In July, the Arab Spring had turned into the Israeli Summer. What started in Tunisia, and then spread to its neighbor Egypt (this time freeing the Egyptians themselves from Pharaoh), had now crossed the Red Sea and arrived in the Holy Land.
Once again, a spontaneous uprising of the people took over public spaces. And like their neighbors, the Israeli movement was spread through social networks and the internet, and was led by the youth. While their demands weren’t as drastic as the demands of Tunisia or Egypt, the very fact that they were protesting at all was a radical development. The demands were primarily economic, focused on equality and social justice, similar to demands from Europe and eventually America.
On July 14th, Daphne Leef pitched a tent in the Habima Square in Tel Aviv to protest the high costs of living. She invited others on Facebook to join her, which very quickly gathered an enormous amount of sympathy and support. Within two days the National Union of Israeli Students officially joined the protests.
The protests spread to dozens of city parks and other public spaces across the country, centered in Tel Aviv along Rothschild Boulevard, a thoroughfare in the city center with high pedestrian traffic and many stores and restaurants. Two weeks after they began, the protests had evolved into marches of over 100,000 people, demanding a wide range of changes. The majority of people in Israel, like the rest of the world, were suffering economically under a system of extreme inequality and corporate control. The protesters were from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds opposing the continuing rise in the cost of living and the deterioration of public services such as health and education. The common rallying cry at the demonstrations was the chant “The people demand social justice!”
As one of the protest signs explained, “An entire generation is demanding a future.”
Like in other countries, there is as a large percentage of educated but dissatisfied youth within the population, and high unemployment, especially in the Arab-Israeli population. Although the protests avoided getting involved with politics in order to include the most people, there was a undertone of making peace with their neighbors and ending the settlements. Most Israelis are not happy with the situation, and feel trapped and isolated. They are watching their politicians destroy their country, and do things they do not approve of. Perhaps the most important legacy that will arise from this movement is peace.
At a press conference held on July 26, 2011 Daphne Leef responded to the various negative allegations made against her and the protest organizers in the media and from the government, “What hasn’t been said about me in the recent days? When we came here with our tents about ten days ago, some said we are spoiled children from Tel Aviv, some said we are leftists, but after more cities from across the country and as more people from across the entire political spectrum in Israel joined the protests — all understood that we represent all the people.”
The protests included many creative expressions. Activists in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Kiryat Shmona held rallies against unfair employment conditions, wearing white masks as a symbol of the “invisible” sector in whose name they protested. “Stroller marches” took place across Israel, highlighting the high costs of raising children. Doctors and interns protested high medical costs, yet low pay and benefits for medical workers. It seemed every section of society was represented. The movement continued to grow until it had the support of over 80% of the population, and still does.
On August 6th, hundreds of thousands of people marched in Tel Aviv, representing a large cross-section of the population, and an impressive percentage of the total population. Large demonstrations occurred in every city in Israel. The explosion of protests has already sparked different modes of thinking, behavior, and a reconsideration of what it is to be an Israeli. The protests were turning into a type of revolution.
The leaders of the social protests met with experts in the fields of economics, society, housing, education, transportation, and the environment, to discuss possible solutions to the social problems facing Israel. The discussions are ongoing.
The protests also spread to the Arab community, in the city of Haifa. Raja Za’atra, who organized the Wadi Nisnas tent city in Haifa, said their protest is part of the nation-wide movement, but also seeks to highlight the specific problems facing the Arab sector. “The banks won’t give mortgages to people who want to buy an apartment,” he said. “In the case of the Arab population, the supply is limited and the prices keep rising.”
One protest camp was established in Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv, where many homeless African asylum-seekers sleep outside on the grass. The Levinsky camp has attracted residents of the city’s impoverished southern neighborhoods, and more radical activists, who are demanding housing for all, regardless of citizenship. The Levinsky camp had repeated confrontations with the police since it was established on July 24th. City officials evicted groups of activists and confiscated their tents on two occasions, but relented after the camp was re-established for the third time. The camp has since grown from about ten tents to several dozen in total, with an outdoor communal kitchen.
Activist Ori Beriyon organized a group of Ethiopian-Israelis to support the Levinsky protest camp in Tel Aviv because they represent the weakest sectors of Israeli society. “If we citizens don’t stand up and take responsibility for the future, for the weaker people, the ones the system abandoned long ago – if we don’t do it, it’ll come back to us in the end,” he said.
“None of us is immune to it. If we don’t demonstrate mutual aid and realize that without me, you are nothing – and the opposite – we’ll never do well. Never,” continued Beriyon. “We must remember this: That if the weak one is in pain, then it’s up to the strong one to get up and help him up.”
Almost since its inception, the Levinsky camp has hosted a steady stream of curious young African children, but the impromptu concert of East African music on August 8th seemed to break the spell of fear for the African adults, drawing in about two hundred party-goers. Live musicians performed traditional Abyssinian songs and rap music in English and Tigrigna for the crowd. The lively music continued into the early hours of the morning.
“We’ve been here for over a week. We give it our all, so that things will change, so that we can really live in a better world,” said Beriyon. “So that the children to be born will look at us and say, thank you for this world you have brought us into!”
The movement created a “Vision Document” outlining six principles in a “framework of investment for a new socio-economic agenda.” The document was distributed among tent cities throughout Israel for comment. It included input from leaders of the tent city protest, along with student leadership and representatives of social organizations and youth groups. The joint statement presents what they see as the main principles behind their struggle for social justice.
“For a number of decades, the various governments of Israel have opted for an economic policy of privatization that leaves the free market without reins,” the document states. “This economic policy, which is presented by those who lead it as precise science and as necessitated by circumstances, has become our daily existence – a war for survival to subsist with dignity.”
The document lists six principles for an alliance between the state and its citizenry: minimizing social inequalities (economic, gender-based and national) and creating social cohesion; altering the main principles of the economic system; lowering the cost of living, achieving full employment and state-imposed price controls on basic items; giving a clear priority to the areas on the outskirts of cities, both in the social and the geographic sense; treating the essential needs of the weaker population in the country, with an emphasis on the handicapped, the elderly and the sick; investment by the state in its citizenry in the fields of education, health and personal safety, and providing genuine solutions to the housing shortage, from transportation to public infrastructure.
The protesters also prepared another document that details specific demands, but they decided not to release it at this stage because there is no dialogue with the government. Among the demands are the reduction of indirect taxes; investing of surpluses in tax revenues in the citizenry through the state budget; ending privatization; increasing rent stipends to those who are entitled to aid; lowering the number of pupils per class; and increasing doctors, hospital beds, and equipment in the health system.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz summed up the movement in an official editorial on August 8th…
The protest has already achieved much. It has stirred civil society to become involved, and to show solidarity following many years of complacency. It has also altered the social agenda in Israel, and political-security discourse has given way to a socioeconomic one, which has taken center stage in an unprecedented way.
The group of young protesters has also managed to instill an element of popular democracy, managing its affairs far away from politicians and political parties. The demonstrators have shown exemplary organizational abilities, which also peaked during the latest, incredibly orderly demonstration in Tel Aviv. The group of speakers during the demonstration was impressive for its diversity.
The themes of the protest have, to a certain extent, also managed to hit home. When the masses cry out throughout the country “the people demand social justice,” it does not yet suggest an orderly and detailed socioeconomic theory or defined set of demands, but it is doubtful whether these are necessary at this stage, in the forging of a new movement.
We are in the midst of what is increasingly shaping up to be an Israeli revolution. Following decades in which the public has curled up in its indifference and allowed a handful of politicians to run the country as they wished, with no significant involvement from civil society, the rules of the political game have changed.
The public has realized that it has much more power and influence than it imagined. Henceforth, every prime minister in Israel will have to take into consideration this emerging force.
It is still hard to know where this protest will lead, and how it will end. For the time being, we can be impressed by its power and the direction in which it seeks to move. We must therefore praise the protesters for the changes in perception they have already instigated and hope that they will be able to continue their efforts in the future, in the same impressive way that has characterized them to date – and bring about genuine change.
But the Israeli Summer came to an end, and the students who had organized the tent cities throughout the country returned to classes. Most of the camps have been disbanded, but the ideas remained. Now they are searching for solutions to their problems, and connecting with the global movement for change.