The not-so-revolutionary spirit of Israel’s housing protests
Something special is happening in Israel. There’s a revolutionary spirit in the air; people are fed up, and they’re realizing that others are fed up too. Furthermore, they’re not afraid to take to the streets to voice their ambiguous yet understandable demands: “The people want social justice!”
But while the spirit hanging in the agonizing mid-summer humidity of Tel Aviv may be revolutionary, don’t be fooled; there’s no revolution here.
Cautious references to and comparisons with the Arab Spring are being made by young Israelis inspired by the Egyptian revolution earlier this year. Signs at the protest epicenter on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Blvd. designate the protest camp “Tahrir.” Signs at a recent mass march that drew over 200,000 people read: “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu.”
Indeed, there are similarities between the two Facebook-organized protests of regular young people who are fed up with the hopeless realities of their countries. But it doesn’t need to be said, and Israelis don’t need to be reminded that their own hopelessness of economic success and social mobility doesn’t compare to that of an unemployed college graduate in Cairo. Nobody is comparing the housing crisis in Israel to that of the Cairo slum dweller forced to squat on his relative’s burial plot due to crushing poverty and a complete lack of affordable housing and land.
While the comparisons to Egypt and Tunisia are admittedly symbolic and limited to the inspirational message that citizens can still demand responsiveness from their governments, there is another line that is blurred.
The Israeli protests throw around freely the word “revolution” in their demands for a welfare state, expressing their desire to see a return to the country’s socialist values, on which it was established. But revolution is not an abstract concept that can be used ambiguously.
Despite the claim that their struggle is “apolitical,” organizers of Israel’s “social justice” and housing protests have made it clear that it would be agreeable to them if already-elected officials solved the problems they’re highlighting, although that would necessitate an unlikely switch in the economic ideology that drives today’s government. By appealing to the elected government thus far, the protesters are acting within the current democratic political system. Only fringe elements of the protests are demanding to topple the current government and save for a handful, none have called for toppling the regime.
By challenging neither the government nor the regime, the non-violent protests that are fully accepted and embraced within the country’s democratic system threaten neither. Ruling politicians are aware that there is a problem and that the people demand solutions, but they are not scared. In other words, their responses will be measured attempts to placate protesters, not to meet their demands.
One might fleetingly ponder whether Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, even if his hold on power were threatened, would betray his free-market, deregulatory economic ideology just to stay in office. The answer to that question is a resounding “no.”
So if the prime minister is unwilling to accede to the calls of such a large contingent of the electorate pouring out into the streets in anger, demanding change he cannot deliver, and as long as protesters constrain themselves to democratic means of protest they seem committed to, one of the few possibilities for achieving meaningful change is through elections.
But elections are neither around the corner nor does it seem likely that the current government will fall (the only way to bring about early elections). The only hope for the coalition to fall apart is if the religious Shas party decides that returning to its social roots is more beneficial than remaining in the government. That could only happen if an alternative socially-minded coalition appears, guaranteeing Shas a place at the table; that too is unlikely.
Therefore, if there is be any significant change to the socioeconomic order in Israel, as protesters are demanding, it would have to be delivered with less-than-democratic means.
One such scenario involves socially or economically disruptive measures, such as a prolonged general strike. Up to this point, the most disruptive measures taken have been blocking roads for no more than an hour at a time, something that is already a part of the normal Israeli concept of democratic protest, and therefore not disruptive at all.
Last week protesters made their first attempts at economic disruption by attempting a general strike called for and organized through Facebook, an experiment that passed without much notice and without any economic effect. With the country’s largest labor union, the Histadrut, joining the protests this week, a more organized general strike could be launched, with more effective results. But the Histadrut has been weakened beyond recognition in recent decades.
In great contrast to unions’ heyday in the 1970s, less than 30 percent of the Israeli workforce is unionized today and no more than half of that number represents Histadrut members. Further, the Histadrut’s coffers have been nearly emptied as it no longer controls the pension funds and significant parts of Israeli industry it once owned. However, a great number of Histadrut members are employed in the public sector, making a near-complete government shutdown a real possibility should the union decide to use “every tool available to it,” as Histadrut chairman Ofir Eini threatened last week.
But even if a general strike supported by the Histadrut did take place and managed to exact a toll on the economy, it would likely go little further than extracting more topical concessions from the government, not a shift in its free market socioeconomic ideology as protesters are demanding.
Gabi, a politically active protester who has been living in the Rothschild Blvd. tent encampment for the past two weeks, described another, yet unlikely, scenario that could lead the not-so-revolution to become slightly more: a serious confrontation with police.
The protesters currently occupying public squares in cities throughout the country and taking to the streets every weekend are decidedly non-violent, but that could ostensibly change. Such a development would have to be provoked, Gabi tells me, but there is a plausible scenario for provocation.
In the Israeli bureaucratic-legal system, after squatting in any residence for 30 days, eviction becomes much more complicated – police will no longer evict a squatter without a court order. Landlords, or the state in this case, must then take a squatter to court, a lengthy legal process that can last up to a year and become very expensive.
The tent protesters of Rothschild, whose numbers have grown well into the hundreds, have now been camped on the posh tree-lined boulevard for over three weeks. There is a decent chance that fearing legal complications in clearing the tent city later, the municipality will attempt to dismantle the social justice movement’s symbolic headquarters, inhabited by the more hard-core activists the movement has to offer, not to mention a permanent media contingent thirsty for juicy news segments.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that any attempt to forcibly clear the camp would quickly turn violent, Gabi explains. Virtually no police have set foot inside the Rothschild tent city and large numbers of officers suddenly appearing would be viewed with hostility, he says.
Although confrontation between protesters and police runs a serious risk of disenfranchising the silent majority of stay-at-home Israeli supporters, it could also galvanize others into action, or so Gabi claims. In what may have been a preview of the scenario he described, two weeks ago when Tel Aviv municipal officers attempted dismantling a smaller tent city in south Tel Aviv, the main Rothschild camp sent reinforcements to ensure their survival, a tactic that apparently succeeded.
However, as evidenced by the strict adherence to democratic non-violent protest, the great majority of protesters still have faith in the functionality of Israel’s democratic system. The only clashes to take place with police have been the result of impromptu road-closing sit-ins.
Therefore, the so-called social “revolution” taking place in Israel is not revolutionary at all, but merely an extremely popular grassroots democratic protest movement. While it is unlikely that the social justice protests will oust the current governing coalition, it may have a significant effect on the face of Israeli political parties ahead of the next elections.
For that to take place, though, the movement must stay alive until those far-off elections arrive. The only question is, how much patience does the movement have and how long can it sustain the exponential growth it has thus far enjoyed?