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An Israeli woman lies on a mattress in a tent camp as thousands march to protest against rising housing prices and social inequalities on July 23, 2011, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

After Arab Spring, an Israeli Summer

Israelis have been protesting inequality for months, with surprising results.

BY Ralph Seliger

Israeli protesters see themselves connected in a worldwide fight for social justice. But they benefit from having had an advance start over their American contemporaries.

Between the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street autumn, there was an Israeli Summer.

Following a successful consumer boycott of cottage cheese (a cherished and increasingly costly Israeli staple), a 24-year-old video editor named Daphni Leef pitched a tent in central Tel Aviv on July 14 to protest the high cost of housing. Her action mushroomed via Facebook into a massive movement against economic inequality. (During the last few decades, Israeli wealth has been highly concentrated within the hands of 10 families, who control 30 percent of the economy.)

A tent city grew around Leef in Tel Aviv, with supportive street actions and rallies in other towns and cities. Its high-water mark (so far) was September 3, with 300,000 demonstrators in Tel Aviv, 50,000 in politically conservative Jerusalem and 40,000 in Haifa–almost 6 percent of Israel’s population. Leef’s “passionate, very personal speech dared to attack Israel’s current form of capitalism as the root of all evil,” reported Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal. Leef “recalled a poet friend who committed suicide two months before the protest began because he felt that given the state of Israeli society, he couldn’t dream, couldn’t be a poet. ‘We must create a society where young people can have the right to dream, to be poets, she exclaimed.”

In a central plaza in Tel Aviv on October 15, the movement staged a “We are the 99%” demonstration, with live video links from Occupy Wall Street. These Israelis see themselves connected in a worldwide fight for social justice. But they benefit from having had an advance start over their American contemporaries, and also from living in a much more compact and intimate society.

Within weeks of Leef’s initial protest, the movement had crystallized a structure to carry itself beyond the streets. Alongside “general assembly” meetings in parks, neighborhood committees have been formed around the country, as well as advisory committees comprised of prominent personalities from Israel’s diverse ethnic and religious communities. One such person is Leah Shakdiel, a pioneering religious peace activist and feminist who chairs the 10-person “vision committee,” tasked with formulating a succinct statement of the movement’s purpose.

But Shakdiel’s committee had to compromise for the sake of consensus. It withheld any negative view towards the West Bank settlements and did not include any mention of the “Hebrew Prophets,” as Shakdiel would have preffered. In hopes that the protests may gain mass support for what she calls a “21st-century version of the welfare state,” the committee did not want to alienate right-wing Israelis or Arab Israelis.  

The Netanyahu government appointed a commission, headed by the academic economist Manuel Trajtenberg, to examine the problem of economic inequality. Its recommendations include curbing monopolies, increasing public services and lowering the cost of public housing. Tasked by Netanyahu to maintain the current budget, the committee suggests these measures could be funded by small increases in corporate, capital gains and dividend taxes, and a 2.5 billion shekel cut in the defense budget. But this package has been rejected as inadequate by the protest movement, whose own economic committee in response called for full education funding, housing construction and large tax increases on the wealthy. Large demonstrations continued on October 29, witnessed by Schenker in Tel Aviv: “Rabin Square filled with some 70-80,000 people (there were counterclaims of 20,000 people).” Some thousands rallied elsewhere, but rocket fire cancelled the protest in Beersheva.

How this social ferment ultimately affects Israel’s political landscape is unclear. Peace activists believe that once they connect the dots, average Israelis will agree that funding West Bank settlements has been at their expense. The movement may help revitalize the Labor Party under its fresh new female leader, Shelly Yachimovich, who champions social justice issues. But it’s also possible that the movement will spawn its own political party.

Ralph Seliger specializes in writing about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. He was the final editor of Israel Horizons, the recently expired quarterly publication of Meretz USA, now known as Partners for Progressive Israel, for which he is blog co-administrator, and also blogs for Tikkun Daily.

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