Summer of DisconTent

A cross-section of Israelis turn up the summer heat over high prices and an inattentive government. Have they created a new movement for social justice?

300,000 protestors call for social justice (photo credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters)
300,000 protestors call for social justice
(photo credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters)
Call it the summer of Israel’s discontent. After years of relative disinterest, inquiring minds want answers to their questions about the social and economic malaise plaguing the country.
And they want change – in prices, in social priorities and in the political and economic systems.
They’ve taken to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to demand it. On August 6, the third Saturday night protest in a row attracted an estimated 350,000 people in four major locales, some 300,000 in Tel Aviv alone, where they flooded Kaplan Street as well as side streets and boulevards for hundreds of yards in all directions.
Life in Israel, they are complaining, costs too much. What here isn’t expensive, even prohibitively so? Housing. Gasoline. Utilities. Groceries. Education. Daycare. Medical expenses. Care for the elderly.
How can a family of four spend half its monthly net income on rent or a mortgage? Who doesn’t leave the supermarket or gas station or dry cleaner looking at the receipt and shaking his head? How can it be that imported products are often cheaper than locally produced goods? And, even stranger, how can the same Israeli goods, once they’re exported – with all the additional shipping and handling involved – be sold abroad for so much less?
Who sets these prices? And why?
The most visible aspect of the discontent are the tent cities that have sprung up throughout the country, established mostly by young students and professionals who say they can no longer afford sky-high rents or the downpayments now demanded for mortgages. These urban campgrounds, because of their visibility and the fact that they remain long after protest marches over education and health care have come and gone, have become a magnet for livid citizens of all stripes who stop by to express their anger.
The focus of their fury is the government and the person at its head, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ideologically committed Thatcherite and champion of small government and privatization.
Netanyahu claims that turning over or selling off government services and assets to the private sector improves those services and lowers prices through competition, benefiting everyone. He regularly quotes Israel’s macroeconomic figures, which are good enough to have brought Israel into the prestigious OECD and are the envy of most developed nations, the US included.
But the anger in the streets shows that the protesters know very well that the same economic policies that brought Israel into the OECD have turned Israel into the country with the greatest social gaps among the OECD member nations. The rage shows that people think privatization has gone too far and, in eliminating the welfare state, has turned Israel into a country for tycoons and fat cats who, on a good day, might throw a few crumbs to the masses.
And most days, they fume, are not good days.
The demands by all stripes are varied, even contradictory. The housing protesters have been joined by the striking doctors and medical students who complain about the cutbacks in the country’s once-proud public health care system; teachers who complain that, due to privatization, they are employed by for-profit companies rather than by the Education Ministry; stroller-pushing single moms whose paychecks barely cover child care. Even a group of reserve soldiers is demanding that the burden of protecting the homeland be divided equitably among all citizens.
Yet slowly, these disparate protests have coalesced into a clear movement. Taken together, they are demanding a lot more than just lower rents, higher wages, cheaper groceries and more attentive health care. As the most prominent signs in the tent cities and at the Saturday night protests have shouted, the people want social justice.
And in demanding social justice, they may just be creating a new Israeli reality – more inclusive, more egalitarian, more democratic. They are demanding nothing less than a new social contract between government and its citizens.
The demonstrations, especially the mega-protest in Tel Aviv, which was broadcast live on television, with frequent cutaways to aerial footage showing the throngs, have been a mixture of seriousness and fun.
But the speakers were all business, echoing the words delivered in a recent biting commentary by one of the country’s most popular and respected columnists, Nahum Barnea: “From a society that sanctifies solidarity we turned into a piggish, greedy and shameless society,” Barnea wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth in late July. “Israel runs its economy in line with free market principles, and that’s a good thing. The problem is that the political establishment, both nationally and municipally, neglected its roles as regulator and entrepreneur. It is captivated by big money.”
Despite the anti-government tone, Itzik Shmuli, who chairs the National Student Union, one of the driving forces behind the tent cities and other protests, told the crowd in Tel Aviv that no one was seeking to replace anyone currently at the top of the pyramid.
“We’re not demanding a change in the government coalition,” he said calmly but clearly into the microphone. “We are demanding a more humane economic policy that won’t destroy people, that recognizes their distress and doesn’t merely tally the financial numbers.”
One of the more visible placards at the demonstration in Tel Aviv showed an empty pie plate, with the complaint that Netanyahu had given all the slices to the überwealthy. Underneath was a plaintive, “There’s nothing left for me.”
Each protest site had its own character. In Jerusalem, as in Tel Aviv, the protesters were clearly enjoying themselves and each other, yet the speakers were more clearly political, although no less non-party.
On giant screens, the organizers broadcast clips from the signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 – a clear reminder that in its first years, the founders believed that they would establish a more just society.
“In 1949, when the state was first established, when Jews who had escaped the fires of the Holocaust were thronging into Israel, when hundreds of thousands of Jews hastily ran from their homes in the Arab countries and found refuge here – when people were still living in tin shacks – the State of Israel enacted its Compulsory Education Law,” declared Rachel Azaria, 35, a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council and one of the striking leaders to emerge from the spontaneous protests.
“They built hospitals, well-baby clinics, public transportation, courts, and the civil infrastructure for us all. But now that I am the mother of three beautiful little girls, it is impossible for me to provide them with what I enjoyed as a child. Why? Because the state has cut back and cut back and cut back... We waited 2000 years for the miracle of the State of Israel. We won’t give up. We won’t let them take our country. We will stay in our tents. And we will demonstrate week after week after week, until they return our country to us.”
And when the organizers read from the Declaration of Independence the verses that pertain to equality for all of Israel’s citizens as an introduction to a speech by Arab-Israeli writer Saed Kashua, the crowd of Jerusalemites cheered wildly.
The street protests, large and small, began in earnest after a tent city was pitched on July 14 along the wide and shady center island of Tel Aviv’s tony Rothschild Boulevard. The tent camp emerged from a Facebook campaign initiated by filmmaker/waitress Daphni Leef after she received an eviction notice due to “redevelopment” in her neighborhood.
The protest soon gave vent to complaints about the country’s astronomical rents and home prices. Within hours more tents had sprung up, and, this being summer vacation, within days there were tent cities around the country, full of young people.
The organizers of the urban campgrounds obviously took note of June’s high-profile, nationwide cottage cheese boycott, begun with a Facebook page set up by Itzik Alrov, a 25- year-old cantor and father of one from Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, which convinced the public that its long-simmering suspicion of pricefixing by giant monopolies in the hands of perhaps two dozen families just might be true.
And the magnificent wedding that energy and real estate tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva threw for his son the same month may have added to the consternation. The evening shindig set Tshuva back a cool $2 million. What’s more, it was held in a national park literally taken over for several days, something no rank-andfile citizen could probably ever arrange. Tshuva has been ranked by Forbes as being one of the world’s wealthiest people, but the wedding went far beyond proving his riches: It made abundantly clear that he has friends in high places.
“People seemed to look at this and say ‘enough,’” political scientist Tamar Hermann, dean of academic studies at the Open University and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, where she oversees its project on the emergence of grassroots politics, tells The Report. “The connection between money and government was just too blatant.”
Add to this the relatively calm security situation in the country, which has led to a sense that the Netanyahu government’s attempts to convince the public that it is necessary to “sacrifice” are little more than fear-mongering.
“I am willing to sacrifice if we have to,” Tal Monash, a 33-year-old PhD candidate at the Hebrew University tells The Report during the rally, his four-year-old son wiggling on his shoulders. “My grandparents came here as Holocaust survivors and they had nothing. They scrimped and saved because they believed they were building a better society.But whom am I building a better society for – for Tshuva?”
The Jerusalem tent city appeared several days after the tents in Tel Aviv began going up, and its history reveals the energy and just-do-it mood that has propelled much of this protest.
“We first set up camp near the northwestern corner of the Old City,” Marik Shtern, a 32-year-old independent strategy and media consultant, tells The Report. “It was pretty ad hoc. A bunch of people who knew each other through our [advocacy] groups, a few phone calls, and that was it.”
The advocacy groups were T’nuat Yerushalmim (Movement of Jerusalemites), which Shtern co-founded to promote “pluralism and livability” in the capital, and Ruach Hadasha (New Spirit), a similar non-profit. They joined forces with the Student Union at Hebrew University and other groups to gain publicity and and take care of logistics.
After a couple of days the police made the activists leave – Mayor Nir Barkat was concerned that a long-term protest site at so picturesque a spot outside the Old City’s ancient walls would hurt tourism, Azaria says. After searching for a site that would be publicly visible and large enough to accommodate them, they decided that the Horse Park would be best.
Horse Park is a quarter-acre square on King George Avenue, in the heart of West Jerusalem. It takes its name from a life-size sculpted metal steed near the street on which families like to plop down their kids for a photo or two.
According to organizers, about 75 people sleep there every night in about 50 tents squeezed onto the grass. There is water and electricity, with public restrooms at the south end. The terrace there has become a kitchen, with institutional-size gas burners, donated pots and pans, and an ancient refrigerator said to have been salvaged and fixed. Protesters are assigned cooking, cleanup and other duties. The creative energy extends to a large, somewhat jerrybuilt tent near the street, where a hand-lettered sign at the entrance says, “Protest hostel: Dedicated with love to all our friends without tents.”
Every evening, free food and live music draw hundreds of teens and young adults to the pocket park – as well as parents, who want to show the younger kids they have in tow what democracy is all about.
“This is the first time I feel I’m protesting for something for ourselves, for our future, for our children,” says Anat Tzvi, 42, a secretary in a high-tech office, holding the hand of her 12-year-old daughter as they visit the tent camp. “I feel that something new is happening – it’s not about the territories, it’s not about the left and the right, it’s about all of us. It’s about social democracy and having a reason to live and struggle here. It’s about creating a society that my daughter will want to live in.”
Despite the constant noise from traffic, especially the passing city buses, the sound of darbukas, guitars and laughter blankets the site on a warm but breezy Thursday evening. But things quickly quiet down for an evening lecture on affordable housing by Ehud Uziel of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
“The average apartment built during the past four years in Israel,” he tells an assembly of about 50 rapt listeners, “is five rooms [four bedrooms] and 182 square meters [close to 2,000 square feet]. That’s way too big and expensive for a young couple just starting out.”
“Other countries allow housing on the open market, but they oversee private contracts to ensure they remain within reasonable parameters,” he says. “Here, there’s no one to regulate things. Our government must come up with tools to do not only this, but to prevent wild fluctuations in prices.”
Others provide lectures on taxation, pointing out that big companies have enjoyed a strong reduction in corporate taxes and that Israelis pay a disproportionate rate of indirect taxes.
According to a Gallup survey on well-being conducted in more than 150 countries between 2005 and 2009, responses by 62 percent of Israeli respondents placed them in the top category of “thriving.” Thirty-five percent made the middle category of “struggling,” and 3 percent landed in the bottom category of “suffering.” This oft-called “happiness index” places Israel in the top 11 countries, tied with Canada and Australia.
This means that when it comes to their sense of well-being, Israelis are in pretty good company. So why the long face?
“At first, the government said we would all benefit from privatization,” Dr. Shlomo Swirski, director of academics at the Tel Aviv-based Adva Center, which tracks socioeconomic trends, tells The Report. “But the wealth is becoming more concentrated in the hands of fewer people. In the case of Israel, the only decile seeing an increase in income in the past decade is the top decile, with others having shrunk.”
Privatization is considered one of the main culprits. While privatization is usually thought of as selling off government assets, it also refers to decisions by the government to slash the budget and turn over to the private sector services that were once provided for free or with hefty subsidies.
“People have to spend more of their salary on education because the government is spending less,” Swirski continues. “They have to pay more for health because the government is not funding the full cost of the basket of medical services. They have to spend more on a home because the government is no longer building public housing or handing out special mortgages.”
In the mid-1980s, facing out-of-control annual inflation that was well into triple digits, Israel began dismantling the welfare state that had grown under 29 years of Labor Party rule. The experts said cutbacks and the sale of costly government assets were the only way. Inflation was brought under control, but benefits and services were severely curtailed to all but the poorest citizens. Netanyahu, with a masters degree in business management from MIT, accelerated the process in the late-1990s during his first term as Israel’s leader, then as finance minister under Ariel Sharon from 2003 to 2005, and later after reassuming the post of prime minister in 2009.
Gone were many of the entitlements, gone was the construction of public housing, gone were heavily subsidized mortgages for young couples, gone were government health programs, gone were numerous educational projects. In their place was the free market, from the construction of homes to the provision of special school programs.
Economists say all of this has helped give Israel one of the world’s most stable economies right now – a big selling point for Netanyahu and his finance minister, Yuval Steinitz. But the masses in the streets think the government has gone too far, that it’s being too tight-fisted with them and too cozy with the private sector, where more and more of them are employed these days. With the Histadrut Labor Federation having been emasculated over the years, despite massive tax cuts for employers, wages have remained stagnant and even dropped.
“There are different protests, but they’re all protesting about the same things: lower purchasing power, the erosion of the welfare state and the strength of monopolies,” Prof. Danny Gutwein, an expert on social-economic history at the University of Haifa, tells The Report.
Perhaps the key to understanding the significance of these protests, says Gutwein, lies in understanding who is protesting.
“The privatization process has in general enriched the ownership class, sometimes by huge margins,” he says. “It has also enriched part of the middle class, especially those working in finance and real estate. I like to call this the ‘privileged middle class.’ But the rest of the middle class I call the ‘deprived middle class.’ These are people who make average salaries, yet their salaries are no longer enough for them to maintain a middleclass lifestyle, although they maintain a middle- class outlook.”
These people cooperated with the privatization process during its heyday, Gutwein says, because they believed they would benefit. “But they deluded themselves. They are protesting because they understand, finally, that they are the losers.”
None of this, however, is really new. So why now?
Hermann says there’s a confluence of events, something she calls a “structure of political opportunity,” generated out of opposition leader Tzipi Livni’s constant hammering away at the prime minister and calling him inept; Netanyahu’s distracted attention as the impending vote on Palestinian unilateral statehood in September comes closer; and a resurgence of trade unions and an attempt to reorganize and unionize workers.
The divergent nature of the protests – lowcost housing, low-cost gasoline and low-cost cottage cheese, as well as a litany of other causes that have sprung up in this summer of discontent – expresses, she says, “wishes for a major shift: not to the socialism of the past, but to more moderate capitalist policies. This is the main bone of contention between the protesters and Netanyahu. No one is talking about the nationalization of industries. These people just want more government, more oversight and regulation.”
What’s really surprising, Hermann says, is the protests’ staying power.
“I’m amazed by their strength and longevity, and by their ability to go from one phase to the next, from casual protest to now putting forward a manifesto and practical demands,” she says. “They have some very knowledgeable people. But the leaders are from the rank and file.”
Critics of the protesters have called them everything from spoiled brats to sushi-eaters; indeed, tent cities everywhere have exuded an air of counterculture that’s somewhere between summer camp and Woodstock.
From there it’s not much of a leap to “leftists,” and numerous critics – many of them West Bank settlers concerned that any solution to the housing crisis might be at the expense of their heavily subsidized communities – claim the protests were being orchestrated by leftist organizations.
“It’s no secret that most people here are center and left,” admits Jerusalem’s Shtern. “But we decided there would be no political placards, no political Tshirts. When [far-right activist] Baruch Marzel showed up with members of the youth wing of the National Union party, we welcomed them but said they’d have to get rid of their party signs. We argued for a long time, but eventually they agreed and pitched a tent. If our protest is going to work, this is the way it has to be.”
The organizers are also trying to steer clear of the matter of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, calling it too potentially divisive, although numerous settlers have showed up at tent cities to suggest that the protesters look at settlements as a way of alleviating any housing shortage.
But then there's the matter of funding. Meals can be prepared by volunteers, but like T-shirts and megaphones, food doesn’t appear out of thin air. According to Shtern, the mostly vegetarian fare at the Jerusalem tent city is donated by vendors at the nearby Mahane Yehuda outdoor market, as well as by supermarkets and area restaurants. As for purchases, an unlabeled spreadsheet obtained by The Report shows that this tent city apparently spent over NIS 16,000 ($4,700) for everything from magic markers and cardboard placards to flyers, newspaper ads and even whistles, although it’s not clear whether this was an ongoing or oneoff expenditure.
Shtern says that most of the money, at least in Jerusalem, has come from non-profit activist groups and individuals, and that most of the leadership donates its time.
Many right-wingers, though, contend that even if the protesters themselves aren’t leftists, the money is. The culprit they mention most often is the New Israel Fund, which supports many civil rights initiatives and in recent months has come under withering fire from right-wing parties and NGOs for allegedly supporting everyone from illegal migrants to the country’s very enemies.
“Whoever has approached us for funds for the tent cities, especially on the periphery, has received money,” Itzik Shanan, a senior NIF/Israel official tells The Report. “Our support for these kinds of social justice activities goes back years, but there is no desire on our part to take over the protests. Our job is to provide financial and other support. As of last week [the third week of the protests], 11 tent cities around the country had been given about $11,000 for supplies and equipment.”
Netanyahu announced the formation of an inter-ministerial panel of experts to look into the protesters’ demands. It sounded more than vaguely similar to a suggestion for a smaller panel of cabinet ministers he had made the previous week – which was rejected outright by the protest leaders, who said they wanted to work directly with the prime minister, not a “ministerial assembly.” The leaders called the latest proposal a “mirage.”
“It seems like a stalling tactic,” says Shtern, who through his work and his family ties – his late father was a Member of Knesset – knows the ways of politics.
Unless something major develops with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which would bring a challenge from the right but is very unlikely, Netanyahu’s government is strong and in no danger of falling. With elections still two years off, no one is expecting any major coalition eruptions over the protests, since each of the members of his coalition has definitive reasons not to disband the government.
Thus, in the short-term, the upheaval bears potential for slight policy changes and – considering the people who have thrown in their support, either explicit or implicit – new alliances. Yet any real results will be felt only in the future.
“Aside from some government adjustments here and there, the protests will raise people’s consciousness,” says the University of Haifa’s Gutwein. “This generation is writing a new code, a new language. We talk about dor hatashah [the generation of 1948, which fought the Independence War and shaped the first decades of the state]. I believe the current generation, the young adults we now see in the streets, will be remembered the same way.”