Country engulfed in protest: Welcome sign of normalcy

Analysis: It’s a luxury in our little part of the world to be able to focus on social and economic issues, not diplomatic and security ones.

Tent city housing protest 1 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Tent city housing protest 1
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Israel was in a foul temper and in no mood to party when it celebrated Independence Day on April 17, 2002, at the height of the second intifada.
Just a month earlier, Israel suffered the absolute worst month of terrorism in its history – 130 people killed in one horrendous month that saw Jerusalem’s Café Moment blown up, a Pessah Seder in Netanya ripped apart by a suicide bomber, and the Matza restaurant in Haifa blown up in another attack.
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On that Independence Day, as Operation Defensive Shield was being waged in the Palestinian cities, the one celebrated four years earlier – marking the country’s 50th anniversary – seemed another era, a distant dream.
Not, mind you, that there were no problems in 1998, or that the Jubilee celebration went without a hitch. Quite the contrary, Israel’s 50th anniversary celebration was marred by a controversy that at the time seemed so important: Whether the dancers of the Batsheva Dance Company would wear long johns, in the name of modesty, when performing at the gala Jubilee Bells ceremony.
“Concern over the outbreak of a culture war,” screamed a Yediot Aharonot lead front-page headline at the time.
A few months after the celebration, university students angered at the price of tuition launched massive protests – including a hunger strike that forced Binyamin Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister, to intervene (and send the students some pizza). With slogans very similar to those being heard today in the “tent cities” erected around the country, the students talked about being at the vanguard of a social revolution. Nothing less.
At that time domestic issues such as the religious-secular divide were indeed major issues on the agenda. Tommy Lapid cashed in on that divide to the tune of six Knesset seats for the Shinui Party in the 1999 voting, and the Center Party also rode that kulturkampf, or culture struggle, to six seats in the same elections.
But then the second intifada erupted and drowned it all out. At the height of the terrorist violence in 2002 one could only dream that religious and economic issues would once again be the country’s main problems. The Palestinian terror and violence relegated the haredi-secular divide and the economic issues to the deep, inside pages of the newspapers, because existential issues such as personal security trumped everything else.
The equation was simple: First worry about life, and then the quality of life.
At that time, during the mind-numbing days of the suicide bombings, there were those who said we will know that normalcy has returned to the country when haredi-secular issues, and the cost of tuition, once again become main concerns.
Well now, in the summer of 2011, that wish seems to have been fulfilled.
Open up the papers these days and the front pages are not dominated by terrorism or kassam rockets, or even the Palestinians going to the UN or Gaza-bound flotillas, but rather by domestic issues, such as the price of cottage cheese, the high cost of housing, how much doctors make, the gap between the rich and poor – and, yes, the kulturkampf with the haredim, witnessed by the protests in Jerusalem on Shabbat against the Karta parking lot.
Seen in the context of what the nation faced during the second intifada, the tents erected on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv this week are a welcome sign. Believe me, were the country still in terrorism’s grip as in the spring of 2002, were soldiers still being abducted along the Lebanese border as in the summer of 2006, and were kassam rockets still raining down on Sderot as in the summer of 2008, those tents would not be there because people would be more worried about those security-based issues.
The current protests are a sign of a return, at least temporarily, to normalcy. It’s a luxury in our little part of the world to be able to focus on social and economic issues, not diplomatic and security ones.
Today, for whatever reason, we feel we can afford that luxury. It’s refreshing; were that it would last.