21 August 2011

Israel’s Tent Protests – A Gathering Storm or a One-Off Phenomenon?

Israel’s Protests Are Limited by a Shared Zionist Consensus

Almost unremarked in the British media are the protests in Israel. They have also been ignored by much of the Arab world as not fitting into its nationalist template.

Others, Israeli socialists and peace campaigners in particular, have seen them as heralding the possibility of a joint Jewish-Arab struggle against economic conditions. If only one could put Zionism and the national struggle to one side then one can concentrate on a joint struggle between Jew and Arab.

This cry was heard often enough from British political groups such as the Militant Tendency (now Socialist Party) over Ireland and also from the Communist Party. The problem is that even in plain economic terms Israeli workers are advantaged over Arabs in terms of jobs, pay, conditions, housing, education etc. The reality is that despite the tentative steps towards unity, the majority of the protestors were determined to be ‘non-political’ i.e. not to raise the thorny issue of the Occupation and discrimination against Israel’s own Arab citizens. Theirs was an internal struggle. However there are important lessons to be learnt nonetheless.

The last piece by Adam Keller, A changed agenda? reflects the aftermath of the attack by an unknown group from the Sinai which killed 8 Israelis. Almost immediately 7 people, including a young child, were killed by ‘retaliatory’ bombing raids over Gaza despite Israel’s frank admission that it had no proof that the attackers came from there. If the attackers had not been paid personally by Netanyahu then he ought to have done because they came as a welcome relief to him and fellow war mongers. As Keller says in his article:

Someone in the wild Sinai peninsula took a decision and sent a big, well equipped squad to infiltrate across the border into the Israeli Negev, attack buses and cars and engage in running battles with soldiers and shoot and kill and kill indiscriminately. And presto, in one minute the agenda changed and the public mood changed into a state of emergency and war at the gate and in all communications media there was no more talk of social protests, nothing but terrorism and army and security issues.

The first piece is from a comrade, Israeli socialist, Professor Moshe Machover, a retired academic in London and one of the founders of Matzpen, the Socialist Organisation in Israel. Machover has been particularly diligent in his filing of reports of the protests and one cannot help but get the feeling that he is guilty of optimism of the intellect.

On the other hand it is possible to simply dismiss the protests as having nothing but a temporary significance, to be blown away by the next ‘emergency’. I wrote this blog before reading Keller’s article and I said that ‘we will see whether the killings by the armed gang that emerged from the Sinai and Israel’s ‘retaliation’ against Gaza… does indeed defuse the protest movement and drive it back into Zionist nationalism.

My own view is represented in an article for Weekly Worker Support Israeli Protest Movement Without Illusions. It would be the height of sectarianism to refuse to support the protests until they for example come out against the occupation. But one can also bend the stick too far the other way and believe that if not revolution then the beginning of a new Israeli Arab/Oriental Jewish alliance can now be constructed.

Israel is a special type of state – a colonial settler state. It is built upon the dispossession and oppression of the indigenous population, of whom Israel’s 1½ million Arabs remain. Class politics have never developed in the way that they have in other ‘normal’ capitalist states. The primary division, between Jew and Arab, has also meant, as we are now seeing, the growing impoverishment of working class and middle class Jews. And the Arab bogey has always been the means of combating any potential unity. Hence in the Seaman’s Strike in 1951 strike leaders were actually called ‘terrorists’ as were the port workers in Ashdod in 1969. To undermine national (i.e. Jewish unity) is to do the work of the ‘terrorists’. There is, unfortunately a long nationalist logic to this.

The articles below from various activists demonstrate how the settler right and the Israeli government is doing their best to divide the movement. ‘You want housing’ they say, ‘Well there’s plenty in the West Bank.’ And unfortunately this is how settler regimes have traditionally bought off opposition. The fight of leftists and radicals is laudable but there seems little basis for any long-term unity. Jeff Halper describes how one activist, all in favour of peace, doesn’t see his own role as a soldier on the West Bank, as violence.

Unity, genuine unity, can only be on the basis of a challenge to Zionism. There are certainly the beginnings of this, with the call for a state for all its citizens. But to many this will be a nice slogan whose reality they neither perceive nor understand.

Of course it is a tragedy that the Palestinian leadership cannot see the potential in what is happening, because there is no doubt that the Arab Spring has played a major part in the belief that governments are not invincible and giving strength to the idea that Israel is not forever immune to the winds that blow across the Arabian desert. But we should also heed the warnings of history. In 1933 there were hunger riots in Belfast which were solved by sacking Catholic workers and employing Protestants in their place, as well as driving them out of northern Ireland altogether in many cases. As Lord Brookborough, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland at the time said, Ulster is a Protestant State for a Protestant People and none of this (the riots) would have happened if employers had understood this.

It is no accident that in the middle of these protests that a Bill was introduced in the Knesset by Kadimah MK Avi Dichter
and former chief of Shin Bet (Security Service) which states that in a conflict between Israel’s Jewish and Democratic (?) nature, the latter must give way and where the law doesn’t give guidance then the judiciary can look to religious law, i.e. the Halachah, which is the equivalent of shariah law.

As with the revolutions across the region, these protests will by themselves end up changing little, even though the poorest sections of society in Israel become poorer. However like their Arab counterparts, these protests may signify a change in politics in Israel in the long and medium term, with the possible formation of a new left and activist movement to replace the discredited left-Zionist parties.

Tony Greenstein

Moshe Machover writes:
The following vignette is by a comrade in Tel-Aviv.

Last evening [Saturday 13th August], A[...] and I joined the "social justice" demonstration in Jaffa [which is now incorporated in Tel-Aviv as a southern suburb]. The starting time was 21:30. We arrived on time - and found some 300 people already there, demonstrating. The crowd swelled quickly to about 500, half of them Arabs. [Jaffa has a residual Arab population, which escaped being ethnically cleansed in the Nakba.]

The night before, a hot discussion almost split the Jaffa tent camp. Several people said they want to bring a Palestinian flag, and explained how it symbolizes their opposition to Zionism, oppression, etc. Others said this would alienate Jews who are expected to join. At last a democratic decision was made: the 50 or so participants voted, 26 of them favoured raising the flag, and with 10 abstentions they won.

There was no Palestinian flag in the demo... it seems that the people were satisfied with the principled democratic victory, confirming their right to raise the flag, but understood the tactical position of the minority and felt no need to exercise their right. BTW, there was no Israeli flag either, only 4-5 red ones.

A friend of mine, an Arab resident of Jaffa, commented that there was no presence of the Islamic movement. He said they lost a lot of "points" in Jaffa for keeping apart from the social protest. There was no green flag, of course.

Although the majority of the non-Arab participants were radical leftists, most of the slogans chanted were "only" stretching the "social justice" to include the Palestinians, especially in Jaffa. There was no "2 states for 2 peoples" slogan or "down with the occupation". Among the written poster one (in Arabic only) demanded "the right to return to the old city of Jaffa", and the biggest one, in Hebrew, said:

Ha’am doresh Tzedeq Hevrati (The people demands social justice)
Haqetz lakkibbush velaapartheid (Down with the occupation and apartheid)

The Arabic equivalent frustrated the Arab demonstrators: the main slogan, “The people demands social justice” does not scan in Arabic [ie the rhythm is wrong...]. So they chanted: “Al-Sha'ab yourid Tzedeq Hevrati”, a inventive mixture of Arabic and Hebrew.

The demonstration was supposed to finish at 23:00. On time the organisers announced it's over. But the people stayed for 15 minutes more. Then the organisers, apparently pressured by the police (who kept apart and were busy with the traffic - it was in the Clock Square in Jaffa, a very busy area on weekends), thanked the people and noticed that usually people start leaving demonstration before their official finishing time, but this time they stayed on and on, with no dwindling of numbers.

Saturday August 13th 2011 saw the largest demonstration in Israel's history in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis poured onto the streets to demonstrate against the high housing prices and rising costs of commodities. Meanwhile Israel's Palestinian citizens who make up 20% of the population join the movement that began on July 14th and became known as J14. The Real News' Lia Tarachansky spoke to Dror K. Levy, a professor of Cultural Studies at Haifa University, Mary Copti, a central community leader in one of Israel's mixed cities of Jaffa (Yafa), and Wafa Abu Shamis who began the Jaffa tent city against home demolitions and gentrification.
More videos:

The people want a reset
Published 02:44 10.08.11

As the movement grows, some will continue to think and demand "justice" within the borders of one nation, at the expense of the other nation that lives in this land. Others will understand that this will never be a country of justice and welfare if it is not a state of all its citizens.

By Amira Hass

"Don't talk about how unfortunate you are, talk about what your rights are," Reuven Abergil reminded the people who came to the tent protest in Jerusalem's Independence Park. That was on Sunday, a few hours after Abergil, a few women living in the tents and a number of social activists were arrested at a rally for public housing in front of the offices of Amidar, the public housing agency. They were released a few hours later.

The pensioners who demonstrated in Tel Aviv on Monday said the same thing that Abergil, a leader of the Israeli Black Panthers movement from the 1970s, told the Jerusalemites. At the protest tents with which we have been blessed, the demonstrators are re-interpreting every day the slogan "the people demand social justice." And this resonates just as well as its progenitor in Arabic, "the people want the fall of the regime." A humorous takeoff on the slogan, which rhymes in Hebrew, can now be found tacked to the trees on Rothschild Boulevard: "The silent majority wants a reset."

The deeper you go into the meaning of the words "social justice," the less that phrase seems slogan-like. It turns out to be flexible and dynamic. Every day it includes more and more people and groups, as well as more understandings and coalitions that a moment before seemed impossible; for example, protesters from Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood and Arabs from Jaffa in one group in the Tel Aviv demonstration with posters in Arabic and Hebrew.

True, some learning is still to be done, as well as listening to the complaints of those who are not middle class, represented in Independence Park and Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park. You people on Rothschild (and your media) are ignoring us, you're like the "boys from the Finance Ministry." But the continuing dialogue between Facebook and the direct democracy in the streets gives us hope that this can be repaired. Because that's the beauty of the phrase "social justice" in its potential subversiveness against the existing order.

That's why the representatives of that order so want the protest movement to emasculate the slogan into a series of arithmetic demands. That's why some representatives and beneficiaries of the existing order - viz. the Yesha Council of settlements - are trying to embrace the movement and disguise themselves as its offspring, appearing among the tents with their honeyed words. And they are not the tycoons.

Because "social justice" knows no borders, it imposes on those who call for it a responsibility and an obligation beyond the original intent. Indeed, it appeared Tuesday in the Vision Document compiled by the protest leaders (as quoted in Haaretz): "minimizing social inequalities (economic, gender-based and national) and creating social cohesion essential for the existence of the state."

One may assume that the writers of the document knew that minimizing gaps between national groups means ceasing to discriminate in law and practice against Palestinian Israeli citizens. When they get down to details, they will find that true fulfillment of this demand requires immediate allocation of land in the Galilee and central Israel's Triangle area to Palestinian villages whose master plans constrict them intentionally. They will also learn that originally many of these lands were expropriated from Palestinians for use by Jewish citizens. They will find it hard to ignore the new laws and the old laws that must be abrogated to minimize gaps between national groups.

When they go with the flow of the meaning of their demands, they will come to the unrecognized Negev Bedouin community of Al Arakib, for example, and they will discover the systematic way the state is wiping out the rights of the Bedouin and their history in this country to create living space for Jews.

In the never-ending poem called "social justice," the singers will reach a confusing line that says the state's borders reach the Jordan River. And in that great country, the Jewish settlement of Na'aran north of Jericho was allocated 433 liters of water per person per day in 2008, while the nearby Palestinian village of Al-Uja was allocated 82 liters of water per person per day. Later in the poem it will say that the rule is that the state allocates much more water to Jews than it does to Palestinians.

In the coming months, as the movement grows, it will split. Some will continue to think and demand "justice" within the borders of one nation, always at the expense of the other nation that lives in this land. Others, however, will understand that this will never be a country of justice and welfare if it is not a state of all its citizens.

August 10th, 2011

Ok… a little bird told me there was this teeny, modest wavelet of demonstrations in Israel, so maybe it’s time I write something about it.
(snark, snark; actually my mom, two of my siblings and a couple of nieces were among those 4-5% of Israel’s population, over 300,000 people, taking to the streets on Saturday night)

There is so much to write, and things are moving so fast. Seemingly out of nowhere, this protest wave has snowballed, or – considering the season and physical location – sweatballed, right into prime minister Netanyahu’s (hereafter, “Bibi’s”) face.

But of course, this is anything but “out of nowhere.” In an open-ended diary series, I will try to explore some key processes and issues at the heart of this wave, with an emphasis on those that have remained largely unexplored in mainstream reporting and analysis and/or in English-language media.

To forestall some predictable comments, as was repeatedly mentioned, indeed the Occupation regime and its ills has not taken center stage in the protests. Occupation is not denied, but is also not emphasized. And yet, the July 14 movement (home page, Hebrew) is a genuine Left-themed phenomenon. It will take at least an entire diary to explain how and why this apparent contradiction is possible; but not this diary. For now, you can look up Dimi Reider’s excellent analysis piece. Or in 2 sentences: masses of citizens will only be mobilized by a message that speaks to their hearts and to their firsthand experience. Appealing for justice on behalf of those still perceived as an enemy or a threat, does not come close to meeting this condition. This does not mean that “leftist protest organizers were cynically crafting a message to manipulate the public” (this, incidentally, was the government’s very first knee-jerk spin to try and defuse the movement). Rather, just like in the Arab world, this is a case of a long-overdue uprising just waiting for the right spark.

With this I proceed towards the substance of the first diary. I will try to be more concise than usual. Since the movement’s main messages are economic, I start with “Bibinomics” – which is far and away Bibi’s signature policy issue, the one field in which he has distorted and demolished Israeli reality beyond recognition – and, consequently, also his greatest political liability.

How Israelis Fell in Love with Neoliberalism

Bibi had it easy: before he even launched his political career, neoliberalism was already state religion in Israel.

From its 1948 birth, Israel was dominated by socialist parties and institutions. Even though this socialism was self-contradictorily secondary to the national cause (which mandated e.g., systematic discrimination along lines of national identity), still among Israeli Jews the daily life in the 1950′s 60′s and even deep into the 1970′s, was that of a socialist Super-Nanny state. No, not in the tradition of Western Europe, but far more like the Eastern European model with its corruption, ineptitude and hypocrisy.

For example, common Israelis waited 10+ years to get a phone line from the government ministry running the system, while watching cronies hop-skip the line and hearing how in America you can get a line on the day you order it. Or, the single state-run TV channel broadcast in B&W until the early 80s, and used a special technological “Eraserchik” to de-color the wildly popular color programs imported from the US and England – so that the masses won’t waste their savings on decadent entertainment gadgets (some entrepreneurs made a killing selling color TV’s equipped with “Anti-Eraserchiks”; Oz Shelach has a hilarious skit on this in his book Picnic Grounds). Israelis living in Israel were forbidden from having a foreign account or even hold foreign currency; in 1977 PM Rabin was forced to resign when a US account on his wife’s name, a leftover from his ambassador days, was discovered.

By the 1970′s nearly all Israelis regardless of social milieu were ripe and ready to embrace anything that will deliver them from this backwardness and suffocation. Seeking an alternative, they kicked the socialist parties from power in 1977. And the only economic alternative in town seemed to be unchecked American capitalism.

To this perception contributed the fact that young Israeli academics were flocking to the US for graduate and postgraduate training. The economists among them absorbed neoliberalism as Gospel truth. The rest just experienced the ridiculously more prosperous lifestyle and standard of living, without knowing the full picture (e.g., how capitalism failed in the 1930′s, and how the post-war prosperity was linked to welfare-state policies). To seal the deal, Jewish American economist Milton Friedman, the guru of modern neoliberalism, was having an extremely influential media presence explaining economics to the American public – from his own perspective, of course. And those young impressionable students from Israel listened.
In short, the academic pipeline was channelling back to Israel its best and the brightest who, despite coming from predominantly-socialist homes, have become ardent Friedmanite advocates. For my dad, mid-1960′s America where he did his Ph.D. (I was born at that time, if u look for the secret source of my US passport) was love at first site. As we were growing up, there was hardly a dinner or living-room conversation in which he didn’t lambast the ills of Israeli socialism and corruption, and praise the merits of the American free market with its spirit of fair play.

Political “Left” = Economic Right?

So when the first Likud center-right government came to power, they had a field day deregulating the economy. The results were swift: despite a peace agreement that brought tourism and a huge aid package, within a handful of years the stock exchange went through two bubbles and their crashes. Triple-digit inflation commenced in 1979 and no one could stop it. The farming sector, seen as part of the socialist base, was radically de-subsidized, sending it into a tailspin that continues to this day. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon drained the treasury, and the second stock crash in 1983 bankrupted all major banks (they were manipulating their own stocks), forcing the state to buy them. The double whammy led to 445% inflation in 1984, and to genuine fears that Israel will default on its debt.

Unfortunately, rather than attribute the outcome to the new economic system, most Israelis saw it as the result of Likud inexperience, corruption (indeed in this respect they have repeatedly outdone even Labor’s feats) and military adventure – or, from the Right, attributed to obstructionism of the Left using whatever institutions it still controlled to block some neoliberal policies.

The early elections called in 1984 were indecisive, and the resulting bipartisan government managed to stabilize the economy; by 1986, inflation was back down to 20% for the first time in 13 years. Inflation was finally tamed by beginning to dismantle the still-fledgling Israeli welfare state, and implementing Friedmanite neoliberalism as the law of the land – with the Treasury’s Budget Department and Israel Bank (Israel’s “Federal Reserve”) as its prophets and enforcers.
And it was the American-trained, America-inspired cadre of economists affiliated with the Labor Party who coceived the transition and saw it through.

From that point on, the term “Left” in Israeli politics has become associated only with policies towards the Palestinians – but even that label was misleading. The polarization has always been primarily about social and ethnic background: well-to-do secular Ashkenazis to the “Left”, less-wealthy Mizrahis and Orthodox (and later on, also Russians) to the “Right”. In any case, the terms have become devoid of any economic meaning. The main “Left” party, Labor, became the agent of neoliberal policies, while the main “Right” party, Likud, totally embraced the pro-Occupation agenda and did not have any coherent economic program to speak of.
That is, until Bibi came to power.

Bibi’s Economic Terrorism

Into this confused, neoliberal-friendly and rather naive econo-political terrain stepped a hardcore American-raised neocon and radical neoliberal. For him, carrying out his agenda was as easy as taking candy from a baby. All the damage Bibi has done to Israeli-Palestinian relationships pales in comparison to the destruction he has wreaked on Israel’s economy. I won’t detail it all – but just give one single horrific example, to give you a taste.

In 1995 Rabin’s government, in an isolated act contrary to the general neoliberal tide, passed a universal, government-funded and price-regulated healthcare law to unify the funding for the patchwork of independent HMOs providing coverage. In 1996 Bibi was elected PM, and within a few months he completely exempted employers from paying their share into funding the new system! According to Ynet’s economic columnist Sever Plotsker (not suspect of being a leftie, by a long shot) writing in 2005, Israel is the only country where businesses are exempt in this way. Thankfully, this being an American progressive blog I do not need to explain how terribly wrong this is, and also how much it is part of the wettest dreams of America’s Tea Party types. Needless to say, the move sent Israel’s healthcare system into perpetual tailspin and beggar status vis-a-vis the treasury. And the public and political system hardly noticed. Who cares about economics? Bibi didn’t even campaign on the economy; he campaigned on terrorism and on his opposition to the Oslo process. The public had no idea what an economic predator they are letting into the chicken coop.

After less than 3 years in office Bibi was voted out, but Labor’s Barak coming into power after him was not nearly as quick in re-enacting the employer tax as Bibi was in nixing it. Barak set up a committee which of course recommended re-taxing; then he took his time some more, and poof! He was voted out in 2001. By early 2003 Bibi was back in the government…. as finance minister. To this day, Israeli employers still receive a healthy workforce for free, and the healthcare system is perpetually bankrupt.

By his “second coming”, the economic elites and the Treasury/Israel-Bank fanatics have recognized what an immense asset Bibi is for them. So they began to praise his economic prowess as finance minister, and to promote the myth that his policies are good for Israel. This backing has given Bibi a wide-open field to do as he please; and so he’s done.

His deeds can be summarized (typically of his ilk) as a massive transfer of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the rich, and extensive deregulation and privatization. With a stern face, he inflicted austerity after austerity on the masses, privatizing even the unemployment services. And then back in the PM seat, he set up one of the most ridiculously bloated governments in Israel’s history. All the while, he has continued to pour billions into the wasteful and politically controversial Occupation-Settlement project, economic considerations be damned. “Bibinomics” are a display of self-contradictory hypocrisy at its crudest ugliness. But many of Israel’s economic analysts have continued to sing Bibi’s praise.

Bibi’s impact and fabricated image as an “economic saviour” in recent years have been so deep, that even in his times out of office the “Bibinomics” have continued. All told, Israel has now suffered from 15 uninterrupted years of this plague. As someone who actually already paid attention back in 1996 when the health system was robbed, and protested in the street against “Bibinomics” from their inception, I say to those who praise him: Bullshit. All Bibi knows, like Bush’s economists knew over here, is how to manipulate indicators in order to mask the systemic problems his policies create and exacerbate. A case in point is the “miracle” of Israel currently – to date – avoiding the brunt of the world economic crisis. This “miracle” lacks a credible economic explanation; but with Bibi’s halo so established, and with the end-result so convenient in the short term, no one is really checking. This issue might require a separate diary, but let me just say now that I strongly suspect this temporary “success” is due to a mixture of deception and speculation, with Israel Bank chancellor Stanley Fisher playing full accomplice.
Part and parcel of this “success” is the fact that the global housing bubble, burst everywhere, has somehow continued in Israel with a vengeance – to the point that drove fed-up middle class youngsters to set up tent cities and spark this protest movement. Again, no credible explanation for the housing bubble’s continuation. Israel’s population increase has slowed in recent years; settlers are not yet flocking back into “Israel proper”; and clearly, less and less buyers are able to shoulder the exorbitant prices. But they still keep on rising, which in classic “Shock Doctrine” fashion provided Bibi with the pretext to pass this public-lands reform last week, essentially spitting in the face of protesters – a reform that (among other ills) simply hands over public real estate to his contractor cronies.

Thanks to Bibi, however, the Israeli public is finally educating itself on the economy. Neoliberalism has finally lost its appeal. “Bibinomics” have never been popular; Bibi gets the public to support him and to allow his economic terrorism to continue, by using the Palestinian issue, the Iranian issue or social rifts within Israeli society to distract them. He has been very good at this, until this month. Even the devastating 2010 wildfires – an inevitable result of the defunding of ground firefighting and the privatization of aerial firefighting – have somehow slipped by without repercussions for Bibi and his policies.

I hope to God that the July 14 movement will finally end “Bibinomics”. That alone would be an awesome feat.

It won’t be easy: they are facing a stacked political deck. The privatized media are thoroughly monopolistic and beholden to Big Money. And Bibi, a seasoned political tactician, is playing every trick on and off the book. The latest one is a committee just launched today, with no less than 22 “experts”. Needless to say, despite a few fig-leafs this committee is packed with neoliberal and even at least one neocon hack (the head of “Reut Institute”) whose main job in life is promoting anti-Arab and right-wing propaganda. No representation for the protest movement, of course.

The committee is instructed to report back in… late September. Not late August, not even early September. Why a month and a half from now? Because in late September begin the High Holidays, when Israel essentially shuts down for a month. After the holidays, according to a quote from a Bibi advisor, the fall rains will finally start and drive those pesky tent cities away.

By Jeff Halper

The demonstrations currently roiling Israel constitute a grassroots challenge to Israel’s neo-liberal regime. Beginning as an uprising of the middle classes – especially young people who have trouble finding affordable housing – it has spread to the working class, the poor and the Arab communities as well, though not the religious as yet. Many of the working sectors have joined the three-week protest: doctors, single mothers, parents demanding free education, taxi drivers upset with the price of petrol, even the police. The Histadrut, Israel’s general trade federation, and many municipalities have joined as well. Last night’s protests brought some 320,000 people into the streets.

The big argument is whether it should be "political" or not. I attended the demonstration last Saturday night, and while the main slogan was “We demand social justice,” (although chants of “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu” could also be heard), it was clear that most of those attending wanted the movement to remain “non-political,” rooted squarely in the mainstream consensus. Its thrust is anti-neo-liberal, though not in framed those exact words. Instead, issues are still defined in more narrow, technical ways: affordable housing, affordable education, etc. This may be an effective beginning strategy, since it does bring in the wider public. Many of those support the protests, the taxi drivers for example, tend to vote for Netanyahu’s Likud. The politics, however, are just under the surface. “Bibi [Netanyahu] go home” is all over the place, from posters to leaflets to chants.

(Actually, there is an éminence grise behind Netanyahu for whom these are by no means the first mass protests. Stanley Fischer, the Governor of the Bank of Israel, figures prominently in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. From 1990-2005, Fischer, one of Milton Friedman’s “Chicago Boys,” served as the Chief Economist of the World Bank, First Deputy Managing Director of the IMF, a member of the Washington-based financial advisory body, the Group of Thirty and President of Citigroup International, the world's largest financial services network which handles, among other things, “global wealth management.” According to Klein, it was Fischer at the IMF who urged Yeltzin to “move fast” and sell off as many public companies and resources as possible, leading directly to the economic take-over of the Oligarchs and their allies, the Russian Mafia; “Mafia Capitalism” it was called. He also oversaw the “structural adjustments” of Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea in 1997, where 24 million lost their jobs and the middle classes were devastated. In 2005 Fischer was appointed Governor of the Bank of Israel by Ariel Sharon; Netanyahu was appointed the Finance Minister.)

There are those of us from the left who are trying to push the protests into a more political direction, though we are sensitive to the fact that a gradual process of political consciousness raising has to occur. In our statements and in discussions we have in the tent cities around the country we try to put the finger on neo-liberalism as a fundamental cause of inequality in Israeli society; neo-liberalism as the dominant government ideology, as its overarching set of policies, as a system and not merely a disjointed collection of policies from which one can pick and choose. We also link the issue of social equality and allocation of resources to the Occupation and the Israel’s massive military budget ($16 billion, or $2,300 per person, the highest ratio of defence spending to GDP among the industrialized countries).

This is being resisted, especially by the Tel Aviv Students’ Union that has taken on some of the amorphous leadership. So far there is a conscious effort by the majority of protesters and organizers to exclude the Occupation from the discussion and to keep the protests “non-political.” Israel flags fly galore and every rally ends with the national anthem (“A Jewish soul still yearns/To be a free people in our land/The Land of Zion and Jerusalem”). The organizers are trying to keep the protests with what Israeli Jews call the “national consensus.” This is a kind of an Israeli code meaning that the protesters do not question the Zionist ideology that Israel should be a Jewish state and are not against the government per se. It simply means that they want specific economic reforms, not to challenge the existing political and ideological system.
Ironically, it is the settlers who are pushing the protest into taking a stand on the Occupation. At first they opposed the protests, arguing that the movement is only a guise to weaken Netanyahu in anticipation of the Palestinians’ call for statehood at the UN in September. But last week the extremely right-wing and racist settler youth set up tents at the protest site in Tel Aviv (under the slogan “Tel Aviv is Jewish”) to push the idea that the solution to the housing crisis is to build massively in the Occupied Territories. In the meantime, Forty-two Knesset members of the right have sent a letter to Netanyahu urging him to solve the housing problem by building massively in the West Bank.

So two questions remain open. First, will the protests stop when they hit the glass ceiling of really confronting the neo-liberal system, including the Occupation? Can social justice be attained for all, structurally as well as ideologically, as long as Jews claim privileged rights over Palestinians and other citizens of Israel – all the while keeping millions of Palestinian non-citizens living under occupation or stuck in refugee camps? Are the protesters capable of genuinely calling into question the fundamental premises of the system and its policies?

The reality is that the vast majority of protesters serve in the army and are, genuinely and sincerely, part of the consensus. At the tent city in Tel Aviv I encountered a seven-year veteran of the IDF who tried to convince me that Che Guevara (pictured on a poster with an X across his face) could not be a role model for revolution because he was violent. My interlocutor, who saw himself as liberal and enlightened, simply could not grasp the connection between serving in the Israeli army – which falls under the rubric of the national “consensus” – and his non-violent beliefs. Without a will to finally break out of the Zionist Box, the protesters might get half-way, perhaps to a return to some form of a welfare state. But true inclusion, full equality and genuine democracy will evade them.

In the meantime, following the mass protests, Netanyahu announced the formation of a special economic team to "reduce the soaring cost of living." It is headed by a neo-liberal technocrat economist from Tel-Aviv University and includes academics and “experts” from the private sector. Half the members are also government ministers. The leaders of the protest movement expressed skepticism with the team’s composition and lack of any real mandate. They were also disappointed that it did not include any of them.

Haggai Matar
MySay, Aug. 7, 2011
Translation Adam Keller

In the history being written in the streets of our cities these days, it is possible to discern different stages of development. The demonstration of the last Saturday night, which was probably the largest demonstration in Israel`s history, marks the dividing line between a developing protest movement which has no clear way, and a revolution which now seems unstoppable.

It is easy and enticing to give in to the momentary excitement, the heart beating which echoes the beating of drums and chants of the crowd. Easy, and perhaps even blinding. Yet, I have no doubt that what happened here on that evening is the beginning of a new era in Israel`s history and in its political arena.

The hundreds of thousands who took to the streets, clogging the streets of Tel Aviv in the huge rally and filling squares in cities between Eilat and Kiryat Shmona, via Jerusalem, Hod Hasharon and Baka al-Gharbiya, marked the watershed. Three weeks of struggle have began with ten tents on Rothschild Boulevard; grew to several tens of thousands of protesters who could still be castigated as `Sushi-eating Leftists `; evolved to a nationwide protest which the PM could still afford to dismiss and ignore as `populist`. Now it had become clear, once and for all, that the people in their entirety demand Social Justice, and they are not about to compromise or go home.

A state for all its citizens - just, popular, right
Not only the number of people was revolutionary, but also the connections created between them and the messages they carried. Residents of the Hatikva slum neighborhood, spearheaded by fans of the Beni Yehudah and Betar football teams, marched along with Arabs from Jaffa and called for a real public housing (and a revolution). Shira Ohayon, one of the featured speakers, voiced her outcry as a single parent mother, as an Oriental (`speaker of Arabic, my mother tongue`) and as a resident of the periphery, and embarked on the tremendous task of breaking this country`s security cult when she re-defined the term: `Residents in Israel have no security, for security is first and foremost a home, a livelihood, a future.` [Full text of Ohayon`s speech in the end.]

Odeh Basharat, the first Arab to address one of these rallies, welcomed the huge crowd in front of him, and recalled that the struggle for social justice has always been the struggle of the Arab public, which constantly suffers from inequality, discrimination, racism, political, and the demolition of houses from Ramla, Lydda and Jaffa to Al-Arakib. Not only did he get an applause from a crowd of more than a hundred thousand people, but also many in the crowd started chanting `Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies!`. And a short film was screened, taken at various tent encampments around the country, in which Jews and Arabs spoke, including one religious activist repeating the simple message that `The time has come for this to be the state for all its citizens`. A state for all its citizens. As a wide popular demand. Who would have believed it?

Meanwhile, in the crowd the messages on the signs are radicalizing, and the greatest applause was given to Charlie Biton, [an activist from the days of the Black Panthers in the early 1970’s – TG] who said that `If the government fails to hear the message of the crowd, we will force it to listen`. A giant sign, carried all along the route of the march, had a single word in Arabic - `Arhl` (`Go!`). The byword of the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Egypt.

A lot more remains to be done, a very great deal. The power born here can no longer be stopped or manoeuvred, and it is clear that the extreme right could not defeat it, but still its biggest challenge is to integrate the Arab public in the struggle. Now is the time to set up tents in every Arab community, and make the leadership as well as the grassroots have a joint Jewish-Arab character.

It`s already happening on the ground, slowly, and it needs to grow further. It must grow to the point that it is clear these rallies would no longer be possible for speakers (such as Rabbi Benny Lau in the last one) to define the partnership here as `Settlers and Left-Zionists who know each other from shared regular and reserve military service.`

It must grow to the point that in future rallies it would be impossible for Hatikva (Israeli national anthem) to be played from the podium. Like in the first weeks of protest, those who wish to could sing it from the audience, while the official rally should start promoting a new anthem, one which could really include everybody.

And then the revolution, the revolution of which it is already safe to say that it will have huge achievements and change this country`s political spectrum for at least the next decade, would really be the largest revolution we have ever known here. A true grassroots revolution for Social Justice in a country which is for all its citizens. In this situation, even the occupation could not hold out much longer. And all that is already at hand.

Grassroots democracy works

Some of the power of this revolution lies in the unbelievable democratization process which it is undergoing. In the first week the popular assembly at the Rothschild Boulevard Encampment were not much more than a huge Hyde Park, unable to form into an organized political body. The second week resolutions started to be taken, but they were able to fully influence the actions of veteran founder leadership (Daphne, Stav and their fellows). In the third week the assemblies, now held at all encampments, became the true sovereign of the struggle.

At the meeting on Friday, hundreds of activists gathered at Rothchild were told of the forming model of the movement. The veteran leadership agreed to recognize the sovereignty of the camps, and accepted the demand of the encampment representatives` meeting that this meeting take up leadership of the struggle. The model that was agreed upon was that assemblies at every encampment convene on a daily basis, for updates and local decision making. Encampments representatives would meet once a week at a general meeting, where general decisions would be made. Four members of the `veteran leadership`, along with five representatives of the five regions in the country (North, South, Jerusalem, Central and Tel Aviv), will be the executive body of the general assembly resolutions, to whom may be added in the near future representatives of sectors particularly affected by the housing situation.

All bodies shall act with complete transparency and publish their resolutions and actions on the internet, and there will be devised systems for transferring information between cities, as well as transferring money, food, logistical assistance, personnel, and so on. In short, an interlinked, living and breathing country-wide movement, with solidarity and democracy as its byword.

At Friday`s meeting in Rothschild there was taken by a huge majority a resolution condemning the extreme right incursion. The assembly`s resolution stated that: `The tent encampment will include any group or person without reservations as to their identity, whether on grounds of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, place of residence, etc. The encampment condemns any slogan/chanting/action aimed at excluding a group or person from the encampment due to their identity (e.g. `Rothschild for Jews only` or `The Ultra-Orthodox have no place here`) and the person or group promoting such slogans or action would be asked to stop it. If it does not stop, there will be public condemnation and a request upon the person/group to leave the encampment.`

The message is clear: this struggle belongs to everyone, and therefore does not belong to racists who try to divide us. This message should now be taken up at the national level, and as stated - to be implemented in practice through a historical link between the revolutionary movement and the Arab public. And it is already happening, I tell you it is, and it will lead us to victory.

The people resolved upon Social Justice!


This call will not go away - people want justice!
By Shira Ohayon
Speech at the Tel Aviv Rally, Saturday night August 6. 2011
Translated by Adam Keller

Good evening to all my brothers and sisters of the protest, the heroes and heroines of the revolution. I am Shira Ohayon, a single mother, born in Dimona. Living in a rented apartment in Ashdod, active in the struggle of the workers and the musicians of the New Andalusian Orchestra to save it from being closed down, a teacher and educator in Israel.

Today I came to tell you, on behalf of all my sisters in the slums, towns and villages throughout the country, that I`m sick and tired! We`re tired of the state hitting at us again and again: because we are women, because we`re single parent mothers, because we`re Oriental, because we live in neighborhoods and towns, because we`re teachers, because we`re artists, because we speak our mother tongue Arabic! and this time because we get up and protest against the brutal capitalist system which has made us poor, unemployed, homeless, which trampled upon our dignity. We are neither spoiled nor parasitic! All we ask is to live in dignity and have a future for our children.

We have no security in the State of Israel. Security begins at home - with housing, with fair employment, with health, education and welfare, as well as with culture. Culture is not a luxury. Artists are starving in the State of Israel. For years we were separated by walls and fences made of concrete as well as of hatred and racism, and we were set at each other`s throats to fight for the crumbs of the crumbs left to us by the tycoons, after they took over all the country`s resources.

All my life I have been swimming against the tide. Along with my brothers and sisters of the `Ahoti` (`My Sister`) movement I have been struggling for the women of Israel, for quality education to residents of slum neighborhoods and towns, for good quality teachers, for the rights of mothers, for the rights of creative artists, and for distributive justice in housing, land and cultural resources.

The State of Israel gives us no security, none at all. Security begins at home, housing, fair employment, health, education and welfare, as well as culture.

I paid and I`m still paying a painful personal price. For the first time in my life, I find myself swimming with the tide. With God`s help, with this wonderful flood of solidarity and brotherhood and sisterhood which is sweeping the whole country - from Eilat, though Dimona, Baka and Nazareth to Kiryat Shmona, demanding a real correction of wrongs and abuses. We owe great thanks to the revolutionary initiators Daphne Leaf, Stav Shafir and their fellows, who brought out the masses of citizens to the tents and city squares and gave us, the majority in this country, an opportunity to cry out our pain, to talk about hurts and concerns and struggle together for hope, for effecting a change!

Even residents of the poor South Tel Aviv neighborhoods, Shapira and Neve Shaanan, and Kfar Shalem and Hatikva and Jaffa to protest and cry out shout about the neglect of years; today, so do residents of North Tel Aviv. `If there is no equality, there is no peace and if there is no peace there is no equality` so said the `Black Panthers who initiated the culture of protest and of the call for social justice in Israel.

Today we are all here: men and women, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, new immigrants and veteran Israelis, religious and secularists, residents of the South, Centre and North, migrant slaves and refugees, all of us united together, determined to restore the sovereignty of this country to us, its citizens. Social justice and distributive justice - we will compromise for nothing less. We have reached the point of no return. From revolution there is no turning back, until we change the system and reach full equality, regardless of gender, religion, color, origin, nationality or sexual orientation. We are all human beings and equal citizens, not slaves nor subjects!

Mr. Prime Minister, we have had enough of the extreme capitalist policy which you have instituted: you have reduced the taxation on the barons of capital, whose greed is insatiable - and you have cut down education, welfare, health!

We are here to tell you tonight with a clear and loud voice:

No more! The people want another way! The people want an opposite direction! The people want justice!

Your government disengaged from the people. But make no mistake: the people will not go away!

And this call will not go away: Yes. People want social justice!


It started as one woman's protest against high rent in her neighborhood. Now, tens of thousands of people are protesting the high cost of living in Israel.

For the first time in decades, Israelis have taken to the streets en masse for reasons that have almost nothing to do with terrorism, Arabs, security, borders or their neighbors.
The thing that has the Israeli public so angry? Inflation.

Over the past year, the price of just about everything has skyrocketed. Between June 2007 and June 2011, the Israeli Consumer Price Index -- one indicator used to measure inflation - quadrupled. In the last year alone, housing prices increased 13.7 percent on top of record growth in previous years. In just the first six months of 2011 the price of food increased 4.4 percent and the price of energy increased 6.6 percent.

A one-liter bottle of olive oil costs about US$12.40 in Tel Aviv, twice what it costs in London -- a notoriously expensive city not exactly renowned for its olive groves. Meanwhile, a brand new, manual transmission Honda Civic has an eye-popping $38,000 sticker price, twice what the same car costs in the United States.

Wages have not even begun to keep up with rising costs.

The average Israeli takes home $29,800 a year, according to the CIA Factbook, despite the Israeli economy -- powered by a tech boom -- growing at a healthy clip and the Shekel, Israel's currency, becoming one of the world's strongest.

"The cost of living in Israel is horrendous," said Daniel Levy, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. "It's hellishly expensive compared to what people earn and the inequality gap has only gotten wider." The wave of protests that have rocked Israel in response to these prices began as one-woman protest against Tel Aviv's difficult rental market.

In June, Daphne Leef, a 25-year-old video editor, had to leave her apartment of three years because the building was being renovated. She soon learned that rental prices in the city, even on the outskirts of town, had doubled. Her response was to pitch a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, in one of Tel Aviv's priciest neighborhoods. On July 14, she started a Facebook group to spread the word, and within hours dozens more tents sprang up like mushrooms.

A week later, tens of thousands of protestors were marching through Tel Aviv demanding economic reforms. By that time the protests had spread to Jerusalem, and by end of the month, people in every major city in Israel had hit the street for the protests, with as many as 350,000 Israelis taking part on the first Saturday in August, according to local newspaper reports.
In mid-August, protesters came out again, not in Tel Aviv, but in "periphery" cities. "Around 80,000 people took to the streets around Israel" last weekend, said Noga Tarnopolsky, a GlobalPost contributing reporter in Jerusalem.

"What lies behind the protests more and more is an iron will," with activists seeking housing rights for tenants and building regulations, and other demands including free day care, said Tarnopolsky. Demonstrations are concentrated on the weekends, but even during the week, people will wear protest T-shirts to push their message, she said. And on Sept. 3, a million-man march is planned. "The total population of Israel is 7 million people, so [if the march succeeds] you're talking about half the adult functional population."

The protesters seem to come from both the left and right side of the Israeli political spectrum. Newspaper polls put support for the protest movement at nearly 87 percent and many who would likely disagree about security or settlement issues are marching shoulder to shoulder for cheaper housing.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu created a committee to tackle the issue of high costs, naming respected economist Manuel Trajtenberg to head the group. The Israeli parliament responded by calling a special session in the middle of its summer break, though this was largely a symbolic move and no substantive legislative action was taken.

Tied up in these economic issues are broader questions about the nation's defence and way of life.

"Israel is essentially a welfare state," said Bernard Avishai, an adjunct professor at Hebrew University who has written two books about Israel. "There's a certain amount of your monthly income that goes to overpaying for life's staples...but a third of your paycheck is going to the government, which is buying F-35s and running an occupation and paying for ultra-orthodox schools."

Avishai said that the Netanyahu government's initial response to the protestors was to essentially use high real-estate prices to justify Israel's expansion into what some consider disputed territory. "The government essentially says, 'You want housing? Here's housing, welcome to East Jerusalem!'"

But he said that the young professionals driving these protests are not exactly settler material. "These people want to be a part of the world. They want to be cool. They want to live the life they lived in their 20s and 30s, when they travelled to India or Machu Picchu, before they came back and started a business selling software."

The demonstrations are a vivid reminder of how much Israel's economy has changed, from the socialist and agricultural state of its early years to a high-tech powerhouse that has created a number of multi-millionaires.

Emmanuel Navon, a professor of International Relations at Tel-Aviv University and member of Netanyahu's conservative Likud party, argues that it is anti-free market monopolies that have caused the spike in prices while keeping salaries low, and that market liberalization can balance the economy.

"What Israel's economy needs is more, not less, freedom and competition," Navon wrote in an Op-Ed in Tuesday's Jerusalem Post (subscription required).

Navon also said that the young people behind the protest movement are more motivated by politics than a desire for affordable housing and consumables.

"The main organizers of today's protest in Israel," he wrote in early August, "are more interested in ousting Netanyahu than in improving the lot of struggling families...Nobody has done more than Benjamin Netanyahu break up monopolies and to lower taxes, so protesters are picking a fight with the wrong person."

Avishai concedes that leaders at the heart of the movement lean left, and that keeping the current broad coalition together will be a challenge going forward.

"If you look at the bios of the leaders, they mainly come from left-wing families," he said.
"They all keep talking about social justice. That implies some kind of compromise with Palestinians. They're being extraordinarily careful so that the people who are in the streets for (lower food prices) don't know that they're being led by lefties, but eventually the mask is going to have to come off."

Few are willing to bet on what the near-term outcome of the protests will be, but analysts say that one of the most important outcomes already has been an awakening of sorts for Israel's young professional class, a group long thought to be politically indifferent.

"People had given up on the Tel Aviv bubble waking itself up from its disinterested stupor," said Levy. "Well, the bubble has burst."

Someone in the wild Sinai peninsula took a decision and sent a big, well equipped squad to infiltrate across the border into the Israeli Negev, attack buses and cars and engage in running battles with soldiers and shoot and kill and kill indiscriminately. And presto, in one minute the agenda changed and the public mood changed into a state of emergency and war at the gate and in all communications media there was no more talk of social protests, nothing but terrorism and army and security issues.

It had been a difficult month for Prime Minister Netanyahu – truly, a very hard month. A Prime Minister under siege, caught in a bind. Tent encampments and more tent encampments sprouting up all over the country, demonstrations and protests and more demonstrations. The demands for affordable housing and for Social Justice and for a Welfare State occupy the center stage, and the Free Market economics which Netanyahu had worked so hard to foster since he was Finance Minister are suddenly cast into doubt. What did he not try? He used sticks and he used carrots, he tried to entice the protesters with committees and benefits and rabbits drawn from the hat and he tried to castigate them as Leftists and pampered sushi-eaters, and they went on to protest and demonstrate and extend ever further the tent encampments and get their rallies to the peak of three hundred thousands in Tel Aviv. Just yesterday morning, the protesters arrived at the home of Eyal Gabbai, Nethanyahu's Chef de Bureau, and he spoke forthrightly and made it clear to them that the Free Market system will not change, and there will be no taxation on the rich and there will be no Welfare State in Israel. And these cheeky youths did not accept these clear clarifications from their government, and just announced that they will increase ever more their protests and demonstrations.

How, how to change the focus and move the public agenda in a different direction? Perhaps finally September will come and the Palestinians will go to the UN and demand to have their state and thus help to distract public opinion in Israel? But the big show at the UN is only due on September 20, how to get through another month until then? Besides, would even that change the tendency of public opinion? What if the Palestinians hold mass demonstrations in late September, without any violence, and demand to have some Social Justice, to be free in their country and no longer live under occupation – would this be enough to change the agenda? It might even get a bit of sympathy among Israelis.

But not all is lost, and relief for the harassed Netanyahu came from the usual quarter, out of the deserts of Sinai came the dramatic initiative to change the Israeli public agenda. And it so happened that Israel's fine security services had long since prepared a plan to liquidate Gazan leaders which just needed to be put into operation, and now put into operation it was forthwith, and all at once Israel's Air Force took off for Rafah and made the hit, an instant and huge success, and immediately afterwards could the Prime Minister make a full-blooded patriotic Address to the Nation people over all channels and offer congratulations to the brave soldiers and the valiant pilots and the diligent security operatives and deliver a stern warning to the Palestinians and offer condolences to the bereaved and wish the injured a speedy recovery and how great it felt at last to make a long speech without a single word about social problems, just like in the good old days. And of course, as soon as Gaza was hit, Israelis all over the South knew that the time has come to seek shelter and expect the worst, and indeed the Qassam and Grad rockets were not slow in coming, naturally prompting the Air Force to counter-attack on more Gaza targets and bring on more missiles on Israel the escalation is mutually escalating - and who would now dare demand a cut the in the defense budget in order to promote social causes?

But what the social protest activists do now in their tent encampments? Would they quietly yield to the changed agenda and meekly disappear from the scene? If that's what Netanyahu is counting on, he should think again.

I would like to give the floor to Social Protest activits, with a selection of messages posted in the past twenty-four hours on the Offiical Housing Protest Facebook Page.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please submit your comments below