On an exceptionally humid Saturday evening last month, a modest assembly gathered in front of the Souraski Medical Center in Tel Aviv to protest on behalf of Israeli doctors, who are widely acknowledged to be underpaid and overworked. But the doctors’ continued pleas for public support had nevertheless fallen on deaf ears: The masses had chosen to stay at home—at least for a few more hours. That same night, shortly after the underpaid doctors and their handful of supporters had packed up and left, tens of thousands of Israelis stormed into the public square at the entrance to the Tel Aviv Museum, only a few hundred yards away from the site of the earlier protest, to demonstrate against the rising costs of housing. Although the doctors’ struggle for better wages elicits overwhelming public support, it apparently asked young Israeli protesters to do the one thing they are still unprepared for: acknowledge the interests of someone other than themselves.
Judging by the tidal wave of bombastic accolades that has swept through the Israeli and international media in the past few weeks, it is quite understandable why the unambiguously self-centered origins of Israel’s tent-city protests have been so obstinately ignored. With Haaretz already anointing the mass demonstrations “The Israeli Revolution” and novelist Amos Oz declaring the movement to have “surpassed its ancestors,” why would anyone actually examine—let alone question—the inglorious origins of the most glorious event in recent Israeli memory? Even the sober-minded communitarian philosopher Michael Walzer was apparently overtaken by what he witnessed in Tel Aviv. “This is the first uprising, anywhere in the world, against a successful neo-liberal regime,” Walzer recently wrote, explaining that “the crisis has to do with inequality and injustice, and the search for communal justice.”
But beyond the balloon of egalitarian rhetoric that has been strategically inflated by media-savvy protesters to mobilize public support, it becomes painfully clear that the altruistic spectacle of the current public myth originated as an explicitly egotistic venture. The young urbanite Israelis who have been engaging in “tent warfare” for the past month did not do so to protest the “neoliberal regime,” as Walzer and others would so dearly love to believe; they did so rather because they were unable to enjoy their accustomed neoliberal pleasures to the fullest. And as tempting as it may be to mask self-interest behind abstract moral pretensions, the only social justice the protesters have ever been truly eager to obtain has been that which is reserved for themselves.
Let us first examine what by all accounts has become the dominant message propelling the recent demonstrations: “The Nation Demands Social Justice.” What exactly constitutes this so-called “nation,” and who has the right to speak for it? It appears that the self-declared Israeli bourgeoisie, as represented by the well-educated 20- and 30-year-old urbanites spearheading the movement, have quite naturally taken the latter role upon themselves. By deflecting attention away from Tel Aviv they have succeeded in transforming the protest from a limited sectarian affair into a national outcry for change. And yet despite their seemingly noble efforts at advocating national unity in pursuit of “social justice,” one should not overlook the fact that in the past few years, the one thing this same Israeli bourgeoisie continually, and consciously, failed to do, was to unite on behalf of those less fortunate than themselves.
Well before the so-called ills of neoliberalism and privatization against which tens of thousands of Israelis are so passionately united had driven the price of housing in metropolitan areas to record heights, countless groups were already engaging in a desperate struggle for survival. First there was the months-long stand-off between disabled Israelis whose meager benefits had become so debased that they had no choice but to camp out in front of the Ministry of Finance for over 10 weeks in order to pressure the government to rescind some of the cuts. There was the electrifying protest movement generated by Vicki Knafo, the then 43-year-old single mother, whose perennial inability to support her children launched her on a 120-mile trek from her home town of Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev to Jerusalem to protest decreasing government benefits. Knafo’s struggle was also aimed at halting the continued socioeconomic deterioration of Israel’s non-urban periphery, which has long suffered from government neglect. In 2007, it was the Holocaust survivors’ turn to mobilize, as hundreds of aging survivors and their families joined forces to protest the abject poverty into which they were forced by diminishing government pensions. Finally, and most recently, was the struggle among residents of S’derot and neighboring southern towns surrounding the Gaza strip to lobby the government to safeguard their schools and build adequate shelters that would allow them to attempt to maintain some kind of normalcy in the face of incessant rocket fire.
Each one of these social movements was widely supported by the general public. And yet none ever succeeded—despite repeated attempts—at mobilizing the mass support they required to effect meaningful social change. The geographic, socioeconomic, and ethnic divides that have split Israeli society and prevent mass mobilization became clear during the 2006 Second Lebanon War and the 2008 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, when tens of thousands of Israelis living along the northern and southern frontiers were huddled into bomb shelters while the restaurants and bars in Rothschild Boulevard—the Bastille to this contemporary Israeli Revolution—were as busy as ever.
Such historical reflection is not a petty attempt to belittle the social agenda of the ongoing protest movement in Israel; but it is merely an attempt to examine the actual motives of the protesters in the streets. Waving the banner of “communal justice” after consciously alienating yourself from large parts of the national community for so long is not only opportunistic but also hypocritical. One does not need to be a great skeptic to question the sincerity of those who have suddenly taken upon themselves the liberty to speak on behalf of a nation in which they have wanted little part. Large sectors of Israeli society and its periphery have been crying out for over a decade to the self-declared Israeli bourgeoisie to ask for support in pressuring the government to alleviate their pain. It is only now, as that pain has begun to trickle into that bourgeoisie’s own pockets, in the relatively mild form of decreasing purchasing power and rising rents (as opposed to living in abject poverty and huddling in bomb shelters), that the privileged urban Israelis responsible for this latest civic awakening are finally willing to listen.
While rising housing costs may have initially driven a group of young Israelis last month to pitch a tent in Rothschild Boulevard and spark the flame of revolution, it is their own desperate search for self-fulfillment that has kept them there. When a mock Guillotine was placed in the heart of the Rothschild encampment last Wednesday, it served not merely as a provocative spectacle but also as a boost to the self-confidence of these highly self-conscious performers, who play to the cameras at every opportunity. In the end, the all too conspicuous images of solidarity, showcasing secular and ultra-Orthodox or Arab and Jew embracing, not to mention the constant analogies to Paris 1789, are a testimony to the fact that as much as the protesters may be trying to prove their inflated sense of self-accomplishment to the greater public, they are primarily trying to make themselves believe in their own historical import.
“We have finally awakened” has become a favorite maxim among the younger protesters. “This is not about housing” declared a young Israeli journalist. “It is a welcomed attempt at patricide.” Similarly, calls for “regeneration” and “rebirth” have suffused the mock-revolutionary jargon, with some going as far as to declare these protests as “the renaissance of the Israeli spirit” and “Israel’s second Independence Day.” Itzhik Shmuli, the head of the national student union, has been even more explicit about his generation’s newfound and self-congratulatory sense of empowerment: “From now on, the young people will shape the government’s vision.”
While analysts have described the demonstrations as “an effort by the youngest Israelis to recapture an older, more egalitarian, more idealistic, country that their parents lost,” their own rhetoric suggests that they are actually attempting to do the exact opposite, and to create something completely different. Even without an intensive psychoanalytic evaluation, it should not be too difficult to diagnose the all too obvious generational neurosis that plagues the young Israelis who began this fight: guilt. Although their neighbors in Tahrir Square have indubitably had a profound effect on these self-styled revolutions, it is not the Arab spring as much as their own guilty conscience that has shamed them into action. When the Histadrut Labor Federation chairman, Ofer Eini, recently lamented that Israel had “lost the compassion of the socialist state,” which has been transformed into what he called “not simply capitalist, but capitalist swine,” it undoubtedly struck a nerve with many young Israelis who could not but help feel responsible for this perceived moral degradation. As one tent-dwelling Tel Aviv student-protester recently explained: “Something in Israeli society is lacking; something is wrong with our collective priorities.”
Much like Douglas Coupland’s Generation X—the materially driven American generation that matured in waning stages of the Cold War and in the shadow of the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation—the current cohort of 20- and 30-year-old Israelis appears to be suffering from a similar sense of historical banality. Unlike their grandparents, whose selfless devotion to a greater good helped found the Jewish State, and their parents, who were responsible for defending it in large-scale wars, young Israelis today feel more like the prodigal son, who has selfishly squandered his inheritance. Born after the 1973 War, young Israelis have been liberated from the existential phobias of their parents and accordingly are primarily focused on themselves. In Tel Aviv, an astronomical 34.8 percent of Israeli youth do not serve in the IDF. For the majority who still join, a military service that included two morally ambiguous wars, in Lebanon and the West Bank (each of which lacked a national consensus backing it), did more to burden their conscience than to replenish their pride. If in the past Israelis could always derive a sense of self-fulfillment by serving the state, the younger generation was left to serve itself.
When the tents are finally packed up and stored away, Israel’s summer of discontent may yet end up accomplishing real things—trust-busting, rent control, and a reawakened civil society among them. But it may also do lot of collateral damage by instilling in Israelis a false sense of unity around a misleading agenda cobbled together to buttress the protesters’ own overwhelming sense of self-importance. The puerile and incoherent demands being voiced in the streets (cut taxes but expand the welfare state; remove tariffs and raise the minimum wage but sustain full employment; eliminate university tuition but improve faculty benefits), are emblematic not only of the conflicting sectarian interests comprising this bloated social movement but also of a wishful thinking that stubbornly refuses to recognize its own contradictions and will therefore never make good on its promises.
Deep cleavages continue to polarize Israeli society. The fact that most Israelis agree on lower rents and higher wages (who wouldn’t?) should not belie their continued disagreements about what really matters. In an inversion of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that Americans argue as much as they like about all secondary questions because they have already come to a basic agreement about primary ones, Israelis seem to be wasting their limited civic capital by arguing over secondary matters while the burning fundamental issues remain unresolved.
With the promised U.N. General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood just over the horizon, which threatens a resurgence of violent resistance—a third Intifada—Israelis may very well have spent the summer mobilizing for the wrong cause. Lower housing prices, cheaper cottage cheese, and affordable diapers are all good things. But considering the existential challenges facing the Jewish state, they are the wrong ones, at least for now. Without a sustained—and painful—national dialogue that would once and for all engage the deeply rooted divisions in Israeli society, and without attempts to resolve the future of the settlements, the possibility for Palestinian coexistence, and the status of Israel’s own growing Arab population, the young bourgeois Israeli revolutionaries so adamant upon ushering in the rebirth of a reunified Jewish state will inevitably wind up like most misguided idealistic revolutionaries before them: in bitter disappointment.
Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.
Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.