by Hillel Schenker
Today we are clearly witnessing a global phenomenon, which began in Tunisia and Egypt and then spread to Spain, Greece and many other European countries, to Israel, the United States with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and even, incredibly, to the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
The average Israeli probably resists the idea that the protests in Tunisia and Egypt were the forerunners of and spark for the Israeli summer of protest. Even the protest leaders tend to think in home-grown terms. However, there was a prominent sign at the Rothschild Boulevard tent encampment which read “Rothschild, corner of Tahrir Square.” And I saw people carrying signs at one of the marches/demonstrations through Tel Aviv which read “Walk like an Egyptian.” There is no doubt in my mind that, at least at the subconscious level, the beginnings of the Arab Spring were the sparks which helped to ignite the Israeli summer.
Academia is filled with Sovietologists who did not predict the collapse of the Soviet Union. How many specialists predicted that an Arab Spring/ Awakening would break out in 2011?
And like most of my colleagues, I had given up on the possibility of selfgenerated change within Israeli society, and assumed that possible progress toward peace would depend almost entirely on the intervention of external factors — until the surprising and totally unexpected summer of 2011.
Who could have imagined that almost half a million Israelis would take to the streets, declaring that “the people demand social justice!”
From One Tent to Half a Million People
It all began when a young 25-year-old video editor, Dafni Leef, had difficulty finding an apartment to rent in Tel Aviv, a fate shared by many of her generation. She decided to pitch a protest tent on Rothschild Blvd. in the heart of Tel Aviv, and invited people to an “event” on her Facebook page. Soon there were over 1,200 tents in Tel Aviv, and hundreds more sprouted like mushrooms throughout the country.
The first Saturday night after the first tent, 20,000 people took to the streets of Tel Aviv to demand social justice. The following Saturday there were 150,000 people, then 250, 000, then on the night of Sept. 3, 350,000 people in Tel Aviv alone, another 60,000 in Jerusalem and all together almost a half a million people throughout the country.
At first, the government spokespeople and right-wing parties tried to dismiss the phenomenon as just “a bunch of spoiled, sushi-loving, nargila (shisha/waterpipe)-smoking Tel Aviv leftists.” But as the numbers grew and more people joined, the denigrators quickly realized that this was a phenomenon that could not be ignored, and they changed their tone to one of acknowledgment that the protests were a reflection of genuine grievances.
Clearly, the momentum of the protesters was helped by the fact that there was no security crisis this summer, and the mainstream print and electronic media, in part because it was a great story and in part out of identification, gave tremendous ongoing and positive exposure to the movement, including live broadcasts of all the major demonstrations, speeches, performances, etc. Not a single shekel was spent on advertising the protest events throughout the summer! Everything was organized via social media, with tremendous help from the mainstream media. This is not surprising, considering that Israelis are the highest users of social media sites, spending an average of 11.5 hours a month on them, twice the world average, with the younger generation, many of whom consider e-mail to be an old-fashioned technology, clearly on the higher end of the scale.
Facing the Security Challenge
In mid-August a major challenge occurred as a result of an attack on the southern border of Israel with civilian fatalities, apparently from a combination of Islamic extremists from Gaza and Sinai Bedouins. That Saturday a protest opposite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, had been planned, accompanied by speeches and performances by leading artists. There were calls from right-wing securityminded spokespeople to fold up the tents and stand together for the sake of the country. In other words, as usual, security trumps all other concerns.
Not this time. The organizers decided to hold a silent torch-light march/vigil through the streets of Tel Aviv, out of solidarity with the victims of the attack — but with a declared determination to continue the struggle for social justice.
Another attempt to undermine the protest movement occurred when right-wing factors discovered that Dafni Leef, one of the recognizable faces of the movement, had signed the annual 12th graders letter a few years earlier, declaring her opposition to serving in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). It turned out that she hadn’t even served in the army, though apparently for health reasons. This, they felt, marked her as an “unpatriotic Israeli” unfit to stand on a soapbox and make speeches.
This also didn’t work. She fought back against the attempt to discredit her, her colleagues stood by her, and the average man and woman on the street continued to have tremendous admiration for the protest movement.
Clearly, we were entering a new stage in Israeli consciousness and behavior.
Netanyahu’s Response — the Trachtenberg Committee
Realizing that he couldn’t ignore the movement, Netanyahu decided to provide a response by appointing a committee to discuss the grievances raised by the protest movement. The person chosen to head the committee was Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, chair of the Higher Education Council’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, who had served as head of the National Economic Council under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2006-09. This was an interesting choice, because Trachtenberg had actually marched in the first demonstrations and was known to be a dove who had been a member of a socialist-Zionist youth movement in his native Argentina. However, he became an ardent supporter of neoliberal economics, albeit one bolstered by a reasonable social safety net.
There were two responses to this move. Most of the leaders of the protest movement dismissed it as merely cosmetic measures, lacking substance, and refused to participate in the committee’s deliberations, though one protest leader, National Student Union Chairperson Itzik Shmuli, disagreed and wisely, decided to meet with the professor and his associates.
The second response was the readiness of dozens of leading academics and intellectuals to volunteer their services as advisors to the young protestors, essentially to create a counterpoint to the government committee. The two co-chairs of the advisory “experts committee” are Prof. Yossi Yonah, a professor of philosophy at Ben-Gurion University (who is interviewed in this issue), and Prof. Avia Spivak, a professor of economics at Ben-Gurion University and a former deputy governor of the Bank of Israel.
Prof. Trachtenberg was filled with praise for the social protest movement at the annual State of the Nation conference organized by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) on Nov. 17, 2011. He said that: 1) It had succeeded in giving exposure to major economic inequalities and deprivations and gave expression to anxieties, particularly of the younger generation, about the future; 2) it had placed the need for social justice on the national agenda; and 3) it had expressed the sense of alienation that many people feel from the government authorities and institutions. However he declared that all of the recommendations of the committee would be made within the framework of the current budget. The bottom line was that he expressed opposition to Keynesian economics and the proposition — advocated by Prof. Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate in economics, and others — that the way to confront the economic and structural crisis is to increase investments in infrastructure and job creation, and wouldn’t even consider a radical socioeconomic restructuring along the lines of the social-democratic principles of his youth.
After 60 days of deliberations, the Trachtenberg Committee issued its recommendations.
Limited by Netanyahu’s directive that they stay within the bounds of the national budget, they recommended a reduction in the defense budget to enable increased spending on social services, but didn’t touch the basic questions of the price of settlement expansion, the occupation and the large sums of money given to subsidize the relatively non-productive Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector, and the need to increase work productivity in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors of Israeli society, among other major questions. They did recommend a cap on tax breaks for the wealthy, free education up to the age of three and other positive ideas.
The doubters in the protest movement said, “I told you so.” Meretz Chairperson Chaim (Jumes) Oron, who had been an active opposition member of the Knesset’s Economic Committee, said that the preamble of the committee’s recommendations reflected Prof. Trachtenberg’s youth movement background, but the recommendations themselves were all Netanyahu neoliberal market-forces economics.
And now, given the rise of political Islam in the neighboring countries, one of the immediate outcomes of the Arab Spring, even the defense budget reduction is in doubt “due to the changing circumstances in the region.” As has been his habit throughout his political career, Netanyahu always sees danger rather than opportunity lurking around every corner. And most of the other positive recommendations, like free education up to the age of three, also seem to be falling by the wayside.
Netanyahu is also waving the banner of the crisis in Greece, Spain, Italy et al, where large percentages of the young people are unemployed, to justify his conservative economic policies.
But the prime minister doesn’t seem to understand or accept that there is a global structural economic crisis that exists in Israel as well. The old forms of deregulated laissez-faire capitalism, coupled with drastic privatization and a dwindling social safety net, are not working. They are creating serious gaps between rich and poor and a major crisis for youth looking at their prospects for the future throughout the world.
In Israel, the protest movement began around the question of affordable housing for young people, and it expanded to the issue of the high cost of living in general and the high cost of raising a family.
What about the Occupation?
One question that disturbs many Israeli peace activists is the fact that the occupation, the conflict, and Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab relations in general are not on the agenda of the protest movement. The protest leaders all say that this was the only way to ensure that the movement would be inclusive and attract massive numbers of Israelis. Given the fact that, except for the annual Rabin Memorial rally, the largest numbers that the peace movement has been able to attract to demonstrations in recent years, at the time of the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip, was a total of 5,000-10,000 people, it would appear that the leaders of the summer protest movement have succeeded in “cracking the genetic code” of the Israeli public, and this achievement has to be respected.
However, without placing the price of the settlements and the occupation and the need to resolve the conflict on the agenda, there is no possibility of achieving social justice in its deepest sense, both in terms of Israel’s socioeconomic needs and the fact that you cannot have a just society which imposes an injustice on another people.
At the first Tel Aviv-Jaffa General Assembly of the protest movement, which took place on Friday, Oct. 21 in Gan Meir Park in central Tel Aviv, we divided up into l0 discussion groups of about l0 people each to discuss the agenda and future mandate for the assembly. When I spoke I emphasized two points — one was that if we were the Assembly of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, we had to reach out to the Arab citizens of Jaffa. The second was that it was absolutely essential to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the agenda, and to reach out to Palestinians and Arabs in their respective protest movements, with the aid of social media tools. In my circle, Dr. Daniel Dor of Tel Aviv University responded with the standard answer of the protest movement leaders: This was not the time to place the conflict on the agenda, though he noted that there had been problems in contacts with the protest movements in Europe, precisely because of this lack. When it came time for representatives of each circle to report about the discussions in each of the l0 groups, one young woman described various suggestions that had been made in her circle, and then she added — “We also talked about the kibbush (occupation) — there, I said the word, the elephant in the room” (that everyone sees and no one wants to speak about).
Impact So Far
So what has been the impact of the Israeli social protest movement so far? First of all, it has created a new public discourse in Israel, one that includes the concept of social justice, a lack of confidence in the statements and policies of the government and politicians in general, and an opening of the Pandora’s Box of anxieties about Israel’s socioeconomic future. Security is no longer the be-all and end-all of all public discourse. In addition, it has created new forms of activity in the public sphere — particularly the mass, yet intimate gatherings around roundtables in public spaces and community centers, in which experts and ordinary citizens have a chance to exchange views — a new form of popular participatory democracy.
The Need for a Political Expression
One of the most interesting episodes this summer was the visit of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the student protest movements in May 1968 in France/Germany and throughout Europe, who was brought for a week-long series of encounters in protest movement venues by Ofer Bronchstein, a Sephardi activist and former executive director of the now defunct International Center for Peace in the Middle East. Cohn-Bendit, then known as “Danny the Red,” and now co-president of the Green faction in the European Parliament, made many interesting observations and had one major message to deliver: The main mistake of the 1968 student protest movement was the fact that they felt disdain for the political process and did not attempt to translate their protest into achievements in the political arena.
It is too soon to tell whether the protest movement will produce a fundamental change in the Israeli political configuration. However, it is already possible to witness some impact on the political parties. Newly elected Labor Party leader Member of Knesset Shelly Yachimovitz clearly benefitted in the party primaries from the fact that she is the MK most identified with the struggle over socioeconomic issues. In Kadima, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, a Sephardi born in Iran, who actually participated as a rank-and-file demonstrator in some of the protests, is mounting a serious challenge for party leadership against current party chairperson MK Tzipi Livni. And in the smaller left-wing Meretz Party, MK Zehava Galon, who is primarily identified with peace and human rights issues, is being challenged for party leadership by MK Ilan Gilon, who is more identified with socioeconomic concerns and has a clear social-democratic agenda. We don’t know yet whether new political forces and parties will emerge, or whether, like in Egypt in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is the established, well-organized parties that will benefit from the fruits of the protest.
Looking Toward the Future
There has been an apparent split, or at least a divergence of paths, between two camps within the protest leadership, personified by two of the most identifiable faces in the protest movement: Dafni Leef and Stav Shafrir, both young, charismatic and dedicated women. The group associated with Shafrir has decided to focus on influencing the political process, to make specific legislative proposals, and to try to influence the politicians, the Knesset and the government. Some of them may decide also to get directly involved in politics. The group associated with Leef says that they want to focus more on the cultural level, in establishing a direct dialogue with broad sections of the general public, declaring that their strength is in the extra-parliamentary arena. These are two sides of the same coin, and both say they will continue to work in partnership with each other.
One thing that concerns all connected with the protest movement is the perception that some of the recent anti-democratic legislative initiatives in the Knesset and the government are geared toward undermining the freedom of expression and the NGO infrastructure that provided tremendous support for the movement during the summer.
Looking back at the summer of 2011, five months later in the heart of winter, I think of images of the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco (1967), of May 1968 in Europe and of Woodstock (1969). To some degree, that’s what the summer of 2011 feels like, a magical time.
Today, despite superficial appearances to the contrary, the protest movement has not disappeared. It is busy organizing at the community level, a Social Guard initiative is ensuring active citizen monitoring of Knesset committee activities, the advisory experts are formulating policy papers and legislative proposals, and the ground is being prepared for the next round of mass public protests.
It is clear that the demand for social justice will remain a part of the national discourse for a long time to come, and I am convinced that the summer of 2011 will have a profound impact on Israel’s future.