. A protest, which began as anger over astronomical housing costs, now has all the ingredients of becoming a Davidian struggle between the ordinary people and their Golithian government for the basic necessities of life and, potentially, over the question of the whole nature of the Israeli state.
From its birth, Israel has been a radical society, but this has been conditioned mostly by its external instability. Now faced with internal upheaval, the domestic situation may turn out to be just as radical. Moreover, the movement has the potential to cut across the drift to the right and anti-democratic measures witnessed in Israel in the recent period. It is quite possibly a turning point in Israeli history.
As Senior lecturer at the Department of Social Work at Ben Gurion University, Dr. Roni Kaufman put it “The middle class is in free fall.” "The fact that the middle-class students began to struggle, (is) that they feel that there is no future within reach for them - we are talking about the mainstream of society - this has never happened in Israel. I'm in shock over it,”
Revolution, it seems, knows no frontiers, no ethnic or religious divides, but can unite even the most disparate and polarized of groups from the young to the old, professionals, workers and unemployed, Muslims and Christians, secular and devout, Arab, Persian, Berber and Kurd, Europeans and now Jews, as well.
We may be seeing the beginning of the Jewish revolution, which no one would have imagined could be provoked by Arab events. The popular mass uprising in the Arab world has thrust terrorism into the background and, hopefully, this similar movement in Israel will help push anti-Palestinian feelings to the side. Perhaps the basis is being laid for a new path to develop, which, we can hope, might lead to united action between Arabs and Jews over their shared future.