The demonstrations currently roiling Israel constitute a grassroots challenge to Israel’s neo-liberal regime. Beginning as an uprising of the middle classes – especially young people who have trouble finding affordable housing – it has spread to the working class, the poor and the Arab communities as well, though not the religious as yet. Many of the working sectors have joined the three-week protest: doctors, single mothers, parents demanding free education, taxi drivers upset with the price of petrol, even the police. The Histadrut, Israel’s general trade federation, and many municipalities have joined as well. Last night’s protests brought some 320,000 people into the streets.
The big argument is whether it should be “political” or not. I attended the demonstration last Saturday night, and while the main slogan was “We demand social justice,” (although chants of “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu” could also be heard), it was clear that most of those attending wanted the movement to remain “non-political,” rooted squarely in the mainstream consensus. Its thrust is anti-neo-liberal, though not in framed those exact words. Instead, issues are still defined in more narrow, technical ways: affordable housing, affordable education, etc. This may be an effective beginning strategy, since it does bring in the wider public. Many of those support the protests, the taxi drivers for example, tend to vote for Netanyahu’s Likud. The politics, however, are just under the surface. “Bibi [Netanyahu] go home” is all over the place, from posters to leaflets to chants.
(Actually, there is an éminence grise behind Netanyahu for whom these are by no means the first mass protests. Stanley Fischer, the Governor of the Bank of Israel, figures prominently in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. From 1990-2005, Fischer, one of Milton Friedman’s “Chicago Boys,” served as the Chief Economist of the World Bank, First Deputy Managing Director of the IMF, a member of the Washington-based financial advisory body, the Group of Thirty and President of Citigroup International, the world’s largest financial services network which handles, among other things, “global wealth management.” According to Klein, it was Fischer at the IMF who urged Yeltzin to “move fast” and sell off as many public companies and resources as possible, leading directly to the economic take-over of the Oligarchs and their allies, the Russian Mafia; “Mafia Capitalism” it was called. He also oversaw the “structural adjustments” of Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea in 1997, where 24 million lost their jobs and the middle classes were devastated. In 2005 Fischer was appointed Governor of the Bank of Israel by Ariel Sharon; Netanyahu was appointed the Finance Minister.)
There are those of us from the left who are trying to push the protests into a more political direction, though we are sensitive to the fact that a gradual process of political consciousness raising has to occur. In our statements and in discussions we have in the tent cities around the country we try to put the finger on neo-liberalism as a fundamental cause of inequality in Israeli society; neo-liberalism as the dominant government ideology, as its overarching set of policies, as a system and not merely a disjointed collection of policies from which one can pick and choose. We also link the issue of social equality and allocation of resources to the Occupation and the Israel’s massive military budget ($16 billion, or $2,300 per person, the highest ratio of defense spending to GDP among the industrialized countries).
This is being resisted, especially by the Tel Aviv Students’ Union that has taken on some of the amorphous leadership. So far there is a conscious effort by the majority of protesters and organizers to exclude the Occupation from the discussion and to keep the protests “non-political.” Israel flags fly galore and every rally ends with the national anthem (“A Jewish soul still yearns/To be a free people in our land/The Land of Zion and Jerusalem”). The organizers are trying to keep the protests with what Israeli Jews call the “national consensus.” This is a kind of an Israeli code meaning that the protesters do not question the Zionist ideology that Israel should be a Jewish state and are not against the government per se. It simply means that they want specific economic reforms, not to challenge the existing political and ideological system.
Ironically, it is the settlers who are pushing the protest into taking a stand on the Occupation. At first t
hey opposed the protests, arguing that the movement is only a guise to weaken Netanyahu in anticipation of the Palestinians’ call for statehood at the UN in September. But last week the extremely right-wing and racist settler youth set up tents at the protest site in Tel Aviv (under the slogan “Tel Aviv is Jewish”) to push the idea that the solution to the housing crisis is to build massively in the Occupied Territories. In the meantime, Forty-two Knesset members of the right have sent a letter to Netanyahu urging him to solve the housing problem by building massively in the West Bank.
So two questions remain open. First, will the protests stop when they hit the glass ceiling of really confronting the neo-liberal system, including the Occupation? Can social justice be attained for all, structurally as well as ideologically, as long as Jews claim privileged rights over Palestinians and other citizens of Israel – all the while keeping millions of Palestinian non-citizens living under occupation or stuck in refugee camps? Are the protesters capable of genuinely calling into question the fundamental premises of the system and its policies?
The reality is that the vast majority of protesters serve in the army and are, genuinely and sincerely, part of the consensus. At the tent city in Tel Aviv I encountered a seven-year veteran of the IDF who tried to convince me that Che Guevara (pictured on a poster with an X across his face) could not be a role model for revolution because he was violent. My interlocutor, who saw himself as liberal and enlightened, simply could not grasp the connection between serving in the Israeli army – which falls under the rubric of the national “consensus” – and his non-violent beliefs. Without a will to finally break out of the Zionist Box, the protesters might get half-way, perhaps to a return to some form of a welfare state. But true inclusion, full equality and genuine democracy will evade them.
In the meantime, following the mass protests, Netanyahu announced the formation of a special economic team to “reduce the soaring cost of living.” It is headed by a neo-liberal technocrat economist from Tel-Aviv University and includes academics and “experts” from the private sector. Half the members are also government ministers. The leaders of the protest movement expressed skepticism with the team’s composition and lack of any real mandate. They were also disappointed that it did not include any of them.
The other question is: where can this movement go? After Ehud Barak & Co. finally dismantled the Labor Party, which twenty-five years ago had already gone neo-liberal, Israel lacks a major social democratic party. (Meretz doesn’t even count at this stage.) Dov Khanin of the Communist Party is perhaps the clearest and most respected voice against neo-liberalism in the Knesset and is very popular among the protesters (he is one of the few Knesset members even allowed in the tent city). But his party, which is identified almost exclusively with the Arab community, cannot serve as that vehicle. A very real and interesting possibility is that Arye Deri, an ultra-orthodox Mizrahi founder of Shas with great credibility even among the secular middle classes, will found such a party. As of now, however, the protests have no vehicle for grounding their movement. This, of course, is the Establishment’s hope: that the uprising will just die once a few demands are accepted, others doomed to interminable committees as summer vacation ends.
Still, there’s potential here. Some of the discussions are becoming political (the tent city in Tel Aviv includes a 1948 tent) and it remains to be seen what will happen as the government stonewalls and pushes back. This is an uprising worth following. Not an Arab Spring perhaps, but a promising Israeli Summer. Not a true revolution, but a return to a welfare state that is nonetheless structurally discriminatory. A process of consciousness-raising has begun amongst mainstream Jewish Israelis who for generations have been locked in “The Box” of conformist thinking. Process, flux, potential are still the order of the day. One test of how far the protests can go will come in September when the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories initiate massive protests around the UN vote. What will happen if the tent protests survive and develop into September? Will they link up with their Palestinian counterparts? Will we in the critical left, who are engaged in both movements, be able act as a bridge between them? Imagine a mass march from Tel Aviv to Ramallah – and back! Now that’s when paradigms get smashed and possibilities of an entirely new social, political and economic order open up. Let’s wait and see what September brings.
(Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). He can be reached at <email@example.com>.)