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Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Israel's Secular Middle Class Strikes Back
The protest started over property prices, but has widened into a popular uprising that is worrying Netanyahu's right-wing coalition
By Carlo Strenger
A Facebook protest calling for lower property prices has led to many camping out on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard. Photograph: Nir Elias/Reuters
The international press has paid remarkably little attention to Israel's civil uprising in the last weeks – probably because, ostensibly, it is about a purely internal matter: the exorbitantly high cost of housing in Israel. Inside Israel, this uprising is filling the pages of all newspapers and websites.
The uprising started in Tel Aviv. Daphni Leef, a 25-year-old video editor, was sick and tired of the high rents she could no longer afford to pay. On Facebook she called upon other youngsters to join her on Tel Aviv Rothschild Boulevard to set up tents and protest. To her surprise, thousands, first in Tel Aviv, then across the country, joined her with a number of related causes: mothers demanding affordable childcare, doctors seeking reasonable pay and human hours. The demonstrations last Saturday brought more than 150,000 people on to the streets demanding social justice – and another Facebook revolution was started in the Middle East.
In the beginning, Likud members of the Knesset dismissed the uprising as a "far-left conspiracy", but soon the Netanyahu government, generally quite impervious to the public's mood, became nervous. Binyamin Netanyahu, who tends to keep himself out of social issues, quickly began to make offers to the demonstrators, which, so far, they haven't accepted.
The demonstrators have kept the protests apolitical, and a week ago, support for their demands commanded the support of 87% of the respondents to a Haaretz poll – an unheard of degree of unity in Israel's divided citizenry.
It may be time to venture an interpretation of this uprising which, many feel, carries great transformative potential.
Netanyahu came to power, once again, in March 2009. He chose to build a rightwing coalition, beefed up by the weakened Labour party. His fateful choice was to appoint Avigdor Lieberman, a rightwinger of Moldovan descent who ran on an anti-Arab platform, into the foreign ministry.
The ruling coalition of Israel's 18th Knesset has gone into a maelstrom of anti-democratic legislation spearheaded by Lieberman. Step after step, laws were passed that threatened Israel's character as a liberal democracy. Netanyahu felt that Lieberman was undermining his standing as the undisputed leader of the right, and the Likud soon began to compete with Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party in proposing, and at times passing, anti-democratic laws such as the anti-boycott bill.
Israel's liberals were hardly to be heard: protests against the laws were limited to the press, academia and some public intellectuals. The public was silent.
The reason for this was that Israeli liberals were largely identified with the left and its attempts to bring peace with the Palestinians. Israel's electorate has never forgiven the left for its promise that peace was at hand, a promise ripped apart by endless suicide bombings in Israel's cities during the second Intifada from 2000 to 2003. The citizenry was further angered when, after Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip, this area became the launching pad for years of rocket-shelling of Israel's south. Peace seemed a hoax; liberals looked hopelessly naive at best.
Lieberman and Netanyahu rode this wave of anger and depicted Israeli liberals as anti-Zionist collaborators with Israel's enemies. And it seemed as if nothing could stop the wave of totalitarian measures they implemented.
Israel's middle class has been politically either complacent or apathetic during the last decade. Because of the failure of the Oslo peace process, it no longer had a way to defend liberal values and to demand accountability from government.
This uprising is really that of Israel's disfranchised secular middle class. Bogged down by exorbitant taxes and carrying the burden of Israel's economy, they receive very little in turn. Israel's school system is in the pits with class sizes of about 40; many Israeli women cannot afford going to work because childcare is very expensive; the public transport is that of a third-world country.
The current uprising has given Israeli liberals a voice again. Its authenticity could not be disputed: to this day there is no clear leadership. The atmosphere on the boulevard, where hundreds of tents fill the tree-lined spaces, feels like a remake of Woodstock. The demands sound eminently reasonable to all sectors of Israel's population.
But the apolitical character of the protest is being challenged. Netanyahu is already claiming that the protesters are driven by political motivations. His intent is clear: he wants to delegitimise them and claim that their real goal is to topple his government. This, he hopes, will weaken nationwide support for their demands. On Monday, members of the Likud central committee started to say that the demonstrators are just a bunch of sushi eaters with nargilas (Arab pipes) – ie leftist radicals – and that the media was exaggerating their numbers.
Because the process so far has been rather chaotic, it is very difficult to predict what it will lead to. If the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu step up their attack, the protesters will not have any choice but to confront the current coalition in the political arena as well.
They will have to say that taxpayers' money in Israel has been spent lavishly in the occupied territories; that billions of shekels go to child support for the ultra-Orthodox, most of whom do not contribute to the economy; that the silent collusion of Israel's governments with the settlers is ruining the country morally, politically and economically. In the end, the call for social justice and the demand to reinstate liberal values in Israel cannot be separated.
Once these demands are politicised, anything can happen. Netanyahu may be able to delegitimise the protests as an undemocratic attempt to topple his government, and support for the uprising may fizzle.
But it could also be that Israel's secular middle class will feel this is its last chance to assert its rights against the coalition of national-religious, extreme right and ultra-Orthodox parties, and that this is the moment to stop Israel's move to the right that is pushing the country towards an apartheid regime, moral, economic and political bankruptcy.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 02/08/2011
- Carlo Strenger is a philosopher and psychoanalyst. He teaches at the psychology department of Tel Aviv University and serves as a member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists