Saturday, August 13, 2011

Israel’s Middle-Class Revolt Hits Fresh Peak

By Tobias Buck in Tel Aviv

No public space in Israel quite matches the elegance and history of Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv. Shaded by four rows of mature trees and dotted with small coffee bars, the avenue is flanked by a unique collection of early modernist buildings. The boulevard’s Zionist credentials are unsurpassed: it was at number 16 that David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the Israeli state in May 1948.
Since July 14, however, Israelis have flocked to Rothschild Boulevard for a different reason: to join the country’s new social protest movement. In less than four weeks, it has grown from a handful of tents erected by students at the street’s northern tip into the biggest show of civil discontent since the Lebanon war in the early 1980s.

The wave of protests reached a fresh peak on Saturday, when more than 250,000 Israelis joined demonstrations demanding relief for the country’s squeezed middle class. They called for affordable housing, lower prices, higher taxes on the rich and better childcare. Protest camps have sprung up across the country and are now home to more than 3,300 tents and thousands of activists. The biggest camp by far is on Rothschild Boulevard, now covered in tents from one end to the other.

Perhaps predictably, some have started referring to the movement as the “tentifada”. Others speak of Israel’s “summer of discontent” while placards proclaim “Yes, we tent”. For all the puns and jokey slogans, however, no one doubts the seriousness of the protesters, or the depth of their economic frustration and political grievance.

Adi Peled, a 30-year-old activist from Ness Ziona, moved to Rothschild Boulevard three days after the first tents went up. She now lives in tent number 13 and occasionally helps out at the communal food stall, which is constantly replenished by donations from supportive restaurant owners.

“I am a teacher but with my salary I cannot even finish the month without going into debt,” she says. “My friends and I have been talking about this for years. The system is not working for us. It is not just about housing but also about taxes, which are very high; it is about gasoline, which is very expensive and about the cost of food.”

Ms Peled’s complaints are echoed up and down the boulevard. “Our parents and grandparents used to live in a welfare state. They have pensions, they have everything. But they have crushed the welfare state,” says Yaniv Sharon, a 36-year-old protester. “People are now saying that they cannot even afford to bring a child into the world.”

Organisers say the protests have little to do with real poverty and nothing at all with the towering totem of Israeli politics – the conflict with the Palestinians. It is a middle-class revolt against an economic reality in which countless Israelis are struggling to make ends meet and some fear even worse. In the blunt words of Neria Greniman, a 24-year-old student activist from Jerusalem: “This is a protest of people who feel they are slowly moving from the middle class to the lower class.”

It is a fear that unites an unusually broad spectrum of Israeli society: students, pensioners, young parents, workers and teachers have all joined the cause.

The task of holding the alliance together is accomplished on Rothschild Boulevard every evening at 7.30pm. Activists and organisers meet to discuss their next steps. The message is then spread through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The students who pitched the first tents still play an important role, although the movement now relies heavily on bodies such as the National Union of Students, leftwing youth groups and the powerful Histadrut trade union.
There is, quite consciously, no single leader – and even prominent activists distinguish carefully between their personal opinions and the consensus position.

Most regard the lack of a unified leadership as a strength, along with the relaxed, cheerful atmosphere. Rothschild Boulevard has earnest debating circles but there is also a plunge pool and plenty of music.

Some placards boast social analysis running to thousands of words. Elsewhere, activists have simply scribbled one-liners on cardboard and hung them from the trees. One reads “Long live the revolution!”, another says “I want love – Call 050 668 935”. Another card sums up the festive spirit in just two words, “Simply happy”.

This commentary was published in The Financial Times on 12/08/2011

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