Tel Aviv is on fire, what’s cooking?

Israel’s greatest political uprising in recent years is fighting to “not be political”. Why? And would that hurt it’s chances of social change?

The first morning in Tel Aviv's tent city (by Gal Kedem)

In the last week we’ve seen the rise of a popular revolt against the housing bubble. It started as a simple Facebook event in Tel Aviv but within days multiple tent cities sprung all around the country. Between these tents citizens meet, spend the night, argue about the right way to go and enjoy some free music and a unique mix of a festive & revolutionary atmosphere.

The NYTimes writes: Spirit of Middle East Protests Doesn’t Spare Israel. But while the international community might imagine these protests calling for democracy for everyone between the river and the sea, the end of the occupation or at least the reversal of the Netanyahu/Liberman government’s series of anti-democratic laws, this is not exactly the case.

What are we fighting for?

You see, while Netanyahu brags about a stable economy, the high GDP and the low unemployment rates, it might impress the NYTimes, but it doesn’t impress the residents of Tel Aviv. We are not that stupid, we drill deeper into the statistics to find that while employment rates might be low (~6%), families with both parents working can rarely make it through the month. We work hard and yet we stay poor. In fact every 4th family is poor, and 2 out of every 5 children is poor.

But this is not an uprising of the poor. It is an uprising of the middle class, especially the younger generations the 20+ and 30+ who are working their asses off and are trying to not slip into the widening margins of the statistics I just mentioned. In a very enraged and damning column published on Ynet today Shlomo Kraus writes:

You, who received the state on a silver plate, are calling us ‘spoiled’. The joke will be on you when in old age you would need the warm hug of the welfare state. We will explain to you then that geriatric care depends on supply and demand.

Shlomo Kraus, Ynet (Hebrew)

The ‘you’ are our parents (and leaders) generation. The ones who have grown in a welfare state and enjoyed its fruits in the form of affordable housing, social rights, workers rights and so on, and then adopted Neo-Liberalism wholeheartedly to make some extra bucks on our backs. In the tent city today a man in his 50s approached me and asked: “Are you with the organizers?” (he didn’t wait for an answer) “Tell them to go to the mayor and demand what we got 20 years ago. Back then the municipality payed half our rent for two years.”

Just don’t say the ‘P’ word

From outside Israeli politics is complex. What most see from afar is the dangerous game it plays between its democratic and Jewish identities (constantly pitted against each other by 44 years of occupation and by the policies and legislation of the current government).

But it’s also complex from inside. The thousands who are camping in the cities boulevards and squares, marching on the luxury towers with signs and torches, and chanting anti-capitalism slogans calling for affordable housing are also asking to not make this struggle “political”. The government is the key target here, but the protestors still do not want to call it “politics”. 18 years after the Oslo accords the “Peace Process” is so dead that most Israelis would rather die and not be called “lefties” (quite literally when you think about it). The Israeli public is disenchanted with the classic division of Israeli politics in which the left was pro-peace and a 2 state solution and the right was pro-security and less eager to compromise. The dominant narrative is that the left has not only lost that argument but also betrayed Israel (by compromising its security and aligning with the enemy’s interests). In Israel 2011, thanks to the failures of the peace process, the anti-democratic efforts of forces on the right and Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation, left = treason.

So the people marching in the streets are labeling their struggle as economic, social, civic, urban, democratic, revolutionary, anything… just not leftist and not “political”. And indeed the Tent Protest makes for strange sleeping bag fellows: hipsters and homeless, far left anarchists and far right reactionary nationalists, pot heads and bourgeoisie families with children… They all fear that this rare alliance that for once alleviated the public sphere from the Right/Left deadlock will vanish if we dare confront our political sub-conscience and label ourselves politically.

Even hardcore anti-occupation activists are biting their tongues and agree to not talk about the red elephant in the room. They do try to connect this to the struggle of Palestinian families being evacuated from their homes in Jaffa, Ramla and Jerusalem but are careful to keep it within the so-called a-political housing discourse.

And what about some goals?

One of the most common arguments against the uprising is that it does not have clear goals. There are a lot of different factions under the protest tent. They can’t decide whether the struggle should focus on housing (the original plight of the protest) or expand to the wider social policy of the state. They do not know whether to join hands with some politicians or to deny them the photo-op and kick them out of the camp. They don’t know whether to decide on a list on demands or how to really defend against the government spin doctors.

My own take is quite different. Right now I’m not that interested in conclusions. There are some amazing things happening in and around the tents. And the longer they persist the more amazed would the government be at this powerful and passionate uprising. Let the economists and the politicians suggest plans and let the academics, journalists and social activists analyze them. A housing crisis is not an easy or immediate problem to solve, let alone the whole economic policy of the last two decades. This will not be solved in the next days, weeks or months.

But right now we are achieving a different parallel and possibly even more important byproduct. We should learn from what our Arab neighbors taught us: find a common target, work together, stop being afraid, rediscover people power. Neither our neighbors nor we would enjoy the fruits of a dramatic overnight economic justice. But like our neighbors we are fighting against a dictatorship. The dictatorship of despair and political determinism. The one that led Israel to a paranoiac passive aggressive policy and have put its public sphere on sleeping pills.

The residents of these tents are not sleeping, this civic engagement thing is just too cool to let it slip. Just don’t call it “politics”, yet…

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2 Comments

  1. Posted Aug 12, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    I never really thought that this conflict was based on economic unrest. I always believed that Israel was a very strong country economically as witnessed on the news.

    • Posted Aug 12, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      well, that is the BS we’ve been fed. The GDP is great, but it doesn’t translate to economic welfare and is not experienced as an upgrade in social mobility and life quality. I hope this would change things.

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