Hundreds of Thousands of Protestors Take to the Streets in Israel -- Are the Winds of Social Change Blowing?

The popular protests now engulfing Israel, originally spurred by a housing crisis, have quickly morphed into an amalgamation of economic and social demands, leaving many in Israel’s progressive left to wonder exactly how broad these protests now threatening to paralyze Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s leadership will become.

Make no mistake; these protests, begun in Tel Aviv by Israel’s young, left-leaning middle class, are awakening the voices of many sectors that have long-been dormant. There is a social reordering underfoot — the 150,000 Israelis who took to the streets in 11 different cities across the country on Saturday, directing their anger squarely at Netanyahu, are a testament to this. (To understand the scope of these protests, approximately two percent of Israel’s population swarmed the country’s streets and public squares, which in the United States would be around 5.5 million.)

While a lack of affordable housing is the rallying cry around which protesters throughout the country began mobilizing, a deeper discontent has been fomenting. Netanyahu’s championing of anti-democratic laws aimed at squelching criticism of the State coupled with continuing economic policies that have widened gaps between the rich and the poor have angered citizens — so much so that they are now symbolically rejecting both by aiming their protests squarely at their leader.

But many in Israel’s left see a disconnect in what’s occurring; how can Israelis protest housing prices without mentioning the settlements? How can Israel’s young progressives demand social justice without mentioning the occupation?

For now, the protest leaders’ complaints are mostly centered on skyrocketing housing costs due, in part, to a shortage of available land — a shortage caused by the government’s monopoly over land holdings, its reticence to release enough of it for construction, and the endless bureaucracy that delays permit acquisition for approved areas.

In a televised press conference recently, Netanyahu attempted to appease the protesters by offering proposals aimed at enticing the young rather than at systemic reforms — proposals that Daphni Leef, the 26-year-old activist who started the protest movement now sweeping Israel, immediately rejected:

“Netanyahu said he will give plots of land out for free, and who will get them? Those people in Israel in need? No, those who will get them are the contractors, and the rest of his wealthy friends who can build on land free of charge…

“What Mr. Netanyahu proposed was nothing less than fraud…Our answer to his offer is ‘No.’ We here in Tel Aviv may be young, but we weren’t born yesterday.”

Tent communities on Rothschild Boulevard, Tel-Aviv call for affordable housing. Credit: Zeev Zamir

The protests are not only spreading geographically; their momentum has brought other groups to the streets, including small pockets of the aggrieved — striking doctors, dairy farmers and struggling working parents — who have also begun marching. More significantly, the head of the Histadrut, Israel’s powerful organization of trade unions, has joined the housing protests, putting the full force of Israeli labor behind them and general strikes taking place.

With a recent Ha’aretz poll showing 87 percent of Israelis siding with the protesters, and with Netanyahu’s approval rating quickly plummeting from 51 to 32 percent, the progressive left in Israel appears to be undergoing a sudden rebirth. The left seems emboldened by Netanyahu’s vulnerability and enraged not only by Israel’s growing economic disparities brought on by Netanyahu’s privatization push, but by the damage legislators in his party have done to Israel’s democracy.

Last month, the Knesset passed several controversial bills, including one outlawing boycotts of Israeli entities, thus denying citizens the right to engage in a normative, nonviolent form of protest. It is a law so odious that several prominent Israeli pundits called it fascist, a word not used lightly with memory of the Holocaust always in the background.

However, geopolitical issues revolving around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been largely absent from these protests. This absence has prompted many prominent, progressive voices in Israel to wonder aloud if these protests might expand to include opposition to the settlements and the occupation. Some, such as Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz, have implicitly wished for this to occur:

If the [protesters'] struggle succeeds against the tyranny of the apartment owners and the Finance Ministry — which was what motivated them to go out and demonstrate — perhaps they will find the way of struggling also against other more severe forms of tyranny. That is the big test before the people.

Others, such as Israeli journalist Joseph Dana, have explicitly expressed dismay at the marked absence of the occupation and the settlements in the protesters’ rhetoric. Recently, he took to Tel Aviv’s streets to ask a handful of protest leaders about this absence, and while his observations were merely anecdotal, he found the following general sentiment repeated time and again by the left-leaning protesters: if we mention “occupation,” our movement will end.

Below are several of the Tweets he filed while speaking with them:

Many protesters at #j14 tent city want to talk about occupation but feel that it will end their support in Israeli society.

I think that general israeli society is not ready for the #j14 protests and the protesters fear that the public could turn on them

Most #j14 protesters are not dumb and understand that everything is connected. They are just silenced by Israeli society and opinion

While subtle steps of progress on including these issues have appeared, including a joint Jewish-Arab protest held in Nazareth on the night in which 150,000 people across Israel danced and chanted social justice slogans, it is important to emphasize that the protests have made no real connection to the occupation or settlements.

As The New York Times reported, the Israeli left’s rebirth is unmistakable, but it is a left focused not on geopolitical concerns, but social ones:

“The left has risen back to life,” Shai Golden, deputy editor of the newspaper Maariv, said in a column on Sunday. “It hasn’t yet dared to let the words ‘occupation’ and ’settlements’ cross its lips and to cite the social and economic price that they have cost Israel over the course of the past four decades.” The new movement, he added, would be “the social left.”

Whether or not the momentum driving these protests will inspire Israel’s left to explicitly and boisterously include geopolitical issues amongst their demands in the near term is a question that remains.

With reports suddenly surfacing that Netanyahu has agreed, in principle, to negotiate with the Palestinians based on 1967 borders — a sudden and marked policy shift, if true — one must wonder if it will end up being the Israeli government, as a way to deflect attention from the protesters, and not the protesters themselves, who will end up bringing these issues immediately to the fore.

With September fast approaching, at which time the Palestinians plan to approach the United Nations to have their statehood internationally recognized, one thing is certain: we will likely find in the coming weeks which entities (if any) in Israel will be willing to step forward and utter the words “occupation” and “settlements.”

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