The fault and the hope of J14

Posted: August 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

Now that the entire Israeli public is listening, it’s time to open up the conversation

Protesters in Tel Aviv. Does Justice refer to Palestinians as well? (photo: Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Many people have rightly pointed out that the J14 protests, which mobilized Israelis to the country’s largest ever demonstration yesterday, refrains from dealing with questions regarding the status of Palestinians under Israeli control – issues such as equality under the law, access to resources and most notably, the occupation.

While I agree with those calls, I think they are missing some of the opportunities this movement presents. I was planning to write an article on these issues, but then saw that Palestinian activist Abir Kopty did a much better job than I could hope to do in dealing with these questions. Kopty describes her feelings following the time she spent at Tent 1948, a small Jewish-Palestinian compound at the heart of the Rothschild tent camp:

The existence of Tent 1948 in the encampment constitutes a challenge to people taking part in the July 14 movement. In the first few days, the tent was attacked by group of rightwing activists, who beat activists in the tent and broke down the Palestinian flag of the tent. Some of the leaders of the July 14 movement have said clearly that raising core issues related to Palestinian community in Israel or the occupation will make the struggle “lose momentum”. They often said the struggle is social, not political, as if there was a difference. They are afraid of losing supporters if they make Palestinian issues bold.

The truth is that this is the truth.

The truth is, this is exactly what might help Netanyahu, if he presses the button of fear, recreates the ‘enemy’ and reproduce the ‘security threat’, he might be able to silence this movement. The problem is not with Netanyahu, he is not the first Israeli leader to rely on this. The main problem is that Israelis are not ready yet to see beyond the walls surrounding them.

Yet, one has to admit, something is happening, Israelis are awakening. There is a process; people are coming together, discussing issues. The General Assembly of the encampment decided on Friday that it will not accept any racist messages among its participants. Even to Tent 1948 many Israelis arrived, read the flyers, listened to what Tent 1948 represent and discussed calmly. Perhaps if I was a Jewish Israeli I will be proud of the July 14 movement. But, I am not a Jew, I am not Zionist, I am Palestinian.

Well, I am a Jew, and I share Abir Kopty’s call for Israelis to take the opportunity of the July 14 movement not just to speak of market economy and social welfare, but to examine the entire nature of the social order in this country – and with it, the relation between Jews and Arabs.

When I visited the tent camp at Rothschild Boulevard I saw people examining the signs and reading the leaflets around tent 1948. I heard that after the rally last night a group of Hassidic Jews stopped there. At the same time, “equality tent” was built at the site of the camp that some extreme rightwing settlers tried to built, before being forced out by leftwing protesters [UPDATE: I just came back from the tents, the settlers are back, and there are constant verbal confrontations and even a bit of pushing and shoving between them and other protesters] . One should also note that among the speakers in the Tel Aviv rally was Palestinian author Udah Basharat, who spoke of land confiscation & discrimination, and mentioned the ongoing campaign against the village El-Araqib.

The J14 movement can go many ways – it can even bring Israel further to the right; it certainly won’t be the first time in history in which social unrest led to the rise of rightwing demagoguery – but right now, it is creating a space for a new conversation. Limited as this space may be, it’s so much more than we had just a month ago.


Between euphoria and anarchy: Tel Aviv’s revolutionary festival

Posted: August 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

A midnight walk through the Rothschild Boulevard protest camp

Tel Aviv – On the corner of Allenby Street and Rothschild Boulevard, a Jewish supremacists’ group is conducting fierce arguments with several bystanders. I am spotting former Kahane men, Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben Gvir, accompanied by “hilltop youth,” the radical settler teens, notorious for harassing Palestinians, who are now standing across the street from the busy pubs and food places, a bit bewildered, wearing tee-shirts saying “Tel Aviv is for Jews.” Rumors are that a couple of their tents were burned by leftists. While the older kids argue, the younger ones are standing in the back, staring at the night traffic at one of the city’s busiest junctions.

It is almost midnight. This part of the city is always packed on weekends, but right now it’s so crowded it’s practically impossible to walk. Around 400 tents are scattered along the boulevard. Hundreds of young Israelis are lying between them on mattresses and old furniture, drinking, smoking, playing music, talking with “tourists”—the unofficial name for the visitors to Israel’s first and largest social protest camp site—and mostly arguing about politics.

A hundred yards up, the boulevard is blocked by a large white structure made of plastic bars and fabric. A sign on it declares “revolution of love.” Inside a DJ playing loud trance music. Several dozen people are dancing around. Further up, the Divorced Fathers’ party is beginning their routine march. A short, emotional speaker calls into a megaphone: “I want to see my daughter. I want to take her to Rothschild Boulevard. She is calling to me “Daddy!’” as he screams the last word, the crown answers “Daddy!”

On the corner of Nahmani Street, I meet Yuval Ben Ami, Daniela Cheslow and a girl I don’t know, sitting on a bench.  Yuval is holding an acoustic guitar. He says he has never seen anything like it, admits that the atmosphere is too intense for him to even write about right now. He invites me to sit with them, but I prefer to continue. As I say my goodbyes, an elderly woman, dressed in black, approaches Yuval and asks him to play a song by Bob Dylan.

This is no longer about housing. The papers are discussing economical figures and social plans, but something very different is taking place on Rothschild Boulevard. It seems that everyone who has something to say came here, put up a tent and started shouting. The euphoria of the first few days of the struggle is still present, but the tension is rapidly building. People still play music and discuss politics, but many fear violence. I am told that the original group that started the protest doesn’t sleep in this tent camp anymore, after receiving threats to their lives.

Yet the camp seems to grow by the day. There are tents everywhere, and in between them stands and people handing leaflets in the middle of the night. There are tents for animals rights, for drafting the ultra-orthodox to the IDF (would you like to sign the petition?), tents built by the Communist party, tents for settling the north of Israel with Jews, a joint Jewish-Arab camp named “Tent 1948,” a tent of social workers dealing with disadvantaged youth (their services have been privatized, and they demand the state give them a formal contract), tents representing art students, a new-age circle of tents with the inevitable girl explaining about the power of inner peace to heal society, a small camp populated by physiology interns, and more, much more. In between, dozens of signs: “Bibi has sold us out”; “The market is free. Are you?”; “Tahrir, corner of Rothschild”; “we are non-political”; “Lock your doors, billionaires.”

What does it all mean? With every day that I visit this place, it seems less calling for political analysis and more for a novelist, or a Gonzo-style journo.

All around the country, the social protest goes on. Just today, there have been more demonstrations in Tel Aviv than in an average month. A parents’ march for free pre-school education; cab drivers blocked a major road in protest of the rising petrol prices; farmers protested against lowering the tariffs on dairy products; several thousands union people had a rally in front of their headquarter. There is a tent camp in almost every city; some of them are yet to be discovered by the media, like the Ethiopian Jews’ tent camp, half an hour from Tel Aviv. Someone visited them and tweeted: “They ask for water tanks, signs and a singer with a guitar.”

Some of these protest echo things we have seen before, and the main novelty is that they come all at once. But in some places, and most of all on Rothschild Boulevard, something else is going on. Over here, the political festival is getting wilder every evening. A couple of nights ago, Channel 2′s live panel from the Boulevard was heckled so badly, they had to cut the broadcast after half an hour. They will not be broadcasting from here anymore. Yesterday, Army Radio, which has been here for a week or so, was chased away. No policemen are in sight. Freedom is exciting, and scary.

“The donation box has been stolen!” someone is shouting over loud speakers. A small gathering of young students is discussing Saturday’s planned rally, while next to them a dozen hipsters are playing old songs on a laptop and dancing between two tents. Temperature is over 80 degrees Farenheit, and it’s incredibly humid. August is always a wild month in the city.

A couple of old men with long gray hair are sitting on a bench, smoking and smiling. There is a large Indian tent on the corner of Sheinkin Street. Next to it, a group of Breslov Hasidim are singing Hanukah songs to a tribal rhythm, and a large crowd joins them. On the other side, the divorced fathers are making their return tour; and right at the junction itself, on the road, a homeless junkie has turned a large garbage bin upside down and is looking through the trash for cigarettes while the cars honk as they maneuver around him. “I want to take my daughter to Rothschild Boulevard,” calls the leader of the divorced fathers’ march. “I want to show her how to build a tent. ‘Daddy!!!

The homeless guy lifts an empty water bottle in the air. “Daddy!” he answers.


Tent protest in polls: One big unhappy middle class

Posted: August 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Polls, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

Recently published polls regarding the social protest reveal potential for major political changes in Israel, though not necessarily immediate ones

The Tent Protest has been dominating the news cycle in Israel for two weeks, and now there are also a couple of interesting polls regarding its possible political impact.

While it would be unwise to try and predict what sort of effect these unprecedented demonstrations will have on Israeli politics, the polls do confirm some of the hunches we had in the last three weeks, and most notably, a potential for far-reaching changes in the political system in the years to come.

-    The support for the protest crosses sectors and party lines. According to Channel 10′s poll conducted on Monday, 88 percent of Israelis support the protest. The middle class parties lead the way: 98 percent of Kadima voters (!), 95 percent of Labor’s and even 85 percent of Netanyahu’s Likud voters find the protest just. Even if these figures dropped in the last couple of days—which had some fractions and public disputes in the protest movement—they are still exceptionally high.

-    The attempts to discredit the protest have mostly failed. Government spokesperson and rightwing organizations tried to tie the protest to left wing movements, claiming that it is a politically-motivated move aimed personally against PM Netanyahu. Still, 74 percent of the public think that the protest is a genuine one, and only 22 percent find it to be politically motivated.

-    The hard right is the only group not identifying with the protest. Half of Shas’ voters and most of those voting for the settlers’ parties think the protest is politically motivated. Voters of those parties are more inclined to oppose the protest than any other group. I believe that these groups sense that the protest might challenge the dominant political arrangements in Israel – ones with benefit the settlers and the religious parties.

-   The protesters reject the major opposition and the coalition parties alike. I wouldn’t take the headline of the Globes-Jerusalem Post’s poll—about a possible social party winning 20 seats in the coming elections—too seriously. There is a long time until the elections and it’s impossible to know which issues will dominate the campaign. Still, it’s very interesting to see where these 20 seats (roughly 16 percent of the votes) come from: 4-5 seats from Kadima, 2-3 seats from Likud, 2-3 seats from Labor, and some more votes from Meretz and undecided voters. The Arab parties and the extreme right are not hurt by the protest.

Those figures match the Channel 10 poll – it’s the middle class the supports the protest more than any other group, and it’s the parties on the center and left of the political map which voters are unhappy with. This is good news for those (like me) who think that Kadima and Labor cannot promote progressive agenda. It seems that many of those parties’ voters are giving up hope on them as well.

-    The best option for the government is to negotiate with protesters and possibly try to co-opt them. According to the Jerusalem Post, 45 percent of the public thinks that the protesters should negotiate with the government to try to obtain their demands, 29 percent said the demonstrations should go on in their current format. If the government looks serious enough, it could cut the popular support for the demonstrations by two thirds.

To sum it up, all figures point to a unique phenomenon: the secular middle class – usually the backbone of society—is unsatisfied with the political and economical trends, and more important, with the entire political system (usually it’s the other way around – the more you move to the edges of the system, the less satisfied people there are). Under these circumstances, the potential for major political changes—though not necessarily immediate ones—is enormous.


This strange American obssesion with “the return of the Israeli left”

Posted: August 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, media, The Left | Tags: , , , | Comments Off

What is it that makes so many American reports on events in Israel end up with the question of “the return of the Zionist Left?” Ethan Bronner’s recent story on the cost of living protest in Israel is yet another example of this trend. By cherry picking a few comments and mixing them with the warm memories of Rabin’s government, the recent social justice movement becomes for Bronner the vessel of “a possible opening for the defeated left.”

I can’t help but think that those American who are so obsessed with this question recognize “their Israel” in a certain image that the Israeli left has projected, one which very rarely had anything to do with its politics. Like a constant search for something that was never there. After all, you won’t see so many stories in American press about “a return of the revisionist Right” in Israel, or about Shas.

It’s time to face facts: Rabin’s second government was an historical accident, no more. This was the only time in 35 years that the left won a Knesset majority – and even then, it wasn’t even close to a majority of the Jewish public. Liberalism, in the American sense, never took real hold in Israel.

The current social protest is a unique event with tremendous potential, but if it’s a return to the Jewish democracy dreamland that Americans hope for, you are up for a major disappointment. There won’t be a “return” – all we can and should hope for is something completely new.


The real importance of the tent protest

Posted: July 31st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , | Comments Off

Last week, my colleagues Joseph Dana and Mairav Zonszein reported about the harsh treatment some of protesters got from the hand of the police following the previous social justice rally in Tel Aviv. While I don’t ignore the importance of such incidents, they might make one miss the essence of the tent protest.

Unlike in Syria or Libya, where dictators slaughter their own citizens by the hundreds, it was never oppression that held the social order in Israel together, as far as the Jewish society was concerned. It was indoctrination – a dominant ideology, to use a term preferred by critical theorists. And it was this cultural order that was dented in this round of protests. For the first time, a major part of the Jewish middle class—it’s too early to estimate how large is this group—recognized their problem not with other Israelis, or with the Arabs, or with a certain politician, but with the entire social order. With the entire system. In this sense, it’s a unique event in Israel’s history.

This is why this protest has such tremendous potential. This is also the reason that we shouldn’t just watch for the immediate political fallout—I don’t think we will see the government fall any time soon—but for the long term consequences, the undercurrent, which is sure to arrive.


It’s all about real-estate: Understanding the tent protests

Posted: July 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

The protest that sprang up out of the blue against rising rent costs, not started by or backed by any political power, is now described as the greatest challenge PM Netanyahu faces on the home front

image: activestills

It happened almost overnight: Friday morning a week ago, walking near Habima Square in central Tel Aviv, I saw only a handful of tents, with no more than a few dozen Israelis who answered an internet call for an ongoing protest against rising rent costs. On Saturday evening the tents covered an entire block on Rothschild Boulevard, and protesters threw cottage cheese containers on the Likud HQ on nearby King George Street. A couple of days later, the tent protests came to dominate the news cycle.

Housing minister Ariel Attias (Shas) argued that the protesters were spoiled kids that refuse to leave the fashionable center of the country, but by Tuesday there were tents in Jerusalem, the southern city of Beer Sheva and as far north as Kiryat Shmona, near the Lebanon border (see a map of all the protests here). By Wednesday protesters tried to break into empty apartments in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; the tents on Rothschild Boulevard stretched several blocks, all the way from Habimah Square to Shenkin Street, and marches and rallies were scheduled for the weekend. The Friday papers declared that Binyamin Netanyahu sees the tent protest as the greatest potential political threat to his governing coalition. Throughout the week the prime minister conducted ongoing meetings in attempts to bring the protest to an end.

So, what is this protest all about? Why now? And what could be its political implications? I will try to answers some of these questions in this piece.

A well-known method used to estimate real estate cost is to divide the price of an asset by the average monthly salary. Dr. Danny Ben Shahar of the Technion Institute for Science in Haifa, estimated that the median Israeli family had to spend 50 full salaries for an average Israeli apartment in 1989. Two decades later, this figure nearly doubled – in 2011, buying an average apartment would cost the same family 90 full salaries. According to Dr. Ben Shahar, An average apartment in Tel Aviv – just an average one – is too expensive for 90 percent of the population, even if they can spread their mortgage over 30 years.

Dr. Ben Shahar presented his findings in a panel at Tel Aviv University a few months ago. He told his listeners that the real estate market is “a social time-bomb.” I spoke with Dr. Ben Shahar a few days a go for a piece I did for an Israeli magazine; he admitted that he didn’t expect things to happen so fast. “If this problem isn’t taken care of, what you see now is just the beginning.”

The real estate crisis in Israel is entirely different from the one which led to the market crash in the United States. To put it simply: Apartments, especially in the cities, have become too expensive for most Israelis. Rent alone rose between 15 and 25 percent in all major cities in the last two years alone.

Readers from abroad who visited Tel Aviv or Jerusalem lately probably noticed that neither is a cheap city, and that they are becoming more expensive every year. Average rent in Tel Aviv is still lower than in Manhattan, San Francisco and London, but it’s already similar to the prices in Chicago, Atlanta and Barcelona, and it’s higher than in Berlin. The important figure is that salaries in Israel are much lower than in any of those cities. In relative terms, Israelis pay more for groceries, services and housing than in most countries in the West. Housing is the biggest expense of the average household, so that’s where the pressure is felt.

In the first half of the previous decade, Israel experienced a small scale economic crisis, a result of the second Intifada. The Finance Ministry, led by Silvan Shalom and later Binyamin Netanyahu (both from Likud) cut government expenses while lowering taxes for the more affluent Israelis. When the crisis ended, the best options for investment for those Israelis, and for money coming from abroad, were in the real estate market, especially in the cities.

Investors began buying apartments, driving prices up. Many of them were Jews – mostly from the United States and France. The richest of them didn’t even bother to rent out their assets to Israelis in their absence; they just wanted a house in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Such assets were considerably cheaper than in New York or Paris, and had special sentimental value for those Jews. The result is the now-infamous “ghost apartments,” occupied for only a few weeks each year. One luxury housing project in Jerusalem, overlooking the old city, is especially notorious for having no permanent tenants.

Young Israelis were angered by and resented this trend, and rants against “the rich Jews” became very common in the last few years. It was not surprising that a few days ago protesters in Jerusalem tried to break into some ghost apartments, ending up barricading themselves in the garden for a few hours.

All of this could have been similar to what happened in other large cities around the world – prices going up, investors coming in, locals and young people gradually moving out – if it weren’t for some unique factors in Israel, which complicate the situation: First and most important, Israeli cities have no efficient public transportation systems. Tel Aviv’s old bus service is especially notorious, and the privatization of a few of the busiest lines a few years ago seemed only to make things worse. Furthermore, buses don’t run overnight, and due to an old arrangement with the religious parties, there is no service on weekends and holidays either (except in Haifa). As for owning a car, commuting in the Dan Metropolitan Area (Greater Tel Aviv) is a nightmare, and parking is nowhere to be found. Students and shift workers have no option but trying to rent in the city center, where they can ride a bike or a scooter, or simply walk to work.

These problems have been known for some time now, but Israel has been governed for many years by neo-liberal governments, who did not encourage the construction of affordable housing – except in the West Bank, and in some occasions, for the ultra orthodox – and refused to invest in mass transportation projects. In fact, Netanyahu’s coalition has struck down no less than four legislation attempts concerning rent control; the Finance Minister was able to kill a housing ministry’s plan for housing subsidies, and the Interior Minister, on the advice of the government’s attorney, stopped attempts by municipalities (including Tel Aviv’s and Jerusalem’s) to encourage affordable housing projects, claiming they lacked legal basis.

It’s been many years since Israel stopped being the welfare state its founding fathers dreamed of. While taxes remain much higher than in the America, government services have deteriorated and the cost of living continues to rise. Israel is at the top of the economical inequality index in the West, second only to the United States; Israelis work more hours than in most European economies, and they serve 2 to 3 years in the army, for which they don’t really get paid. In short, life is simply more difficult than in other places, and the safety nets Israel used to provide its citizens are disappearing. So while the government boasts about Israel’s excellent economic performance, more and more Israelis were finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

The middle class unrest over such issues has been felt for some time now, but it went largely unnoticed, also because financial issues rarely make it to front pages in Israel. But recently, things started to change. Around three months ago, there was an attempt to start “a petrol march” to protest the rising gas prices, which didn’t result in much. After that there was the cottage cheese boycott, when tens of thousands of Israelis stopped buying the country’s most popular soft cheese, until the three large dairies were forced to reduce their prices. And then came the tents.

The tent protest is different from all the others for a few reasons: First, it’s an issue for which the government will find it difficult to present quick solutions. Second, it’s an ongoing protest: people sit in tents the entire day, talk to each other, plan more activities and draw attention from the media and ordinary Israelis, who come to visit the Rothschild Avenue Settlement by the thousands. But the most important thing is that this is an issue almost any Israeli can relate to.

There have been tent protests over housing issues in the past, but those behind them were usually lower-income families, and occasionally, Palestinians. Those are groups that the authorities have no problem dealing with. This protest is different: it is led by young Israelis in their twenties, most of them from the middle class. By now, they also have the students associations behind them. Prime Minister Netanyahu must remember with horror the long student strike of 1998. Although it failed to rock his coalition, this event marked the beginning of his decline in his first term as prime minister. And now the students are protesting again.

So, what political effects will the tent protests have? Looking at the polls published every few weeks in the weekend papers, one would notice that oddly enough, it seems that nothing has changed in Israeli politics in the last couple of years. If elections were held today, according to pollster, the result would be the same as it was two years ago, give or take a few seats. Netanyahu’s approval ratings are very stable as well, always within a few points of the 50 percent line. Not long ago, I wrote that there is no threat to Netanyahu in the political system – from left or right. Not much has changed since.

But there are undercurrents in politics as well, and for some time, once could definitely sense a certain anxiety amongst Israelis. It’s not only about the economy, nor is it about the occupation – seems that Israelis couldn’t care less about this particular issue – or the exchange of threats with Iran. I guess it’s all the above and a bit more. It’s the sense that there is no future for “ordinary Israelis” here. This is something which is hard to distinguish from the usual rants about what Israelis call “the matzav” (the situation), but nevertheless, I think this mood is undeniable, at least in certain circles.

So far, this Zeitgeist has resulted in people withdrawing from interest in politics. In other cases, Prime Minister Netanyahu and other right wing politicians have been able to manipulate fears and anxieties in their favor. The last wave of protest seems set to change that. While the protesters are refusing endorsement from political powers – even calling themselves non-political – they are clearly anti-government. More than anything, they seem to resent the entire current political establishment, and while this does not mean that they support the opposition, such feelings are more dangerous to the ruling parties.

As if to illustrate this point, Netanyahu’s supporters and rightwing movement have gradually stepped up their hostility to the tent protest, accusing it of being a leftwing operation, initiated and funded by the New Israel Fund and various other lefty groups. A front page story in the pro-Netanyahu tabloid Yisrael Hayom—the most widely read daily in Israel—claimed that “the Zionist Left” movement is behind the real-estate protest. Rightwing group Im Tirzu, who tried to co-op the struggle earlier this week and even sent representatives to visit the tents in Rothschild Boulevard, withdrew its support from the protest, accusing it of being run by the NIF and “various anarchist groups.” In this weekend’s papers, almost all of the rightwing pundits wrote pieces against the protest.

So far, these attacks haven’t hurt the protest, but some real challenges are emerging in the next few days. A planned demonstration on Saturday evening will give some indication of the public support for the protesters. On Sunday, Jerusalem’s municipality’s deadline to evacuate the tents from the city center—sources in the municipality claimed that their presence would hurt tourism—will arrive. Other municipalities are bound to follow with attempts to evacuate the tents, and they will be assisted by the inevitable fatigue of the protesters and the unbearable summer heat.

To sum it up, while it is one of the most important internal events in Israel in the last couple of years, I don’t see this protest driving votes to the left or to Kadima in the short run. Over a longer period of time, it will probably help the opposition to Netanyahu, from both right and left. Plus, the feeling of alienation and resentment from the old political power will increase the likelihood of outsiders entering politics and drawing support.

The protest might also have some indirect effect on the geo-political game. As I said, protesters couldn’t care less about the occupation or Iran right now, but social crises have this funny effect on politicians – they make them more active. I don’t think that Netanyahu or Barak will go so far as to attack Iran, for example, to divert attention from their problems at home, as some people have speculated (I hope they are not that crazy, and there is still considerable opposition in the security establishment for such a move). Still if the protest continues for a prolonged period, we should expect some “bold” moves from what has been a very passive government so far, to say the least.

As history can teach us, economic crises and social unrest tend to increase the bets in politics. They hand ammunition to everyone – creating opportunities for political change and reform, but also preparing the ground for the rise of rightwing demagogues and warmongers. And one should never forget that in the Middle East, the stakes are always high.

As one of my editors used to say: In this country, it’s all about real-estate. Every political controversy has to do with land, every social battle, and obviously, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict itself. If you understand real estate here, you understand it all.