Social Affairs: ‘A drop in a sea of injustices’

Are the "tent-city" housing-price protests just a festival of scattered demands, or are they the seeds of a pan-Israeli social movement?

By
July 22, 2011 16:58
Tel Aviv residents protest high housing costs

Tent city housing protest 4. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)

 
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You could do worse than be the owner of a camping supplies store this past week. First in Tel Aviv, and one by one in cities across the country, tent cities have sprouted up like mushrooms after the rain, as a youth-led revolt against soaring housing prices has gone from being a Facebook event to a headline-grabbing phenomenon that has reached the Knesset.

Nearing its second week, with a gathering of the nation’s tent cities called for Saturday night in Tel Aviv, the movement has been branded as bearing a muddled message and unclear demands, along with a glaring lack of leadership.

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A microcosm of the movement’s uncertain direction occurred Wednesday night, as a vote was scheduled on whether to have the protest cover other quality-of-life issues such as food prices or minimum wage, or just focus on housing prices. It was slated to start at 7 p.m.; by 7:30, a young woman named Aya was still struggling to gain some sort of control over the crowd, as people shouted out, “Minimum wage!” and “Change of [governmental] leadership!” among other slogans. As she continued to explain the purpose of the vote, a group of about three dozen cheering, dancing revelers broke through the crowd holding signs and chanting about the power of love. The vote was canceled, and several leaders of the housing struggle made their way across the street for a short press conference.

Speaking with a dramatic air, Daphni Leef, the 25- year-old Tel Avivian who started the nationwide protest on Facebook nearly two weeks ago, told reporters that “this is our country, and the time has come to return it to the people.” She also described Israeli society as having been “deprived of its basic rights until we got to the situation where they aren’t free anymore. We are enslaved. Most of us barely manage to survive, and others are no longer able to shoulder the burden.”

TO MANY casual observers, it’s unclear what the message of the protests are, and why they broke out specifically at this time. Are they solely about the higher cost of housing, or do they also reflect anger at the rising costs of virtually every other daily expense in Israel? Is it a non-political struggle, or one more sympathetic to the left wing of Israeli politics? Is there a greater message of being fed up with government neglect across the board, in education, public transportation, the economy? Also, do the Palestinians or the settlements get a mention?

According to Dr. Elisheva Sadan from The Hebrew University’s School of Social Work faculty, the protests came in the wake of the social workers’ strike in the spring and the “Cottage Cheese Revolt” last month, as well as the ongoing unrest of the Arab Spring.

“When the disturbances were going on in [Cairo’s] Tahrir Square, what was interesting was that you saw that all of the Middle East was burning, but Israel was quiet,” she said. “Israel is a democracy; people don’t need to revolt against a dictatorship. So people started asking themselves, why are we so quiet here?” Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Sadan said that after the Egyptian uprising and the social workers’ strike, the boycott of cottage cheese – also launched on Facebook – showed the immediate power that online, grassroots consumer campaigns could have in Israel.



“The interesting thing about the cottage cheese issue is that it was a consumer boycott and it worked with all different types of people, both secular and the religious, but mainly families without money for whom these products are a daily staple. It was only two weeks ago or so, and it succeeded in lowering the price [of cottage cheese] and shaking up the entire industry. From the standpoint of individuals, they gained confidence from realizing that they could do something and have an influence.”

Sympathetic media coverage and strong initial momentum are not, however, enough to keep the movement going, Sadan said, and more than anything else, it needs strong leadership and solidarity across the country’s social strata.

“This can succeed, but there are conditions for this. One is solidarity; the bigger it is, the more important it becomes. At first it was painted as just being yuppies on Rothschild, and then it gets to the issue of the lack of housing in general across Israel, which a lot of people are suffering from because Israel stopped investing in public housing and low-income housing from the mid-’80s.”

She added that she wasn’t sure what the leadership should be, or if it could work as a collective sort of leadership, but she added that “in social sciences, we learn that these things take time. It takes time to build leadership and solidarity.”

IN THAT vein, it seems that outside of Tel Aviv, the National Union of University Students has taken the reins and begun deploying student volunteers to set up tent cities.

Eyal Basson, head of the union, said Wednesday that outside Tel Aviv, the tent cities were “more locals mixed with students.

Before it got to those places, people were just looking at it as a problem of spoiled, yuppie kids in Tel Aviv. But now they’re starting to see it’s not just young people and not just Tel Aviv types. It’s a very authentic movement dealing with very real problems facing everyone in this country.”

Basson said his group had seized the opportunity to be a leader of the struggle, because in his words, they had more experience leading protest movements – during fights against tuition hikes and the “Yeshiva Students Law” – and because the people running the Tel Aviv protest didn’t seem focused enough on having a clear, unified voice or a set of demands to negotiate.

Still, while the union has provided leadership and mobilized the student-led tent cities across the country, it is one of many groups that have jumped on board a grassroots movement that was started without any official NGO support or funding.

By Tuesday, the ever-expanding tent city on Rothschild featured a cornucopia of activist groups, NGOs and volunteers helping the cause, further muddying the unified call of cheaper housing for all.

Those making their presence felt included Anarchists Against the Wall, gay rights organizations, Hanoar Ha’oved Vehalomed graduates group Dror Israel, the right-wing student organization Im Tirtzu – which later pulled out of the protests, citing “politicization” – and representatives from the city of Lod, who came on Wednesday to advertise the attractively affordable rental prices in the city (Lod is only a 15-minute drive from Tel Aviv, but is a world away and has an image of being the country’s drug and murder capital).

Near the center of the camp, a compost heap was built on Wednesday and included a manifesto expounding on the wonders of composting. Free stuff also seemed abundant in the activist flotsam of the tent city– food, lighters, bottles of bubble foam, and 2-liter bottles of iced tea by the crateful, all of it given away by “donors” who were no doubt glad of the rental revolution product placement.

One such company was the meat supplier Balady, three of whose employees set up two large gas grills Wednesday and spent the day grilling over 1,000 hamburgers and 500 kebabs, handed out free of charge.

Standing under the banner “Meat is not for the rich only,” Balady marketing director Sami Dahan, 46, said his company had come “to show people that if they don’t wake up, eventually meat will be only for the rich. The price of meat will rise 30 percent over the next 10 years. It’s not just about housing; if these things don’t change, then we’ll be in the same situation with food, the most basic thing there is.”

MORE THAN anything else though, in conversations with participants and supportive passers-by, one sentence is repeated over and over again: “Do you know how much things cost abroad?” – followed by a rundown of all the things that are far cheaper in the rest of the world.

Could it be that Israelis, at least those supporting the tent city protests, have come to the conclusion that they themselves have been friers (suckers), willfully paying inflated prices on every item they purchase, a captive audience in a war- and taxes-rattled country surrounded by foes? The theme that keeps coming up in conversations between the tents is one of feeling ripped off, with no real recourse other than to hit the streets.

The other question, though, probably heard even more than the first, is, “How long do you think this will last? Will it go anywhere?” According to Dr. Efraim Davidi, a journalist and visiting lecturer at Ben-Gurion University, the protest needs numbers if it’s going to have staying power. And for a movement that so far has had little if any Arab or haredi participation, reaching a wider segment of the population is key to increasing its potential influence as well.

“If there were over 1,000 tents, or if they had 100,000 people taking part, it would make a bigger difference. It’s all about the political power that they can exert,” said Davidi, adding that while the numbers of protesters was still small, like in Greece, Spain, Cairo and elsewhere it had been started by educated, middle-class young people living in the Center of the country and sophisticated enough to not be sold a bill of goods.

He also said that those protesting in the street had every reason to feel they were being lied to and fed the image of Israel as a weak, permanently threatened country to force their complacency on social issues.

“You go out to a protest in Israel, and then you see the government talking about the flotilla or ‘fly-tilla’ or that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad said this or that, and people start going home. The government always uses the security issue to silence the protests. It’s always the language of the Shoah; they are coming to destroy us. [But] we aren’t facing extermination, we are a sovereign country with a very large army.”

He added that “today, we have a large industrial complex, from aviation to cheese, all types of low-tech and hi-tech. We’re not Greece. We have nearly everything here.”

Things in Israel, he asserted, are artificially over-priced, mainly due to the monopolies that practice price-fixing, and, he added, one need only travel to the West Bank to see how much cheaper the cost of living is.

He also wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the protests could reach a violent, all-or-nothing stage like elsewhere in the Middle East.

“There could be violent protests like all over the Middle East, there could be a change of power. People are very angry,” he notes, adding that “the big difference between Cairo and Tel Aviv is that it was a political thing. Here the people are political, but they haven’t gotten politicized to the point where they’re calling for an upheaval or a coup. But who knows what could happen next week. If you had looked at Egypt eight months ago, you would have said it was a stable government.”

According to Davidi, “if the government continues this way, it will destroy the society.

It has a great responsibility; people won’t just be happy with the crumbs they get from the government.”

One person who sounds like he definitely won’t stay happy for long is Dave Levyn, a 27-year-old Tel Aviv resident.

Speaking to a crowd next to the tent city’s kitchen, Levyn said he was living in an apartment his parents had given him and that while rent wasn’t an issue for him, he saw the rising cost of housing as a symptom of the country’s relationship with its citizens becoming rotten to the core.

“Suddenly, the price of housing seems to only be a drop in a sea of injustices,” he said.

“The time has come for us to [reclaim] our role in the decision-making process in this country. I am here because this may be the last opportunity for this to happen before the situation becomes irreversible.”

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