The Middle East Channel

Postcard from Rothschild Boulevard

Postcard from Rothschild Boulevard

TEL AVIV — On any other day, Rothschild Boulevard is known for its hip restaurants, beautifully renovated Bauhaus buildings, and the headquarters of Israel’s largest banks. Today, walking down the tent-filled boulevard, one could mistakenly feel as if he or she has landed in the heart of a Middle Eastern Woodstock festival. Couples smoke waterpipes as jazz musicians compete with folk bands for their attention, jugglers play next to political art installations, and people walk by ad-hoc kitchens that offer free food to all. Yet passers by are called to join discussion groups addressing the erosion of the Israeli welfare state, and inside the larger tents talks are given about cartels and corporate accountability. In this Israeli Hyde Park, a new discourse has been ignited. Rather than focusing on security and peace, the conversation centers on social justice, with Israelis articulating their aspiration for a state that cares and provides for all its citizens.

"We want the future they promised us, a future in which we could own a home, give our children adequate education and have a functioning health system," says Efrat Melter, a 34-year-old law student who runs a Facebook gender equality group. "We don’t want to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore. When doing that we are only throwing sand in our eyes, while the government and the rich are stealing our money and the country’s infrastructure." All of a sudden, middle-class Israelis are refusing to play according to their prescribed roles. At least for now, for the duration of this protest, the core issues around which they mobilize are not only the right/left and anti/pro-occupation fault lines that have divided Israeli society for the past decades. Instead, they are now fiercely rallying for economic justice. The enemies are no longer the Palestinians but are instead the "tycoons," Israel’s wealthy elite, which is blamed for corrupting politicians into allowing them to form unofficial cartels that keep salaries low and the cost of living high.

About a month ago, Daphne Leef, a 25-year-old Israeli film student who could no longer afford to pay rent for her Tel Aviv apartment, formed a Facebook page calling friends and strangers to join her and move into tents on Rothschild Boulevard. Ten young Israelis, almost all under 30 and with no prior political experience, joined and became the unofficial leadership of the movement. "On the first night we were sure that we will be alone," said Roi Noyman, a 27-year-old insurance salesman, who is now the group’s spokesman. "The municipality tried to kick us out, but now they are afraid to touch us because of the mass support." The 25 tents that housed only 200 protestors on that first night have since snow-balled into an unprecedented grass roots movement, with last Saturday night bringing 300,000 Israelis to the streets. That number, just to put things in perspective, constitutes nearly five percent of Israel’s population and is the equivalent of 15 million Americans taking to the streets.

Israel was founded as a socialist welfare state, and despite shifts towards capitalism, Israelis expect their government to provide adequate education, free health care, affordable housing, and help to the disempowered groups. Recent years have seen a wave of privatization that was coupled with GOP-style economic policies led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which focused on cutting government spending, trimming down government bureaucracy, and encouraging free market competition with little government regulation. In parallel, Israelis experienced a steep rise in the cost of living, with no comparable rise in the Israeli average salary. "It’s hard here. An average apartment costs nearly one million shekel (roughly about $280,000), and a young couple with a child could never dream of saving the 40 percent cash down payment they would need to buy a home," said Eitan, a 31-year-old cab driver, who is divorced and has a child. "I live with my mother because I can’t afford to live alone. I don’t want to leave the country, but it is impossible to live here."

Israel is a country that is mostly associated with the violent conflict with the Palestinians. One of the most astonishing features of the movement taking shape on Israel’s streets, however, is how peaceful it is. In stark opposition to the recent riots in London, in Israel there is neither violence nor looting, and the protestors aim to engage with and improve the communities in which they set the tent camps. The relationship with the police and the municipalities is collaborative, and the police wives association has officially aligned themselves with the protesters. Yet a society can neither run away from itself, nor can it avoid its own divisions. The old fault lines that divided Israel into pro or anti-occupation, and secular versus religious affiliations are still there. Last week, Baruch Marzel, a notoriously known extreme settler provocateur, set tents in the Rothschild compound. His solution to the problem, his said, is a mass settlement in the "empty lands" of the West Bank. Despite a few minor clashes between anti-occupation anarchist activists and the extreme settler youth notoriously known for setting up illegal camps on the West Bank hills, there have not been violent confrontations until now. Residents of the Rothschild Boulevard camp have found an interesting way to deal with the intruders. They have not engaged with the settlers in a quarrel over partisan politics. Instead, they took a megaphone and loudly announced which of the high rises around them are under construction and empty, and how many people each building could house, implying that at least Tel Aviv’s housing problem would be solved on the spot should they be allowed to take over the empty apartments. Yet, how long the predominately pro-peace Rothschild camp can tolerate the settlers’ t-shirts that state "Tel Aviv is for Jews" and "Sudanese to Sudan" (referring to African migrant workers who want to stay in Israel instead of going back to their war stricken impoverished countries), remains to be seen.

For the sake of unity and strategic leverage, no one in the movement is talking about what they call "real" politics, namely, the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the rights of Palestinian-Israelis. Yet, last week, Hagai Matar, a journalist and one of Israel’s vocal anti-occupation activists, was optimistic about the inclusion of these problematic issues in the near future. "I hope that what we are creating here is a new discourse that will exclude all those who themselves want to exclude others," he said. "Once the struggle will become purely economic and socialist, it will erase division lines based on religion and nationality." At least for now, however, the unfolding of the events since last week exposed just how challenging taking on this issue could be.

At the rally last Saturday, an unlikely duo shared the stage: Rabi Beni Lau, who is an orthodox Jew and a Zionist; and Odeh Bisharat, an Israeli-Arab poet and social activist. Lau told the crowds that the people of Ofra and Beit El, two well-known Jewish settlements in the West Bank, are carrying as much of the burden as the predominately secular crowd in front of him does. The crowd was silent, as Lau continued. "Let’s not talk in division and in hatred," he pleaded. "Let’s talk with love, and with love we will win." Bisharat echoed the same sentiment. "The Arab population, who has had its own share of suffering and fighting, is looking with appreciation on what is going on," Bisharat told the ecstatic crowd. "We are all in this fight for social justice, for equality and brotherhood, we are all united." He even spoke of land disenfranchisement of the Israeli-Palestinians, an extremely sensitive topic in Israel these days, echoing the Nakba law that was passed recently, which sanctions institutions that mention the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. While Lau and Bisharat shared the same stage, their speeches express a very basic contradiction. Justice for Ofra and Beit El, who represent the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and imply allowing them to stay where they are, means no justice for the Palestinians and de-facto no Palestine. This contradicting discourse points to one of the most dividing cleavages in Israel, namely, whether to leave the West Bank and evacuate the settlements in return for peace with the Palestinians, or stay there for ideological and religious reasons and continue with the occupation of the Palestinian territory. The protesters decided not to deal with this issue right now, but it is an issue they will need to take a stand on if they want to include all Israelis, both Palestinians and Jews, in the protests and in the social change they aspire to bring about.

Nationalist divisions seem to be less important in the tent camps, some of which house both Arabs and Jews, and who all cannot make ends meet. The Levinsky tent compound in Tel Aviv, less hip and less happening than the Rothschild camp, is located in the heart of one of Tel Aviv’s poorest neighborhoods. It has the highest concentration of Israel’s temporary foreign workers, some documented and some not. Due to this high concentration of "illegals," the neighborhood was the site of attempts by the far-right to organize to incite racist social divisions earlier this year. These divisions seem to have melted away in the August heat, as the Levinsky camp recently allied itself with two others in Tel Aviv’s poorest neighborhoods, the joint Jewish-Arab Jaffa camp and with the Hatikva camp. Together, they call themselves "The Roar of the South." Even more astonishing is the fact that one of the representatives of the Levinsky compound is a foreign worker from the Congo, who is now allying with Jewish and Arab Israelis against economic repression.

This grass roots movement, which its founder Leef defined as "uncontrolled as a camel without a head," is exposing the myriad of internal contradictions that caused a country with less than six percent unemployment and a strong currency to see the collapse of its middle class. Unlike 25 years ago when Israel was much more of a welfare state, today the country has one of the highest disparities in equality of the OECD. "This is only the beginning," says Doron Timor, 29, one of the Levinsky camp’s leaders. "It is a struggle to create a new consciousness, and it is a struggle that will take a long time. We want to go back and yet again be a welfare state that takes care of its people."

Prime Minister Netanyahu, the neoliberal free-market advocate, has refused to meet with the protestors’ leadership. Instead he organized two economic-social committees to deal with the problem. The first is made up of academics, professionals and government bureaucrats who will investigate the protesters’ demands and report their recommendations in September to the second committee. There, 17 ministers representing the government’s coalition, which will be led by Yuval Shtainitz, the minister of treasury, will pass on their own assessments to Netanyahu based on the previous committee’s conclusions. This dual committee, however, has been described in the Israeli press as an attempt that is "too little and too late," and the protesters’ leadership is pessimistic about it. "There is no one there who is committed to real social change," they said this week, "and we were not invited to any committee."

Yet, in this process to reinstitute a true welfare state, something else is happening, which goes beyond providing economic equality. On the ground and away from the spotlight, a new consciousness of all those affected by the same economic disparities is being formed. It seems harder and harder to retain the old separation lines as the economic and the political are inevitably intermixing, both on stage and in the tent compounds. "It is impossible to talk about a state that will treat its people equally and fairly and at the same time use a discourse that speaks to the separation between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet changing the consciousness takes time, and I am not sure that we can achieve everything at this phase of the struggle," said Timor.

The protesters will hopefully manage to translate this popular support into concrete demands that will be addressed by the government, and to this end they might even need to form new political parties that focus on social issues. Yet, the most important change in this social movement is the creation of a new discourse of care and compassion that replaces, at least for now, the old one of security and defense. To be truly successful, however, the movement

must apply the same universal values of equality of freedom which it advocates to its relationship with the Palestinian people. In other words, it is time to stop throwing sand in our eyes. Doing that will not be easy, and will inevitably bring out the old frictions, but perhaps this is one of the few rare moments of strength and unity that can change perceptions of who are the enemies and who are the victims.

Hadas Cohen is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the New School for Social Research in New York.