Israel’s housing protests: The normalization of occupation
In the absence of peace and war, domestic social struggles are spilling out into Israeli streets. The outburst of “normal” social struggle in Israel this year is, however, not a welcome sign. Despite claims that the recent social struggles are representative of the normalization of Israeli society, they are actually the ultimate representation of the normalization of the occupation and permanent conflict.
Doctors have been on strike for over 100 days. A massive boycott of cottage cheese brought the country’s attention to the high cost of basic food goods. Orthodox and religious Jews mounted mass protests against the police questioning of two rabbis. On Saturday, tens of thousands of youths and otherwise distraught Israelis took to the streets to demand affordable housing and social welfare amid an incredible and seemingly never-ending real estate bubble.
“The current protests are a sign of a return, at least temporarily, to normalcy,” Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon wrote in an insightful and enlightening analysis Friday. In the late 1990s, Keinon writes, the Israeli legislative agenda and media focus was on domestic societal issues, dominated by a cultural clash between orthodox Jews and secular society. New political parties founded to address social issues were thrust into Knesset.
“But then the second intifada erupted and drowned it all out,” he says. “The equation was simple: First worry about life, and then the quality of life.”
In contemporary Israel, security-oriented governments were elected when people felt unsafe or insecure, and peace-oriented governments were elected when there was hope for peace. Rarely, and only in times of quiet on diplomatic and military fronts, however, have social issues played a serious role in Israeli politics in recent decades.
In Israel, Keinon writes, it’s a luxury to return to normalcy where citizens can “focus on social and economic issues, not diplomatic and security ones.”
The health care system, education, the state’s relationship with religion, the cost of living and affordable housing are hugely important issues in Israeli – or any – society; they should not be dismissed. In fact, the protests and social struggles taking place in Israeli society today are completely just.
That’s where the problem comes in. What Keinon calls normalcy and appears to be a social-political awakening, is actually a disengagement from the most vital political and moral issues facing Israel.
At a time when much of the world’s focus is on the Palestinians’ plight for statehood, be it in the United Nations or Palestine, Israelis have checked out of the conversation. Internal political debate on the occupation has been stifled by weariness and apathy, exacerbated by ad hominem attacks on those parties attempting to advance the conversation.
In an article in The Jewish Daily Forward last month, Joseph Dana described how over the years, Israelis have justified and accepted the occupation as “a necessary, but temporary evil.” Arguing that in reality the occupation is being perpetuated in a way that is anything but temporary, Dana says, “Israeli society is now [being] forced to confront the implications of endless occupation and possible annexation.”
But Israelis are doing no such thing. The internal social struggles taking place within Israeli society today show that Israeli society has no interest in the Palestinian conflict, the moral price it is forced to pay for it and the political consequences of ignoring it waiting just over the horizon.
Organizers of the housing protests have gone through great pains to present themselves as apolitical, a claim that few people accept. Their demands are inherently socialist, something that became abundantly clear in the massive protest march Saturday night. Among the prominent signs and chants were: “Welfare state now!”; “When the government is against the people, the people are against the government”; and “The people demand social justice.” Young Israelis want to see real, local benefits from the government they elected and pay for through taxes.
The claim of being apolitical is actually an attempt to reject the unique Israeli political paradigm where being from the Right or Left has nothing to do with social or economic policy but exclusively demarcates positions on the conflict, the occupation, war, peace and in rare cases, Zionism.
The housing protesters want to distance themselves from the conflict-oriented paradigm of Israeli politics because they view their struggle as one that affects all of Israeli society – they are trying to be inclusive of those who might otherwise hold opposing political views.
What they are really saying, however, is that the conflict and the occupation are issues that young Israelis no longer care about. By disengaging from the larger existential issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, their message is that conflict, occupation and war are completely normal. Because it no longer affects the everyday lives of most Israelis, there is no reason to deal with it.