You''ve never seen a protest quite like ones that have taken place in Tel Aviv over the past few weeks. For one, you''ll see a surprising amount of red t-shirts sported for a supposedly apolitical protest. But if you stay in "Tent City" (as the rows of protest tents on Rothschild Boulevard are called) until the now weekly Saturday evening demonstrations, you''ll soon discover that while housing prices are an issue, they''re not the issue.
In fact, there''s a full menu of issues. Freeing Gilad Shalit, reducing the number of years of army reserve service, legalizing marijuana, creating a full-fledged welfare state, lowering childcare costs and, of course, cottage cheese prices are just a few among them.
They may not know it or acknowledge it, but the protesters on Rothschild are not protesting housing prices. They''re protesting the powerlessness that defines Israeli society. They''re protesting the very core of governance in this country.
Tent City (Photo by: Ben Hartman)
In Israel today, there is no one in the government who represents anyone in the citizenry. There is simply no idea of a political delegate. Rather, citizens vote for ideologies in the form of the various parties. Parties with significant chunks of the vote, which are often diametrically opposed to each other, make deals to form a coalition in the Knesset and go on not to fulfill their electoral mandate, but navigate their political survival (and, of course, their own betterment).
If you are unhappy about something in your city, region, or country, you have only two real options available to you: suck it up or take to the streets. The political option – turning to your local representative – doesn''t exist, since there are no local representatives. From here, you can probably surmise what effect this also has on accountability.
So for the last two or three decades Israelis have resigned themselves to sucking it up. Or maybe more appropriately, they''ve been hunkered down, happy just to make it to the supermarket and back without falling victim to a terror attack. Now with a relative calm on the ground, they''ve moved on to the alternative to mute acceptance, which is noisy demonstration.
But the protests won''t bring the kind of change the protesters are demanding, and regular Israelis need. Five years ago, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly and arrogantly dismissed protests against the Second Lebanon War as "irrelevant," despite the attendance of more than 100,000 people at the Tel Aviv rally alone. There was an immediate outcry, followed by an indefinite silence. Olmert had been painfully right.
Today, Bibi and his various viziers have similarly dismissed the protests out of hand. If you think about it, it''s a politically ludicrous thing for a prime minister to tell 150,000 people that they''re all wrong and that he, who works for them, is right. But Bibi knows the drill. He knows that our beer-sipping, midriff baring, bongo-bopping protesters and their pantheon of issues won''t amount to much more than noise.
In Israel, as in the US, we have that old saying about teaching a man to fish, rather than catching a fish for him. One wonders what the equivalent metaphor is for bringing about political change (though it probably has to do with taking out the garbage).In any case, you have to ask if Israelis are really interested in learning to catch their own political fish. But the presence of all those red shirts and their demand that everything be delivered right to their tent door doesn''t bode well in this regard.
It''s not a coincidence that Theodor Herzl devoted most of the introduction to The Jewish State not to anti-Semitism or political theory, but economics. "We shall not dwell in mud huts; we shall build new more beautiful and more modern houses, and possess them in safety," the great man wrote. Anyone who has lived in Israel knows that where the middle class is concerned, we ceased to build new, more beautiful and modern houses sometime around 1970.
But we also stopped pursuing progress in other ways. For Herzl, the Zionist project meant that, "We shall not lose our acquired possessions; we shall realize them. We shall surrender our well earned rights only for better ones. We shall not sacrifice our beloved customs; we shall find them again. We shall not leave our old home before the new one is prepared for us."
Economic change is only the beginning of change. It means nothing, and cannot exist, without deeper change to support it. We do need to improve our homes and realize our possessions. But we also need to claim better rights for ourselves and rediscover our beloved customs. Only by pursuing and achieving this totality of change can Israel become a home of joy, justice, and security--and not just a dream.