The “tent protest” in Israel is well into its third week, and shows no signs of dying out. Last Saturday, more than 300,000 people, across the country – from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the south, took to the streets, demanding “social justice”. This protest is seen by many in Israel as a positive and refreshing awakening of an otherwise dormant public- the middle class. While the Israeli democracy is accustomed to protests, these are usually sectorial and revolve around one specific and limited issue, and many are related to issues of peace and security. Examples include the demonstrations before the implementation of the 2005 Gaza disengagement plan, demonstrations in Bil’in and Sheikh Jarrah over the security fence and Israeli-Palestinian housing controversies, and demonstrations over observance of Shabbat (the Sabbath) by Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. This current protest, however, is a different story altogether.
The initiators of this protest movement come from the urban middle class of Tel Aviv, a part of Israeli society that has been ridiculed for being politically indifferent and disengaged and has been seen as disconnected from the concerns of the rest of the population. “They live in a bubble, in the ‘state of Tel Aviv'”, people used to say. Well, it seem like the bubble has burst and swept the rest of the country with it. What had started as a protest for affordable housing turned into a more general protest about cost of living, and according to organizer Gil Sasson, “a system-wide change”.
This is an unusual protest in Israeli political culture. It is in fact an “umbrella protest” for many smaller protests which have been boiling below the surface for a while. It brings together Israelis from all walks of life and is supported by figures from very diverse parts of the public sphere, such as: Charlie Biton, from the “Black Panthers” movement (a social movement from the 1970s focussed on the disadvantages of Jews originating from Middle Eastern countries), who said “…I’ve been waiting for a new generation to stand up against injustice- and here it is”; National Student Union Leader Itzik Shmuli; Israeli-Arab author and columnist Sayed Kashua; and Rabbi Benny Lau, who at the Saturday rally stated “We are on the eve of a social ‘tikkun’, our right for this land is conditioned upon social justice,” adding that social gaps and hard working people who still struggle to make ends meet are not compatible with the idea and values of a Jewish state.
Similarly, veteran Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri (“Social protesters represent real Zionism”, Haaretz) also ascribes the protest movement to the drift from the zionist ideal of a society in which capitalist competition and liberty and socialist justices and equality were balanced, to a “simplistic model of privatization” and “unrestrained market economy”. This distortion, in his view, (along with government support to the Jewish settlements and ultra-Orthodox, financed by tax-payers’ money) led to the current demonstrations by the mainstream.
Even those who oppose the protest, cannot deny the fact that it is no longer a question of “left” or “right” and that is managed to “bring indifferent Israelis out to the streets in an era of individualism … stir discourse about justice and society”. However, some such as columnist Yoav Hendel , argue that while the protest incorporates people from all across the political spectrum (including Likud voters, Netanyahu supporters and religious- right wing activists), it is led and manipulated by one group (the “leftist” initiators), and supported by the media, who, he says, regard questioning the protest or its goals is “impermissible”. He goes on to argue that populist groundwell leaves “no room for discussing practical results” (“Israel’s tribal protest”, Ynet).
Well-known Israeli journalist Yair Lapid (“The people of yesterday” and “Welcome to Facebook era”, Ynet) rejects the “leftist argument” and suggests that what we are witnessing is a new kind of social protest, which shouldn’t be dismissed or belittled “just because it doesn’t look like a protest” and because it is not organized fit “left” and “right” labels. He also questions the perception that “if you don’t have a clear definition you are in fact saying nothing”. Instead, Yair argues, this is a more complex and multifaceted protest which combines “mostly a little bit of everything”.
So what do all these people have in common? As Amotz Asa-El (“Middle Israel: Days of demagogy”, Jerusalem Post) puts it “they work hard, pay exorbitant taxes and serve in the army, and yet are left feeling that the country’s economic success is passing them by”. He also reject the claim regarding the “tribalism” of the protest and its organizers’ hidden political agenda, since the protesters “included a critical mass with genuine grievances, who would never in their lives be taken for a ride by this of that manipulative NGO”. Asa-El regards the demonstrations as a “sudden outburst of democratic zeal”, injecting “innocence and freshness” to “a hopelessly cynical political system”.
However, Asa-El also agrees that there is a problem with setting reasonable goals and considering practical results in the protest movement, first and foremost with the vague demand for “social justice”, which remains undefined. He advises against calls for market interventions, or eyeing state budgets and rich entrepreneurs’ wealth as this may lead to greater economic dangers and problems.
While defining the practical goals and demands of the protesters might be hard, according to Yoel Marcus (“Get a move on, Bibi”, Haaretz), due to the large number of supporters, it is clear that what they don’t want is a rebellion. The protest, in Marcus’ view, is an authentic “cry from the heart in the name of an entire nation”. Therefore, it differs from the “Arab Spring” protests which called of an immediate change in the regime and replacement of the entire political system to a more democratic and participatory one. The demonstrations in Israel differ because they do not call for more democratic rights and replacement of repressive authoritarian regimes, but rather use the rights they have always had to voice their concerns and democratically influence the public debate and agenda. Unlike the “Arab Spring” protests, no significant violent events took place, all demonstrations are peaceful and “dispersing violent demonstrations by force isn’t an option”. And yet, Marcus stresses that while Netanyahu need not fear a “Tahrir Square- style uprising” or early elections (in which case, it is not unlikely that he will be reelected anyway), this wave will not pass on its own, he argues.
In an attempt to deal with the protesters and their various demands, a team of experts, headed by Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, has been established consisting of 14 permanent members and 8 external advisers. The team started deliberations this week, with hopes for future participation by the protest leaders and related organizations. The leaders of the social protest movement also met with a group of academics and experts to discuss potential solutions to what they see as Israel’s social problems, in hope that this will help to present alternatives to existing economic policies. This is intended to be an alternative to the PMs team, which the protesters seem inclined to refuse to cooperate with.
With the protestmovement still growing and with two competing groups of expert advisors offering advice, and making pronouncements, it seems the “social justice” debate is unlikely to die down for a very long time.