Over 300,000 Israelis came out to the streets last week to demonstrating in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv with a call for social justice. Over 1,000,000 others followed live on their TV’s . First page headlines continue to cover what appears to be the strongest protest movement ever to be seen in the history of Israel and the government, who caught itself unprepared for this “social Tsunami”, appears stuttering as it attempts to engage the growing crowds.
Few have predicted that the initiative of a few young people who setup tents in the Tel Aviv 3 weeks ago will pick up such steam. But the moment was ripe and soon enough, tent sites turned up in over 40 cities around the country. But tent life had much more than protests in mind. The daily scene was a beautiful gathering of young people who have found themselves engaged in a profound conversation about the further they seek to create in their country. “It’s Zionism, phase II” told me a veteran activist as she observed the discussion circles that function daily until the late hours of the night. Discussion issues included education, welfare, medicine, minority rights and public services and they culminate in an attempting to built and refine a foundation for a new treaty between the government and people of this land. I took an Egyptian friend who visited here last week to observe share some notes on her experience in Tahrir. “It is organized here ” she commented as we departed from the students in Jerusalem tent who gave her a standing ovation. “These guys appear to have a sense of what they want.”
Imagine, young people by the thousands s come to the streets to speak, debate and crate. They are beautiful, idealistic, passionate and capable. They insist on hearing all voices and indeed, all the voices are there – from the socialist to the capitalist and from the right to the left.
But that dimension of the protests is the exact one that is lost as it is covered outside of Israel. The Wall Street Journal described it as a “revival of the long-dormant left-wing movement” and liberal groups like the New Israel Fund were quick to announce their financial support and involvement in the creation of this movement. However, linking this wave to a partisan divide in Israel will be too simplistic at best. Although this wave is very political it is much less Partisan and, much to the dismay of the Palestinians, the one issue removed from these discussion circles is the issue that traditionally took the Israeli left to the streets: the peace process. Here is a typical line that is shared by many in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: “Enough about right, left or the occupation…its about time that we speak about us. ” The polls further solidify this argument. 87 percent of Israelis fully support the struggle and its goals.
There are many good reasons for the strength of this wave that is also described as the “protest of the middle class.” Economically speaking, the last decade was one of significant growth. In 2000, Israel’s GDP per capita was US$17,500—higher than in Spain or New Zealand. In 2010, that number rose to $30,000. More than 60 Israeli companies are listed on the NASDAQ, the second most of any foreign country behind Canada, with a market value of $500 billion. In the fourth quarter of 2010 – and despite a global recession – Israel’s GDP grew by 7.8 percent. Unemployment reached a record low, 5.7%. These figures have also opened the door for Israel to join the prestigious club of the OECD (the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). This prosperity, however, was not evenly divided. The Gini index that reflects inequality in income distributions gives Israel a grade 39.2, higher than that of Egypt and almost a match to that of Tunisia (two places that had also seen a wave of protest along very similar lines). Policies of privatization with an attempt to decrease the size of government created a new sector of second class contract workers who worked on very low salaries and without workers rights in places like schools, hospitals and other government offices. They were employed but unable to sustain the steep increases in the standard of living that Israel experiences on the background of the world economic crisis. The prices of basic goods like food, gas and housing have risen in significant percentages. For the sake of comparison, an Israeli earning an average wage must work for 132 months to purchase an average apartment, whereas an average American would have to work for only 60 months. A container of cottage cheese in Israel costs 1.6 times the amount it costs in England and baby formula costs 2.5 times what it costs in the US.
It was on these issues that brought many so many to the streets and it is the non-partisan nature of this protects that gives so many the hope that a change will indeed take place. The Jewish Spring, thus far, appears to last the summer.