Is the Arab Spring spreading to Israel?
Some 150,000 protesters took to the streets in cities across Israel on the night of July 30—the biggest demonstrations the country has seen in decades—to demand action on rising rents, low salaries, and the high cost of living. The demonstrations—held in 12 cities including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa—shows that the popular protest movement that has emerged over the past two weeks is only gaining momentum. Activist Daphni Leef, who initiated the first "tent village" protest in Tel Aviv, told a crowd of some 100,000 outside the city's art museum that "we don't want to replace the government, but to do more than that. We want to change the rules of the game." Noam Shalit, the father of captured soldier Gilad Shalit, also spoke at the rally.
Some 10,000 protesters gathered outside the Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem. The Guardian notes:
For a country with a population of around 7 million, the numbers taking part in the demonstrations were huge. The scale of the protests and the widespread support for them among the Israeli public and in the media have seriously rattled Netanyahu.
"We are now in the midst of a complicated and challenging reality, both internationally and domestically," he told minsters at Sunday's cabinet meeting.
The Israeli protests are clearly part of the wave of econo-protests now sweeping several European countries, most notably Spain and Greece. In the wee hours of July 30, police in Athens cleared Syntagma Square of a tent city which had been established there for the past two months. Because the surprise raid was carried out in the dead of night, there was little resistance, and only eight arrests. (Ekathimerini, Aug. 1) On July 27, police in Madrid similarly evicted a tent city that had been established near the parliament building by the protesters who call themselves "indignados," or the indignant. The raid came following a thousands-strong protest in Madrid last weekend that culminated a 34-day cross-country march to the capital. (Business Insider, July 27)
Even the conservative Jerusalem Post was compelled to applaud the protests for forcing a national dialogue on economic concerns in a July 29 editorial:
As lower- and middle-class discontent spreads, a positive process is unfolding: Serious thought is being devoted, perhaps for the first time ever on such a wide scale, to formulating and articulating coherent views on specifically socioeconomic issues.
In dozens of tent cities whose inhabitants demand affordable housing, in rallies backing our underpaid and overworked doctors, in marches organized by baby stroller- pushing mothers fed up with the high cost of childcare, in demonstrations against high consumer prices, citizens are coming together to discuss our society's socioeconomic ailments and how best to treat them.
It also noted the potential for Jewish-Arab unity around bread-and-butter issues, which is a grave concern to Israel's rulers:
With Arab Israelis having announced their intention to join the protests, we hope more serious thought will be devoted to how a Jewish state should provide for the economic welfare of the one out of five of citizens who make up the Arab minority.
Of course the editorial had to conclude that There Is No Alternative to the free market:
Modern economics has...proven that free market forces are much better at regulating supply and demand and providing incentive for personal initiative and growth than central planning and state-run projects.
Not only will the protesters not be appeased by a recapitulation of the very economic formula that has led to the soaring rents in Tel Aviv, but Israel has certainly not been following the free-market formula where housing for West Bank settlers is concerned—and this, if the protesters can see it, is what unifies their issue with that of Israel's illegal occupation. AlJazeera stated in a July 20 editorial, "Boycott the state, not just the settlements":
To deal with the post-1990 influx of Soviet Jews (which increased Israel's population by 12 per cent), the Israeli state created specific absorption policies which included rental support of up to $10,000 per family for the first year and mortgage subsidies of 50 per cent. With the mass influx into Israel, property prices skyrocketed and the new immigrants found some of the most affordable living opportunities further away from the coastal plain where the Israeli metropolis of Tel Aviv thrived: in illegal colonies in the occupied West Bank.
Subsidies for illegal settlers is OK, but subsidies for the working class of Tel Aviv is anathema to the free-market dogma. This contradiction—if the protesters can grasp it—is an incredibly dangerous one, not only for Israel's rulers, but for those of the entire Middle East region. It points to the possibility of a convergence of the Israeli and global econo-protests, the Palestinian struggle, and the Arab Spring. Despite Western media portrayals of the Arab Spring as only a narrowly-defined "pro-democracy" movement, labor and economic issues continue to animate it, and have from the very start.
But will the protesters grasp it? There are mixed signs. AlJazeera on July 31 speaks with one of the tent protest organizers in Tel Aviv, Roee Neuman. Here are some good signs:
Neuman, the protest spokesman, points out their cultural diversity, explaining how there are mixed Arab-Jewish tents at the tent camp in the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv, and a mixed Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Jewish) and Arab protest site at the Meron Junction in the northern Galilee region.
According to some right-wing groups, religious people are not inclined to join for fear that the movement is too secular, and could ultimately turn to other left-wing causes that they would oppose.
Activists say there is a mix of Ashkenazis and Israelis of non-European origin, whereas in the past, left-wing demonstrations—concerning Palestine, migrant worker rights and many other issues—were often dominated by Ashkenazis.
But also unfortunate equivocation—from protest organizers and Palestinian leaders alike:
A Palestinian official involved in the UN statehood bid, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Al Jazeera: "This Israeli government has failed internally and externally, but the demonstrations they are facing is their problem. We don't interfere on this."
Neuman, [the] housing protest spokesman, said: "We also completely separate those issues on our part." He implied that many activists support the Palestinian quest but do not want to scare away a broad swath of Israelis wary of throwing their weight behind the anti-occupation cause.
And, of course, the Israeli right is ready to jump in and provide the usual scapegoats. The newspaper Arutz Sheva, organ of the far right of the settler movement, features an interview with arch-reactionary MK Michael Ben-Ari on July 31:
Illegal migrants and work-seekers have taken many of the apartments in southern Tel Aviv, driving up the price of housing in the area. Illegal entrants have been accused of raising crime rates as well.
Ben-Ari has responded to the flood of illegal entrants by encouraging them to reside in upper-class areas in northern Tel Aviv, in what has been dubbed the "Ramat Aviv First" initiative.
Ben-Ari told protesters, "The main problem [regarding housing] is the illegal entry of Sudanese to the neighborhood, and leftists who want to destroy Israel are hitching on to the very crisis they created." He called on his fellow MKs to join him in spending time in southern Tel Aviv and hearing residents' complaints "not only when it is popular, but on a regular basis."
We have already noted favorable signs of a convergence between the Israeli protests and the Arab Spring. But Israel is also building a wall on its Egyptian border to keep out African migrants, much as the US is building one on the Mexican border for similar purposes. Let's hope the Israelis do not fall for Ben-Ari's fascistic scapegoating ploy (something Jews who know their history should be especially wary of), and instead decide to make common cause with Palestinians who have been far more thoroughly expropriated by the oppressive Israeli state, and with Arabs similarly suffering under undemocratic regimes.