On a broiling Friday afternoon in late June, police dragged Daphne Leef kicking
and screaming from Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, leaving the 26-year-old
initiator of last summer’s mass social protest with multiple bruises and a
broken left arm.
Orders from above
Almost a year earlier, Leef had pitched a tent in the
tree-lined central thoroughfare in protest at the lack of affordable housing in
the city. Within hours, dozens of tents sprung up in solidarity, sparking a
nationwide call for social justice in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis
took to the streets.
This year, however, the city adamantly refused to
issue permits for protest tents on the leafy boulevard. Leef’s temporary
dwelling was quickly folded up and removed by city inspectors, while police
arrested her and 11 other would-be protesters for disturbing the
The police action triggered some of the worst protest violence in
the city’s history.
On the Saturday night following Leef’s arrest, police
waded into marching demonstrators, some of whom threw eggs, overturned trash
cans and smashed bank windows.
Gone was last year’s good-humored summer
camp atmosphere. A plethora of cell phone videos and photographs showed police
shoving, beating and even choking protesters, many of them young
And with over 80 bloodied and bruised demonstrators arrested, this
year’s protests threatened to turn even uglier.
leaders accused the police of acting on orders from above to smash the popular
movement. Police retorted that because no one was taking much notice of them
this year, protesters had turned to violent provocation to grab
After the Saturday night clashes, both sides pulled back,
realizing that continued violence would be detrimental to their respective
causes. Protests the following weekends passed by relatively quietly. But the
uneasy truce left a number of unanswered questions.
Was the police
violence directed from above in a premeditated attempt by the government of
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to crush the protest movement? What role is
being played by Tel Aviv’s mayor Ron Huldai, nominally a member of the
opposition Labor party? Is there a hard core of radical protesters pushing for
violence? What direction is the rest of this summer’s protest likely to take?
And what are its chances of success? The stakes could not be higher. The
protest’s intellectual leaders make no secret of the fact that they are out to
reverse decades of neo-liberal cutbacks on social spending, and to restore
nothing less than a modern version of the Welfare State.
cannot produce hard evidence of specific orders given by the government to the
police, or by the police high command to the men in the field, protest leaders
are convinced they have fallen victim to an orchestrated government campaign to
snuff out this year’s movement before it gathers steam. Indeed, some believe the
government took its cue from the successful US zero-tolerance policy against
Occupy Wall Street.
Alon-Lee Green, who liaised with the police for the
protest movement last year, claims that this year his police contacts have not
been prepared to talk to him, let alone coordinate anything. He says it has been
almost impossible to obtain permits for demonstrations and the police violence
in late June speaks for itself.
A member of the Hadash Communist party
and founder, with other prominent activists, of the cross-party Social Protest
Movement, Green, 24, argues that the police conducted a systematic, three-stage
campaign against the protesters. First, they tried to intimidate the protest
leaders by calling them in for questioning before anything had happened. Next,
they tried to intimidate would-be protesters by employing physical force.
Finally, the authorities tried to delegitimize the protest by using derogatory
language, claiming it had been hijacked by “anarchists” and that it had turned
violent, when it was the police who had deliberately provoked violent
For Green, the fact that activists from all over the country
were summoned for prior questioning proves that there was an order from above.
“At about the same time in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Kfar Saba, Ashdod and Eilat,
social protest activists were called in for questioning about their plans for
the summer. If so many different police stations in so many different places
called in protest activists and asked them the same set of questions, there must
have been coordination on the national level,” he tells The Jerusalem Report
“The message we got is, ‘Be careful, we are watching you.’ They also warned that
‘last year we treated you with kid gloves, this year it will be with an iron
fist.’ If you put all of this together, a very disturbing picture
The slightly built Green, who was arrested twice in June,
expects things to cool down now because the government and the police realize
that initiating violent clashes only intensifies the protest. “It works
For every arrest they make, more protesters come out. For
every blow we receive, more people are shocked into joining the protest,” he
The most detailed police account of what happened on that violent
Saturday night came from Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. At
question time in the Knesset four days after the violence, Aharonovitch
described two large streams of demonstrators, each with a violent
People in the first stream of about 800 protesters threw a huge
boulder at police officers, injuring a cameraman standing nearby. They also
ripped out windshield wipers from a police van and smashed bank
“I will not allow the police to become the public’s punching
bag,” he bristled. The second stream of about 1,000 blocked traffic on the
city’s Ayalon freeway. In both cases, Aharonovitch said, police had no
alternative but to act to restore order. “I want to emphasize to the members of
the House that there is no policy directed from above against social protest of
any kind,” he declared.
For many in the protest movement, the bête noire
is Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv.
After Huldai, a card-carrying member of
the Labor opposition party, banned tents on Rothschild Boulevard and sent
inspectors escorted by police to eject Leef, several authors, actors and
musicians pulled out of the city’s White Night culture festival and the
left-wing Meretz faction withdrew from the municipal coalition.Hard-core
Huldai, who has a reputation of being “a rich man’s mayor” acting
primarily in the interests of the city’s upper classes, claims to support the
protest movement. He says the reason he won’t grant permits for tents on
Rothschild this year is because last year the protesters “made life hell” for
the boulevard residents. Instead, he has offered an alternative site – the
Volovelsky-Karney Park opposite the Arlozorov central train station – where
around 20 tents have already been pitched. Huldai points out that it was police,
not city inspectors, who were involved in the violent confrontations, and the
reason he asked for the police escort was because weeks of monitoring social
media showed that a small hard-core group of protesters was planning to use
force, which city inspectors have no mandate to handle.
theory that Netanyahu and Ron Huldai coordinate their moves and that there was
some kind of master plan behind this is absurd. The best screenwriters in
Hollywood could not have come up with a more fantastic scenario,” Eytan
Schwartz, a Huldai aide, tells The Report
Schwartz claims that much of
the criticism of Huldai stems from a failure – sometimes deliberate – to
distinguish between the respective purviews of central and local government in
Israel. Huldai, he says, would love to be the commander of the local police
force, but in Israel the police answers to the central government. The same is
true of budgets for housing and transportation or the price of water,
electricity and produce in the supermarkets. According to Schwartz, Huldai’s
political opponents are trying to use the protest movement to discredit him by
implying that legitimate grievances, which should be dealt with by central
government, are somehow the mayor’s fault.
“It’s a small, vocal minority
who were on Rothschild Boulevard, who wouldn’t allow the city council to convene
and who were among those shattering bank windows. You can connect the
dots and find the same people in all these groups,” he charges.
June, the protest movement’s team of experts, led by Ben-Gurion University
professors Yossi Yonah and Avia Spivak, outlined the gist of their proposals for
a major restructuring of the Israeli system in the form of a new “socioeconomic
The basic idea: higher taxation, especially of the rich, to
provide revenue for affordable housing and public services like health,
education, welfare and transportation.
In the mid-1980s, during the years
of hyper-inflation, Israel turned away from the welfare state model as too
expensive to maintain. Now, the protest leaders claim, it has gone too far in
the opposite direction, paring social services to the bone. The new social
contract, signed by a raft of different organizations, calls for a return to the
values of social solidarity on which the state was founded. The big question is
whether the economy can sustain this – or whether more public spending, as
neo-liberal government critics insist, would lead inevitably to the troubles now
faced by countries like Greece, Spain and Italy.Practical
that their master plan is eminently practical. By July 14, the anniversary of
Leef’s first tent protest, the Yonah-Spivak panel plans to publish a major study
showing how their proposed social democratic alternative would
Their study, Doing Things Differently: A model for a well-ordered
society, includes an overall social vision, as well as detailed proposals by
expert sub-panels on housing, transport, economics, education, health, welfare,
social security, employment, public administration and law. “We are taking the
bull by the horns and we say this entails deep structural change. Only once
there is agreement in principle that this is the way to go will the time be ripe
to talk about priorities,” Yonah tells The Report.
In other words, if
Yonah has his way, the focus of this summer’s protest will be on root and branch
reform of the system, rather than on specific grievances.
social democratic in essence, the movement will not overtly ally itself with any
political party. A late-June Dialog poll showed that 69 percent of Israelis back
the protest, and Yonah argues that much of this would be lost if the movement
were to be identified too closely with existing left-leaning parties. Therefore,
he believes the overarching strategy must be to win the socioeconomic debate and
permeate the thinking of all parties, including Likud.
But he has no
illusions that this will be easy. In his view, the current neo-liberal regime is
firmly entrenched. “It is not only a question of the size of Netanyahu’s
coalition, 94 of the 120 Knesset members.
The entire ruling establishment
is heavily invested in neo-liberal structures, including the mutual dependencies
of politicians and capital,” he says. Yonah is also wary of the government’s
possible defensive strategies: for example, what he calls “feeding the beast,”
deliberately creating untenable deficits and blaming the crisis on public
spending so that it can make even further cuts, which before the crisis would
have been unpopular.
Yonah also points to weaknesses in the protest
movement. There are ego struggles, different groups pulling in different
directions and no clear leadership. It is also hard to keep the Sisyphean
struggle to implement ideological revolution through slow, evolutionary
“I invariably wake up in the morning optimistic and go to bed at
night discouraged,” he says. “But if I didn’t believe that change is possible, I
wouldn’t he here.”
The signatories to the new social contract agree. “The
demands are not simple and the road to remaking Israel a place worthy of its
citizens is long,” they declare. “But we are convinced it is possible. It is not
a pipe dream. It is a case of the State of Israel renewing its covenant with its