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MJ Rosenberg
MJ Rosenberg
MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network.
Israelis take to the streets
Protestors, angry at high housing prices and an indifferent government, could cause a political realignment in Israel.
Last Modified: 02 Aug 2011 11:51
Israelis suffering from high costs of living have moved into tents as a form of protest [EPA]

Imagine if the anti-establishment fervor that followed the 2008 economic collapse produced a political movement that was essentially progressive rather than reactionary.

The fury that swept the country might have been directed at the people who caused the collapse and the people who did nothing to mitigate its effects.

But, for a number of reasons, including the failure of Democrats to steer popular anger where it belonged, popular rage was harnessed by the Tea Party movement, a creation of the far right and ultimately part of the Republican Party.

It's hard to blame Republicans for exploiting anti-establishment rage and it is impossible not to blame Democrats for letting them get away with it.

That it might have been different can be seen in Israel today, where an unprecedented popular revolt against what FDR called "economic royalism" is shaking the political and economic establishment to its core.

The revolt began on July 14, which, in the style of the Arab Spring, led to it being called 7.14. And also in the Arab Spring tradition, this uprising started on Facebook. A 25-year-old named Daphne Leef wrote of the impossibility of finding an apartment she could afford in Tel Aviv and then followed up by erecting and moving into a tent.

Suddenly "tent cities" sprung up throughout the country, with protesters not only railing against the high cost of living, but against the massive shift of wealth from the middle class to the ultra-wealthy. Israelis took to the streets to protest deteriorating health care, a mediocre (at best) public school system, and what can only be described as the wholesale collapse of the public sector in favor of unregulated "free" enterprise.

Israel, created by socialists, was, until relatively recently, a fairly egalitarian country - more like Europe than the United States. But that changed with the rise of the right and particularly of Binyamin Netanyahu, who has succeeded in his goal of implementing Milton Friedman-style economic policies.

Everyone who is not rich is hurting, which is why the protest movement is growing. Demonstrators include Jews and Arabs, the secular and religious, and Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Even some elderly Holocaust survivors are in the streets - not surprising given that over a quarter are now living in poverty. That last point is especially jarring. Imagine the Jewish state cutting benefits to Auschwitz survivors while providing economic incentives to billionaires.

On Saturday night, 150,000 demonstrators, out of a population of seven million, took to the streets - the largest demonstration in Israel's history not related to the war/peace issue.

According to the respected Israeli blog 972:

The main rallying cry was still: "The people! Want! Social justice!" with a generous dose of "Bibi go home," as well as anti-capitalism, pro-welfare state slogans, all laced with dripping sarcasm along the lines of: "The market is free, but we're slaves."

 

The New York Times characterised the protest movement like this:

What started as a modest Facebook-driven protest by young people over housing prices has mushroomed into what many analysts suspect could be one of the more significant political developments here in years - and a possible opening for the defeated left.

 

The Times misses the point. The revolt against Israel's "I want mine" capitalism is emanating not only from the left but from across the political spectrum and even from those who don't care about politics one way or another.

After all, one does not have to be of the left to recognise when you are being screwed, and by whom. Besides, Israelis understand that as bad as Netanyahu's Likud party is, the formerly socialist Labor Party has also long been dominated by politicians (like Ehud Barak) who are indifferent to the problems of working people or the jobless and devote their lives to personal aggrandisement, financial and otherwise.

The occupation

The missing piece in the 7.14 movement (so far) is the absence of the issue of the occupation. Not only is the denial of Palestinian rights thoroughly illegal and immoral, it also contributes mightily to inequality in Israel itself.

All those millions being wasted on settlements and settlement infrastructure should be used at home. All that money wasted on a "university" in Ariel could be spent on schools in Tel Aviv or Haifa. Moreover, the absence of peace costs billions in military expenditures - expenditures that would be significantly reduced if the Israeli government achieved peace with the Palestinians.

But the 7.14 movement should not be criticised for not addressing everything at once. Just getting Israelis in the street again, protesting the Netanyahu government's domestic agenda, is an important step. And the good news is that revolutions are not easily contained. Who knows where this energy will next be channeled?

Unfortunately, it's likely that Netanyahu will look for a foreign policy crisis to end the revolt against him and his millionaire allies. He is already planning a fear campaign against the Palestinian effort to achieve recognition by the United Nations as an attention deflector. He knows that pointing to an external enemy has almost always succeeded in squashing movements for social justice. But maybe not this time.

Israelis deserve credit for recognising that, despite the jingoism of Netanyahu and company, it is not the Palestinians who are robbing them blind. It is a greedy segment of their own population and the politicians who serve them.

The only difference between the situation in Israel and here in the United States is that Israelis seem to be waking up. Perhaps someday it will happen here.


Postscript: Abraham Foxman, the veteran head of the Anti-Defamation League, has published a terrific piece in the Washington Post in response to the horrific terror attacks in Norway. His key point:

One bizarre twist to Breivik's warped worldview was his pro-Zionism - his strongly expressed support for the state of Israel. It is a reminder that we must always be wary of those whose love for the Jewish people is born out of hatred of Muslims and Arabs.

The entire column is worth reading.
 

MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the Media Matters Action Network.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

A version of this article was previously published on Foreign Policy Matters.

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