'We Are All United' Israel Protests Could Boost Peace Process
Hundreds of thousands of people have been demonstrating for social justice in Israel. The protests are uniting a divided nation, and have brought Jews and Israeli Arabs together. Could the movement also help bring about a reconciliation with the Palestinians?
It is the 26th day of the protests when Avraham Berkovici enters the tent city on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard. He is walking with a cane and carrying a backpack in his hand. His shirt is soaked with perspiration. "What's happening in this country is unbelievable!" he shouts. Berkovici is a goldsmith, archeologist and Holocaust survivor, and now he too has joined the protests. "I want to show that this doesn't just affect the young people, but all of us."
As a child, Berkovici fled across the Alps to Italy, where he took a ship to the port of Haifa. Since then, he has participated in every war Israel has waged. "But this country," he says, "has forgotten us." Pension benefits are low, the hospitals are overcrowded and rents and food are expensive. Those who survived the Holocaust often live in poverty in Israel today.
It began with a few tents on the boulevard in downtown Tel Aviv. Three weeks later, hundreds of thousands were demonstrating for more social justice. Some 87 percent of Israelis agree with their demands. There has never been as much consensus in this country, whose society is more divided than most.
Now doctors, medical students, white-collar workers and taxi drivers are protesting together. Single mothers, farmers and students have taken to the streets. But the angriest people are those regular citizens who perform mandatory military service, pay taxes and try to pay down their debts, only to be left with nothing at the end of every month.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established an expert commission and postponed a gasoline price hike. The defense budget will probably also be frozen. Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, has said that new elections are not unthinkable. A new social party could conceivably win 15 percent of the seats in the Knesset.
Ironically, the site of this transformation is the most expensive boulevard in Tel Aviv where, framed by Bauhaus villas and the glass towers of banks, a kilometer-long strip of tents now winds its way down the street. Artists, boy scouts and lesbians sit alongside soldiers, settlers and devout Jews, next to the shopping carts of the homeless. A creative explosion of posters, photos, works of art and installations completes the scene.
Stav Shafir stands in the midst of this cheerful anarchy and still can hardly believe her eyes. Until four weeks ago, she was a writer for a lifestyle website and was studying at the same time. She had little free time and too many debts. Now Shafir, a 26-year-old with red curls and a green dress, is one of the leaders of the protests.
She smiles sheepishly when an older man taps her on the shoulder and says: "I've been waiting my entire life for people like you." It's the sort of remark she has heard a lot of lately.
Shafir nods, explains, laughs and remains consistently friendly, even though she has hardly slept since July 14, when she was one of the first to pitch her tent on the boulevard. "Our politicians have talked us into believing that the conflict with the Palestinians is the only problem. They want to scare us when they talk about how Iran will attack us and that we could face a second Holocaust," she says. "That was their way of trying to keep us from demanding our rights."
For years, Israeli politics has revolved primarily around terrorism and protecting the country against attacks. The left retreated when the peace process failed, the Labor Party fell apart and social policy was marginalized. All of that is now reversing itself, and many hope that this silent majority that yearns for a different Israel will now gain a voice of its own.
Saving Israel from Extremists
"It's no coincidence that the protests began in the same week in which the boycott law was passed. The people have realized that Israel is becoming less and less democratic," says Assaf Levi, an entrepreneur and one of the leaders of the protesters. He is referring to a new law that limits freedom of expression by prohibiting calls to boycott Israeli products, a tactic that activists use in campaigns to stop the occupation of the West Bank. "We want to stop this process," says Levi. "We don't want to turn Israel over to the extremists."
His generation had withdrawn from politics in frustration, but many are now rediscovering it, says Levi. They talk about solidarity, grassroots democracy and community, concepts that many had considered old-fashioned until now. Their long list of demands includes a reduction in the value-added tax, rent control, free childcare, an increase in the minimum wage and an end to privatization.
Stav Shafir, the protest organizer, now meets with politicians and economists, is invited to appear on talk shows and gets up at 6 a.m. for the morning news shows. Four days after the tent protests began, she was invited to appear before the Economic Affairs Committee of the Knesset. She spoke clearly and maturely, giving a speech that made the helpless politicians seem ridiculous by comparison. They included the foreign minister, who insists that there is no crisis, because the restaurants are full of young people; the defense minister, who warns that Israel is not Switzerland, and that Israelis should not forget the security situation; and the Likud Knesset member who filed a complaint because she was sprayed with water in the tent city.
The right-wing camp is making every effort to vilify the leaders of the protests as anarchists, communists and radical leftists, and as "sushi eaters and water pipe smokers." But this time their divisive tactics aren't working.
"How many tent cities are there now?" asks Shafir. Seventy-eight, says one of the organizers. "Seventy-eight?" She smiles, still finding it hard to believe. New cities are springing up every day, already encompassing 3,383 tents throughout the country. And on Saturday, over 70,000 people took part in protests in the centers of a dozen towns and cities across Israel, following deliberate calls by activists for protests outside Tel Aviv.
"They accuse us of living in a bubble here, and that it's just a protest by people from Tel Aviv. But that's not true," Shafir says. "Everyone is suffering."
Dan Ben-David is an expert on growth economics and the head of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Jerusalem. He can express the frustration in numbers. Poverty affects almost 20 percent of all families, he explains, and the labor force participation rate is barely 57 percent. Social expenditures are consistently declining, while defense expenditures per capita are among the highest worldwide. The average number of schoolchildren per class is 39. "We are at risk of becoming a third-world country," says Ben-David.
He has been warning against decline for decades. Every year, Ben-David's report on the state of the nation is more dismal. Israel is a nation of startup companies and a leader when it comes to patent applications and software development, but this is merely the gleaming façade. Just beneath the surface lies a strained country undermined by conflicts of interest.
"Our government gives preference to all those who wield power: Orthodox Jews, settlers, business leaders, unions," says Ben-David. Unions and tycoons, as they are called in Israel, are allowed to build monopolies, he adds. The settlers have been given new roads and low-interest loans, and the Orthodox Jews are granted scholarships so that they can devote more time to studying the Torah. Meanwhile, the cutbacks affect the middle class.
At the end of the days, says Ben-David, the protests are also partly about the occupation of the West Bank, the settlers, the Orthodox Jews and the question of how Israel defines itself. In his view, social justice also means that religious Jews should have to work and that Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians should have the same rights.
But the protest leaders, anxious to include everyone, have not addressed these issues so far. "We cannot resolve the conflict with the Palestinians without fixing our internal problems, between religious and secular Jews, and between Jews and Arabs," says Shafir, the protest organizer. "We don't talk to each other; we just demonstrate against each other. But that's changing now."
Bringing Jews and Israeli Arabs Together
In the northern Israeli city of Safed, where rabbis normally call upon citizens not to rent to Arabs, they now sit together in one tent. And during large-scale protests on Saturday, Aug. 6, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and an Israeli Arab poet stood together on a stage in front of hundreds of thousands of people for the first time. "We are all united in this struggle for social justice, equality, peace and fraternity," the poet said, and the crowd applauded.
This new community spirit is also breaking down barriers within society. "The very dynamic of the protests is already gnawing at the foundation on which the occupation rests -- the separation axiom," writes the blogger Dimi Reider. And if hundreds of thousands of people can take to the streets for social justice, then why not for peace?
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan