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