On the verge of an Israeli spring?

Its growing internal divisions raise questions about its claim to be a secular, liberal, democratic and Jewish state.

the cafe - tel aviv - mehdi hasan''s piece
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to call for social justice [Reuters]

Wars, assassinations and occupations – Israel’s history has been dominated by violence and bloodshed.

To the outside world, Israelis tend to present a patriotic and unified front, obsessed with perceived foreign threats – Palestinian, Iranian, Syrian and the rest.

But do the country’s growing internal divisions – over race, religion and the state of the economy – now pose a bigger challenge to its future as a (self-proclaimed) secular, liberal and democratic state?

Last summer, almost half a million Israelis took to the streets to protest against massive income inequality and soaring house prices. It was the biggest wave of demonstrations in the country’s history.

This burgeoning movement for social justice, led by activists such as 27-year-old Stav Shaffir, has shaken Israel’s scandal-plagued political establishment. “We are the future,” Shaffir told me when I met her in Tel Aviv.

On July 14, 2012, 57-year-old Moshe Silman, the bankrupt and homeless son of a Holocaust survivor, doused himself in lighter fluid and set himself on fire, in the middle of one of the more recent demonstrations. He suffered third-degree burns to 94 per cent of his body.

In a note which he read out to the crowd before setting himself on fire, Silman wrote: “I blame Bibi Netanyahu and [finance minister] Yuval Steinitz … for the humiliation that disenfranchised citizens go through day in and day out, that take from the poor and give to the rich, and to public servants.”

A week later, Silman died from his injuries.

Is it any wonder that some say Israel is on the verge of its own version of the Arab spring, its own social revolution? Silman has been dubbed by the Arab media as “Israel’s Bouazizi”.

But Israel’s divisions aren’t only of the socio-economic variety. The gap between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews continues to widen by the day, with politicians from across the political spectrum joining with members of the Israeli public in support of a law to abolish the mass exemption from military service offered to tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The latter, say their secular critics, should “share the burden” of compulsory military service and, in July, the row led to the collapse of the Netanyahu-led coalition government.

And then, of course, there is the divide between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel – the latter make up one-fifth of the total population, yet are subject to a raft of discriminatory laws and regulations.

“There is a very thin line between a democratic Jewish state and a racist one,” thundered Haaretz, the leading liberal Israeli newspaper, in its lead editorial on July 20. “This week the line was crossed.”

The paper was referring to a new law introduced in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, allowing the authorities to discriminate against non-Jews when leasing state-owned land.

Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, says such “racist laws” were the result of Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state. “I am invisible to them [the Jews],” Zoabi told me. “They do not recognise us [the Palestinian citizens of Israel].”

Meanwhile, the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories continues – the longest military occupation in the world, now in its 46th year. West Bank settlers now exercise disproportionate influence over Israeli politics and have shifted the national discourse to the right; many of their leaders, such as Oded Revivi, wish to make the occupation permanent.

Israel has long prided itself on being a secular, liberal, democratic and Jewish state – but, on current trends, how long can it continue to claim to be all of these things?

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