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In the Middle

In the recent tent-city protests, middle-class Israelis took to the streets to protest a political system that ignores them. Without a clear message, will these demonstrations have any effect?

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Protesters, and their tents, in Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
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House Proud

Protests against increasing housing prices in Israel shake the Netanyahu government. But in the tent cities erected as part of the campaign, the conversation is about civil society.

On July 14, the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, a few young people decided to go live in tents in the middle of Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. It was supposed to be a spontaneous protest against the escalating cost of housing, which has skyrocketed out of reach of young working people. The protesters had no set political agenda but a lot of energy, and soon their numbers began to multiply, the demonstrations spreading to other cities with phenomenal speed. Like alcoholics coming to an AA meeting, people quickly realized that they weren’t such a small minority and that they possessed no small measure of power. On July 23, a huge demonstration of 20,000 was held in Tel Aviv, and by that time it was already clear to the representatives of the Israeli political establishment that they could not ignore that power.

My wife and I went to that demonstration. The people around us looked optimistic and excited. There were children taking part in the demonstration with their parents, and they imbued the event with the confusingly festive air of a picnic or a rock concert.

The media says the middle class is the core of this struggle.

“The middle class is the easiest group to screw,” Alon, a demonstrator pushing a baby carriage, explained to me, “It’s hardest for them to take to the streets; the poor can go all the way—they have nothing to lose anyway. The rich can hire lawyers and lobbyists and who knows what else. But the middle class is stuck there in the middle: without the economic power required to oil the system, but with just enough to worry about losing what it has. That’s why they’ve been milking us dry for years. But it’s over now.” Alon was talking about the housing crisis and money, but I could sense something else underlying his words, something that is shared by all the people I spoke to at the demonstration: how alienated they feel from the Knesset that is supposed to represent them. Isreal’s parliament pushes through, on a daily basis, laws favoring the settlers, the ultra-Orthodox, and other groups skilled at lobbying and manipulating it. It has never engaged in any dialogue with the tens of thousands of people who decided one evening to take to the streets.

It’s no accident that the demonstration was called for the same evening as the finale of Kochav Nolad, A Star Is Born, the Israeli version of American Idol. The message transmitted by going head-to-head with the finale of the highest-rated TV program in the country is that living alongside the shallow, arm-waving, brainwashed Israel is another Israel, a quiet, round-spectacled Israel, and he wants to remind his elected officials as well as himself of his existence. It’s funny to see how this group of people, in their cool, trendy clothes, feels so unrepresented: It contains artists, lawyers, academics, doctors—not the types you stereotypically find shouting about not having their voices heard. But in the Israel of 2011, these are precisely the people who can’t find themselves any genuine political representation. The people demonstrating here are exactly the same people who don’t feel quite comfortable with the flood of new laws, such as the recently passed boycott law, that limit basic freedoms.

Many demonstrators see themselves as apolitical. Despite the fact that they came here supposedly to talk about housing issues, their concerns run much deeper. The suffocation they feel isn’t caused so much by a shortage of square meters as by their frustration about not being counted by those who hold the reins of the country and are steering it to some very unpleasant places.

Standing on a traffic island in the middle of Ibn Gevirol Street was a young woman whose red hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She was holding a cardboard placard that said in beautiful, rounded handwriting: “My message is too complicated for this placard.” I don’t know how many of the tens of thousands of people walking past her stopped to read it, but for me, that placard most precisely represents the tent protests.

It’s hard to know whether this protest will develop into anything significant. It all depends on the placard the red-headed girl decides to hold up at the next demonstration, whether the protesters will, in the end, be able to formulate their protest into the kind of clear, sharp messages that those people pretending to represent them will not be able to ignore. If all that comes out of this protest is dissatisfied consumers complaining about the cost of housing and cottage cheese, it will fade within weeks. But I want to believe that more will emerge.

As Alon said right before he disappeared into the throng of demonstrators, “The poor fight for food. I may have food but I am hungry.”

“What are you hungry for?” I asked.

“For a country that is a little less heartless,” he said, and gave the baby, who had just woken up, a bottle. “One that doesn’t try to push only a culture of power and force, but also a culture that values compassion. Being a Jew isn’t just being a settler, you know; being a Jew also means having compassion. I swear. You don’t believe me? Go home and Google it.”

Translated by Sondra Silverston

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Once more the Israeli left is making the same mistake as usual – thinking that some people in the street represent the majority. Thinking that the upper-middle class from where it is taking most of its votes it “the people”.

They did identify true issue but propose bad answers that most Israelis do not want. We want cheaper housing – but not with government subventions or building – only with more private building and less bureaucracy.

We want lower prices on basic products – but not with the government controling prices but by the help of more competition and the opening of the market.

And we will get that.

Bill Pearlman says:

I have always been curious about the Israeli “silent majority” and what they thing. Interesting article.

Rocky says:

Many young Israelis simply cannot compete for housing against well to Canadians or Americans who decide to make aliya when they retire with their large nest eggs. Some will just decide to move abroad for a better economic future. Who can blame them?

This is the most important point Keret makes in this piece, a point so many others seem to be missing:

“It’s funny to see how this group of people, in their cool, trendy clothes, feels so unrepresented: It contains artists, lawyers, academics, doctors—not the types you stereotypically find shouting about not having their voices heard. But in the Israel of 2011, these are precisely the people who can’t find themselves any genuine political representation.”

David, that is exactly the excerpt I quoted on my Facebook page. Funny.

@ Lisa, what’s that they say about great minds? :)

yuyu says:

Right now there are some 40 tent camps all over the country from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat, the latest one in Baka El Gharbia.

There are also camps in Shderot, Afula, Bet Shean, Bet Shemesh, the Tikva neighbourhood, the Lewinsky park at the central bus station area as well as Jaffa, most definitely not locations of the white middle class.

The housing crisis has reached monstrous proportions in which the poorest are affected in the worst possible way. The Middle Class comment appears to be used mostly to disqualify the movement.

Is this the Israeli version of the silent majority that put Nixon in office, who then became the first U.S. president to visit Israel?

this is how a demonstration looks like in a real democracy;
no violence but also with much deodorant!

IIana says:

despite israeli governments’ and hamas and plo’s attempts to turn us all into hopless individualists we are proving again that we are all part of one human fabric!!!
jews and arabs, men and women, seculars and religous….
Israel is so great just because of that!

Josh says:

Where can I find this in Hebrew?

IIana says:

On YNET

Why don’t the protesters add to their list of demands, equality for arabs that are oppressed in the “jewish state”, but also to end the cruel, brutal,unhuman, terroristic occupation of the palastinian people…. OR do jews only cares for jews and therfore don’t care even of the atrocities and ethnic cleansing that is happening in front of their very own eyes, at the hands of their own gouvernement?

P.S.. the “jewish state” is perhaps only “democratic” for ashkenazi jews….definetly NOT for the arabs that live in that state, they (arabs) are regarded by “superior” ashkenazi jews, as 2th or 3rd class citizens in the “jewish state”..

“On July 23, a huge demonstration of 20,000 was held in Tel Aviv, and by that time it was already clear to the representatives of the Israeli political establishment that they could not ignore that power.”

[...Fast-forward two weeks...] Today it was an estimated 300,000 in Tel-Aviv, and another 100,000 around the country. Something big’s going on here!

@lana
“Why don’t the protesters add to their list of demands, equality for arabs…” That is one of the demands.

“…but also to end the cruel, brutal,unhuman, terroristic occupation of the palastinian people” Because, although many of us deporatelly want to see an end to the occupation (something we need the Palestinians’ help in achieving) the whole point is that for the first time in my lifetime there is actual real politics in Israel. Yes Rabin and Peretz both spoke of social issues, but elections in Israel are decided by and politics dominated by what parties say about Arabs. Unlike the brave Syrians, we did not get shot at today. But like them we have to stay determined, focused and united in our demands. For that reason, at these events, the issues are exclusively socio-economic.

Dot Dash Dash Dot B”H Sunday, August 07, 2011 I am in the throes of an existential suicide. All my years I grew thinking productivity is the staid purpose of participating amongst the living, so retirement is really shit when there’s forty years until I die at a hundred and twenty. Now I realized we are the people of the BOOK, one who lives the values of Talmudic living is a lifelong student. No purpose greater than study. I can attest to the fact that I’m reaching into that security because I can touch it. Existential suicide is the post traumatic façade of depression and repressed anger and paranoiac fear leading to the aggression or in the present circles within my reaches tie me to essential integration with the environment. The pakidah from the City of Arad evidenced the corrupt ties between the mayor and discriminatory against me being a religious man of observant faith, who will campaign for her present post on the platform of Solar Electricity Free for All. The wealthy aristocrats have a monopoly over the services and make stupid laws to defeat any attempt to bring solar electricity to the residential level, so this is our revolution. We can get all the electricity we need, and make money off the deal and disconnect from the gas company, SO.. our Mayor the prodigy of the banking industry turned her back on her individual word given to me in a public forum in which I quoted the President Mr. Shimon Peres. And this should be happening with every resident in the country and can be achieved with the invention made by Zolshine Shemesh Solar ; http://www.englishquickly.com. The outburst of the urban populations throughout the world is a demand made by humanity to those who have greedily captured resources belonging to us all as beings inhabiting the space of the earth and respectable of that fact.

david Ariel says:

Mentally patterned on the Ottoman mentality, where everything that is not specifically permitted is prohobited, Israelis are in reality straining to throw off a way of thinking about res publica that has straitjacketed them since 1948. The assumption that all power resides in “the state” is being challenged. But it will take time to refine the focus down to this. In the meantime, please give credit to the “privileged religious” –working poor– cottage cheese rebel who sparked this whole flare-up. The Bolshie types who seized on what he set off are typical coat-tail types, like penguins who crowd one of their number off the ice to see if there’s a leopard seal lurking. But it is their type that resonates with the media mafia, so they are the heroes. If it all flops, just watch the witch hunt find that cottage cheese traitor.

Milton Pincus says:

As a middle-class, middle-aged oleh, I watched last night’s rally in TLV. As long as the protests remain “social”, they will gain support. The problem is that so many of the social issues are caused by political decisions. There is plenty of subsidized housing in Yehudah and Shomron, due to political decisions. Yeshiva students are subsidized to not work and not serve the nation due to a political decision. That’s one of the many underlying fundamentals of the problems.

europamedical says:

” “For a country that is a little less heartless,” he said, and gave the baby, who had just woken up, a bottle. “One that doesn’t try to push only a culture of power and force, but also a culture that values compassion. Being a Jew isn’t just being a settler, you know; being a Jew also means having compassion”

FINALLY, the voice of sanity and maybe hope for us all. Appreciated this article. Thank you !

IIana says:

more pictures from the protest:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRp02b8H2_o
so proud of the israeli people…

and btw, arabs were demonstrating with us yesterday, and we want them to have social rights just like we do.
this is what this demonstration is all about!!!

Caroline says:

the protest’s anthem: pitom kam adam\ suddenly a man wakes up
Suddenly a man wakes up in the morning
He feels like he is a nation and begins to walk
And to all he meets on his way he calls out ‘Shalom!’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVzPqKoE4KQ

happy J14 Am Israel chai!!!!

Ann Rosen says:

@Ilana…I don’t believe your assessment of Israeli behavior toward Arabs. We, who are not brainwashed by the Global Agenda of the Left, look at the evidence. We see Arab citizens of Israel with a better standard of living than in Arab countries. We see that a wall was raised to keep the ‘Bombers’ out, which could have been avoided if the Arab community had eliminated terrorism as an expression of political dissent and tool to destroy Israel from within by eroding security. Sorry, Ilana, we are not stupid. Too many Arab Universities, Arab Mk’s free to express treasonus opinions and behaviors and Arab students hostile to Israel allowed to study at Israeli Universities speaks very loud and clear. And as far as your fantasy regarding occupation, the Balfour declaration awarded land for two states, one Arab and one Jewish, not three states and the land that the Palestinians claim is Jewish land. @David Ariel, Your comment could not be more correct or better said…Thank you. It is refreshing to read truth said simply. Such a change from the usual.

brynababy says:

Well said Ann, and others. Stop the ridiculous privileges for the Orthodox. No more subsidizing!! Lots’ of good comments here.

It’s very good post.

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In the Middle

In the recent tent-city protests, middle-class Israelis took to the streets to protest a political system that ignores them. Without a clear message, will these demonstrations have any effect?

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