Social protests - still going, or gone?

Is the protest movement dead, or does it have a future?

Tel Aviv protests 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Tel Aviv protests 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
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 policies.
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 virtual).
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 demands.
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.
Following 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 Report 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 most compelling.
“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 remain so.
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 know.
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.
The 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 protests.
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.
Still, following 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 declared.
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 neighborhoods.
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. Although her American sensibilities kept her somewhat emotionally removed from the cries for socialism, watching what she called the “raw democracy” on Rothschild was so moving, she reveals, that she “honestly started weeping.”
The protests definitely seem to have changed something – large or small – in the lives of many people. Some of them, clearly, have incorporated a commitment to changing something about the country in return. Whether the towering problems of Israeli life – the conflict, the vicious ideological divisions and the deep group alienation – can be solved through the aggregate effect of many small steps is not clear yet.
But a more engaged public certainly can make a difference.