In the early days of the massive grassroots social protest that began in
mid-July, the local media’s fascination with the events elbowed the typical
major news stories off the headlines. Iran seemed to disappear for weeks at a
time as ballooning tent camps and mushrooming demonstrations filled not just
page one, but the inner pages too.
The protests began on July 14, when a
small group of young folks in their 20s, enraged over high housing costs,
pitched tents on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to make the point that the city
– and the country – has become unlivable. They were rapidly joined by a wide
range of groups mostly hailing from the middle class, protesting all manner of
economic grievances, from high consumer prices to the massive concentration of
wealth in the hands of “tycoons,” and to demand that the government strengthen
the welfare state to balance out what they view as unfettered neo-liberal
The public seemed to have been surprised at its own success –
many felt the protests represented a deep sea change in the Israeli social
consciousness. Judging by survey data about the protests over the summer, they
may be right. Levels of participation in the protests were impressive. A survey
by the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University,
taken from 11- 13 September (with 605 respondents), shows that 17% of Israelis
said they participated in the protests (without defining what kind of
participation, thus theoretically including both actual and
That average is higher among the Jewish sample (19%),
indicating that fewer Arab citizens participated (although the actual number is
not given in the data).
And the public feels that it has been successful.
Published surveys reveal unambiguous feelings of satisfaction and for some,
enthusiasm, for the movement. The Jewish public clearly feels that the protests
paid off. A resounding three-quarters (77%) of respondents in the monthly Peace
Index survey (by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University) from
early October (among 600 respondents) said the movement had succeeded in putting
social issues on the agenda. (Here, however, Arabs expressed very different
sentiments: only 41% of them agreed with this success, compared to 83% or more
than twice as many Jews.) The Truman Institute survey that measured
participation also shows that large majorities support all of the major policy
demands the protesters proposed. But the crisis of faith in government remains
so deeply entrenched that fully 87% of all respondents believe the government
would implement none or only a very small portion of those
Perhaps it’s this combination of enthusiasm and the belief that
much more pressure is still needed that explains why 80% of Jews, as well as
two-thirds of Arab respondents in the Peace Index, say that it is justified to
continue the protests. Over 40% in the Truman survey said the protesters should
form a political party to run in elections, evidence of a desire to
institutionalize the protesters’ demands in the future.
But even as
400,000 people took to the streets on a single Saturday night in September, one
question was repeatedly raised either by pundits or protesters, and in many
living room conversations: will it last? Will the citizens keep up the heat when
the temperatures fall? It was easy to imagine that with the return of rockets or
bombs, the tents would empty and Israel would return to its usual order of
priorities: security first, everything else second or never.
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the largest event in early September, the next social demonstration was held at
the end of October. Terror attacks had occurred since the start of the protests.
Rockets had been fired on the very weekend of the demonstration, shutting down
schools in the south and delaying the start of the academic year. Iran is front
and center in the headlines again.
According to press estimates, some
20,000 people attended the October event in Tel Aviv. From deep inside the crush
in Rabin Square, the energy felt high. Yet media commentators were disappointed
or derisive. Shir Nussetsky, writing in “Yedioth Ahronoth,” opined, “It’s time
to admit it: the protest is dead… The last demonstration drew only 20,000 or was
it 150,000? It doesn’t matter, once it drew out half a million… the New Israelis
are now the Tired Israelis.”
Is Nussetsky right? Have the protests really
receded, like so many of the waves of adrenaline that ebb and flow regularly
through Israeli life? Were the social protesters mugged by the Middle East
reality? Did time assault the uprising? Or perhaps the protest movement is now
evolving into a new phase, in which the committed core will begin the long, slow
task of creating the change that “The people! Demand!” rhythmically chanted in
the protests this summer.
Is the protest movement dead? Or does it have a
future? Will these same people who say that continued efforts are necessary
actually continue to make these efforts? To find out, this month’s The Jerusalem
survey asked whether respondents plan to be personally involved in social
change in the future. We also tried to find out which broad public issues were
“Following the social protests over the last few
months,” the survey asked, “will you become active in any way in the future, in
any of the following fields?” Responses included a list of possibilities:
Social/ economic issues; Israeli-Arab conflict-related issues; democracy;
changing the government system. Participants were allowed multiple answers. To
offset any discomfort respondents might have in admitting that they do not plan
to become active, we offered “I don’t plan to become involved” as an option. The
list also included the possibility that “I am already active and plan to
continue at the same level.”
The sense of citizen empowerment has clearly
had an impact: Fully half of the respondents chose a response indicating that
they would do something, on some level, about one or more of the issues. That’s
twice as many as the people in our December 2010 survey who said they might do
something (active or passive) to oppose the spate of anti-democratic legislation
being debated at the time.
Empowerment surely helps, but the issues
galvanize: The greatest portion of our respondents, 19%, said they would get
involved in social and economic issues. Seven percent planned to be active
regarding issues related to strengthening democracy. (This is the same
proportion who said they would be actively involved in this, back in December.)
Six percent each said they would be active in changing the system of government,
or regarding the conflict. Another 12% said they were already involved and would
Fifty-three percent (the numbers add up to more than 100%
because respondents could choose more than one answer) admitted that they would
probably not be any more active than they are currently and 11% did not
Demographic variations were minimal: Women were slightly more
likely to get involved in socioeconomic affairs (22% compared to 17% of men).
Haredim showed the highest percentage of respondents who do not plan to get
involved at all – two-thirds.
The message reinforces something that was
clear from the protests: Social and economic issues unite and energize people;
the Israeli-Arab conflict – issues associated with the left – remains at the
bottom of the list.
But what kind of actual longer-term citizen-led
social-economic activism can be expected? When a few thirty-somethings gathered
recently in Tel Aviv to eat cholent
on a rain-threatened autumn Saturday, I
asked them the question. These are the people behind the numbers, people with
jobs and families and rent to pay, and miles to go before they sleep.
hosts are a married couple in their late 30s who live in a paint-peeling,
high-ceilinged Tel Aviv apartment built in 1937.
Rachel and Hagai cannot
afford anything better – he is an architect with two jobs, and she works as a
fundraiser for non-profit social change organizations. It’s easy to imagine them
in a decent apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan in an American
(pre-OccupyWall Street) Jewish dream.
Hagai, 37, sums up their finances:
“At this pace, maybe in 100 years we can buy an apartment.” Nor does he know how
they will support a future family: “We can raise kids in a box,” he quips. Just
weeks before the protests began, he had complained of reaching a professional
and financial “dead end.”
Yet Hagai was inspired by what he calls almost
“spiritual” experiences on Rothschild Boulevard, the epicenter of the
Now he meets with a small group of neighborhood residents
weekly to talk about community organizing activities. What he really wants, he
says, is a major change in policy to allow affordable housing – “but I’m
doubtful it will happen.”
Dalia, one of their guests, is a dance teacher
in her 30s who lives in Udim, a small community near Netanya, along the coast.
She explains that her economic situation is “very bad” – her major goal, too, is
to create affordable housing for purchasing homes. She has long worried, she
says, that Israeli democracy is falling apart, and she would have liked the
protests to bring in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
the summer, she felt inspired to begin volunteering, for the first time, at the
clinic of Physicians for Human Rights in Jaffa.
It’s a schlep from where
she lives, but she does it, she says, because “I’ve wanted to contribute for a
long time to minorities here.”
Hagai and Dalia illustrate something that
Nir Hezkiyahu, a representative of the Student’s Union (one of the prominent
groups leading the protests), said at a panel at Tel Aviv University on November
7. “If everyone takes his ani ma’amin
[loosely translated as guiding principles]
just one step further – it [the social protest movement] worked,” he
Yet another guest at lunch, Oran, is planning to go far more
than one step further. A 35-year-old owner of a media company, Oran became so
swept up in the protests that he helped establish the second largest tent city
over the summer, on Nordau Boulevard in Tel Aviv. He is now part of what he
calls the “hard core,” which he believes to be 10,000 or more, who remain
committed activists. He has personally become very active in municipal affairs,
such as lobbying to re-route bus lines to better serve elderly
For Oran, the revival of “friendship and solidarity that
has been slipping away for the last two decades,” and the establishment of
engaged communities is “the most “beautiful” achievement of the protests. “I
have no doubt they will bear far greater fruit than they have so far,” he
declares with total conviction.
Rachel represents the 12% in our survey
who were “already active” and planning to continue at the same level.
her American sensibilities kept her somewhat emotionally removed from
for socialism, watching what she called the “raw democracy” on
Rothschild was so
moving, she reveals, that she “honestly started weeping.”
definitely seem to have changed something – large or small – in the
many people. Some of them, clearly, have incorporated a commitment to
something about the country in return. Whether the towering problems of
life – the conflict, the vicious ideological divisions and the deep
alienation – can be solved through the aggregate effect of many small
not clear yet.
But a more engaged public certainly can make a difference.
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