Israel: Housing protests break out

Protest high cost of housing, among other issues, in Tel Aviv, July 23.

In recent weeks, something unprecedented has erupted in Israel. Protesting the high cost of living, especially of housing, predominantly young people have established protest camps.

The campaign was sparked by a young single mother who, in desperation over her housing situation, pitched her tent outside the Knesset (Israeli parliament). Now the tent protests have spread like wildfire all over Israel.

The tents have appeared even in Sderot, a town in southern Israel near the Gaza border, where young people have more pressing concerns than the much publicised rockets from Gaza (when was the last one?)

In a country where Jewish citizens live in a bubble of consumerism far removed from the realities of the occupation of Palestinian territory and have for a long time retreated from politics, the frustrations of young people in the brave new neoliberal world have finally boiled over.

Led by middle-class, well-educated people in their 20s and 30s — employed but unable to find jobs to match their qualifications — they are rebelling against the corrupt world of the politicians and business tycoons.

They deny that their protest is political. Their protest is “naive”, without traditional political organisation or analysis. But it is no less political for that.

A huge protest march took place in Tel Aviv on July 23 of more than 40,000 people, the biggest for over 20 years, against the rule of the market against human needs. \

Placards read “People before Profits” and “The government against the people, the people against the government”.

Appropriately, the growing tent city in central Tel Aviv stretches along one of its most elegant boulevards, Rothschild Street.

There were some Israeli flags, many with relevant elaborations. For example, one had “SOLD” sprayed across it. What could be more political than that?

And what can these “defaced” flags signify but a profound disillusionment with the state that they had believed in for so long.

This is the generation who, as teenagers, had lit candles for assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (killed by a right-wing fanatic), now grown up and struggling with the hard realities of making a living and meeting their basic needs.

Speeches, mostly from women teachers and students, rejected the free market as a basis for meeting social needs.

Politics was a dirty word and politicians were excluded from the platform, though not from the march.

The protests are continuing, with marches taking place on July 30.

Traffic is being blocked and the politicians are rushing round trying to buy off one or other group.

Some of the older generation of leftists were condescending to the young people, dismissing their protest as “apolitical”. This generation of leftists are accustomed to focusing, isolated, on the occupation and the Palestinian issues, from the general Israeli population. They have grown used to marginalisation and impotence.

They have not sought to connect the issues of the occupation with people's daily lives. And while the Rothschild demonstrators do not yet generally make an explicit connection between the occupation and their struggles, it is only a matter of time.

The enormous funds spent on subsidising and defending the illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory are not available for housing and other needs.

The Arab Spring is making itself felt in this unlikely context. The regimes being challenged are very different, but the impulses are similar.

The Arab Spring has taught young Israelis that people can challenge corrupt politicians. One of the placards read: “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu!”

The same sentiment that human need not human greed must be the focus of government and society is found. This humanist impulse is driving change right across the Middle East and the whole globe.

The protests are spontaneous, made up of politically inexperienced people and without organisation. Like their counterparts in Cairo's Tahrir Square, these protesters could well fall prey to better organised opponents.

However, the word “revolution” is ringing through Rothschild Street and who knows where it might lead?

[Vivienne Porzsolt is a member of Jews Against the Occupation Sydney and has recently returned from Israel, where she tried unsuccessfully to visit the West Bank.]