Israel: The Tent Intifada

Article by Yacov Ben Efrat.


It was supposed to come in September. For months there have been warnings of a political tsunami when the Palestinians bring their quest for statehood to the UN. The Israeli populace was being readied, the media campaign went into high gear, select army units trained for violent uprisings expected in Ramallah and Nablus, the new Iron Dome to protect against rockets has been spread over southern cities—all this in anticipation. Newspapers and TV milked the theme ad nauseam. Such is the government’s formula for getting weary viewers to forget their woes. Fear instills obedience.

An intifada has indeed broken out, but not at the time or place expected. Once again, as with the Egyptian revolt, Intelligence was off target. In Egypt, to be sure, Israeli Intelligence doesn’t survey public opinion, and it isn’t sensitive to underground currents of rage. But what a surprise! In Israel too our Intelligence managed to miss the rage. It failed to see that under its nose, in the heart of Tel Aviv, a few meters from Defense HQ, a mass movement would arise to rattle the country.

Tel Aviv, July 30, 2011: “We demand social justice!” 150,000 demonstrated nationwide.

True, it isn’t the job of Intelligence to spy on protest movements, but the government is supposed to be sensitive to the public’s moods and wishes. What happened here is that the ceaseless noise of the Knesset’s right-wing, and the defeatist silence of the opposition, caused hearing deficiencies in government. The Likud’s Ze’ev Elkin (“Who?” ) was portrayed as the hero of the people. Just a week before the tent protest he starred on the weekend magazine cover of Yediot Aharonot, our top-selling paper.

Elkin, a Soviet immigrant living in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Eldad, chairs the coalition. He and Yisrael Beitenu, the party of Avigdor Lieberman, have been spearheading a weird agenda whose sole purpose is to expel the Arab minority from the political arena, indeed from any and every arena. The current Knesset has been obsessed with passing “popular” racist laws. Bibi and Lieberman have been vying with each other for the title of Mr. Right. The result has been a torrent of laws: the Law against Observing the nakba (the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948), the Law against Hanin Zoabi (the Arab MK who joined the flotilla), the Law of Loyalty, the Citizenship Law, the Law to Examine the Funding of Non-Profits supporting Terrorism, and now the Law against Anyone calling for a Boycott.

Netanyahu has been busy, of course, in maintaining his coalition, giving each component its heart’s desire. The best way to ensure re-election is simply not to do anything, to let the MK’s amuse themselves with racist legislation, and to let the spookiest characters take the stage each day with some new gimmick. Where peace is concerned, he nips every shoot in the bud, making do with pronouncements against Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who, given the absence of an agreement, means to go to the UN in September. The people of Israel has been asked to swallow the notion that the UN gambit is an existential threat, a decree of fate, in which Netanyahu has no responsibility.

Genie out of Bottle

And behold! On the 14th of July (Oui, Bastille Day), without advance warning, when the Israeli economy seemed far more stable than Greece’s or Spain’s, the dam of obedience burst. A group of young people who had organized in Facebook decided to pitch tents on Rothschild Boulevard, an avenue boasting some of Tel Aviv’s best architectural attractions and which has become, in recent years, a symbol of the city’s impossible real-estate prices. The bug that had spread from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Del Sol in Madrid now landed in Tel Aviv. The slogan coined in Cairo, “Social Justice!” became the main slogan in Israel. Daphne Leef—the Israeli Wael Ghanim—pitched a tent and shouted, “The Emperor is naked!” Within a week a spattering of tents became a tent neighborhood, and within two weeks the model had spread to dozens of cities. Soon it was clear that the issue wasn’t just lack of housing. This was a protest about the whole economy, an entire social class was on the march, the Israeli middle class which, in the last decade, has seen its dream of owning a home, having a decent job and education, raising a family…all vanish into the distance toward never-never land.

Rothschild Blvd, Tel Aviv, July 2011. Written on bench: “Revolution!” On the tent on the right: “Barbershop”

On July 23 tens of thousands marched, on July 30 150,000. Without political parties, without well-known, buyable leaders, this protest is shaking the country’s foundations. Netanyahu is in dire straits. He sees his “work” of two and a half years going down the drain. On July 26, an unprecedented 87% supported the demonstrators. Bibi’s approval rating plummeted from 51% (two months ago, after his speech to the US Congress) to 32%.

This Israeli middle class does not settle in the Territories. It is not ultraorthodox. For the most part, it isn’t Mizrahi either. Nor Russian. And for sure it isn’t Arab. This is the silent majority that serves in the army, does reserve duty, works, pays taxes, and discovers that the political establishment has betrayed it in favor of two sectors at the extremes of the economic map. At one end stand the tycoons and their cronies, who run the economy for profits’ sake—to restrain them would be sacrilege against the Invisible Hand of their God (the Free Market). At the other extreme are the ultraorthodox, who for the sake of theirGod do not serve in the army, do not work and therefore do not pay taxes, but who do “serve” in government, influencing the fates of everyone else by virtue of their organized, right-wing electoral clout.

Until now the impression has prevailed that the public leans heavily to the right, and election results have confirmed this. The Russians are of course right-wing, so are the Mizrahis, a chunk of the Ashkenazi middle class hates Arabs, and polls among the young show clearly that most would like to deprive the Arabs in Israel of their rights. It seemed that all the government needed to do, to eternalize its grasp on power, was to cultivate this “natural” inclination.

But the patriotic public in Israel is slowly becoming aware of the fact that its nationalist leaders have sold the country. The Israel Lands Authority sells the land to the big construction companies, which build for the rich. As for the profits, where do they invest them? In Florida, Moscow and Budapest, not to mention the luxury hotels in Manhattan. Our natural gas resources have been given to the rich as a gift, along with all the factories and companies that once belonged to the state, that is, “to all of us.” Likewise, private companies that were nurtured by state loans and funding, i. e. “by all of us,” are sold to outsiders who, at the stroke of a pen, can move them and their profits elsewhere. Iscar Metalworking, for instance, went to “Zionist” Warren Buffet, and every high-tech company seeks a quick sale to a multinational. The Jewish State has been transformed into a State of the Rich, Incorporated, who count not Jews nor Arabs but cash. On the process by which the State of the Jews became the State of the Rich, see the 2007 piece by Assaf Adiv, “Post-Zionist Israel: The Rules have Changed.”

The people of Israel loves the land of Israel, but the land no longer belongs to it. Sixty years ago it was taken from the Arabs, and in the last twenty years it’s been transferred tax-free to the tycoons. The Arabs became refugees, the Jews became suckers. Only now have they discovered the rules of the game that ruined them.

Bibi is under pressure because he has to throw a bone to the tent protesters. He proposes attainable housing, subsidized public transport and student dorms, but they shout up to him from the streets, “Give us back the welfare state!” Bibi shoulders the stretcher and sweats, but he has no answers. Why does he have no answers? Because the country has already been privatized, and it’s not in his hands, rather in the hands of twenty families. There’s nothing left to give the middle class.

Protest or Revolution

Israel’s citizens are approaching a decisive moment. Suddenly everything is up for discussion, not just the price of housing but also the price of the children’s day-care center, the price of gas, of food, of all. Protest is an important step in awakening out of dogmatic slumber. At the end of the day, however, the middle class will face a hard choice: to stop at the stage of protest or to go on to revolution. The distance between Tahrir Square in Cairo and Ha-Bima Square in Tel Aviv is long. Egyptian youth overthrew a dictator and are struggling now to establish a new regime. In Egypt there’s hardly anything to distribute, whereas in Ha-Bima Square the youth are demanding their share in the substantial social wealth. The Egyptian youth put their lives at risk for freedom’s sake, whereas Israel’s youth are received (for now, at least) with embraces and solidarity. The problem is that revolution requires more than social justice. It requires ideological change. And not just within the economic order (on which there’s already a new consensus) but also in the area of civil rights, equality, and, above all, in relation to the occupation and siege against the Palestinian people.

Tel Aviv, July 30, 2011: “What’s the answer to privatization? Re-vo-lu-tion!”

If the middle class aspires to a basic change in priorities, then it will have to step outside the State of Tel Aviv and look to the north and south, where salaries don’t reach the taxable threshold. The people who earn them are the manual laborers. They work under miserable conditions in factories, construction, agriculture, quarries and transport. For them the minimum wage is the maximum they can hope for. An eight-hour workday does not bring enough to support their families. Because they aren’t organized, the companies do to them as they please. These are the workers who can bring the economy to a halt. They are the ones who can bring about social change through revolution. They don’t need to wait for the politicians to solve their problems. They can bring about change with the very same hands that produce each day the wealth that flows to the pockets of the rich.

Israel is at a crossroads. Questions of life and death open up: Are our intentions toward peace or endless war? Toward an egalitarian state with social justice or “the free hand of the market,” which slaps us in the face each morning when we get up to go to work. The politicians, the Knesset and the parties have all disappointed. It is therefore an obligation, for everyone who goes out and protests today, to think about a political alternative which will translate righteous protest into a new social charter. If instead we continue to waver between the likes of Binyamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, we shall go on wallowing in the same old bog that sucks away our future.


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