Israel: Mass movement offers hope

August 13, 2011
Protest in Tel Aviv, July 27.

This years global uprisings remind us how infectious the revolutionary spirit can be. In recent weeks, a social movement within Israel has sprung to life in an almost spontaneous manner.

A small housing protest that started on July 14 has swept hundreds of thousands of people into protest across the country.

As in many other countries, people in Israel face rapidly rising living costs and the privatisation of public assets.

Israel once saw itself as a welfare state (though its policies have been designed to benefit mainly the Jewish population since its inception).

Since the 1980s it has made a sharp turn towards neoliberalism. Its close alliance with the United States and the collaborationist approach of the national workers’ federation (the Histadrut) made opposition to these policies small and scattered.

This meant that the move was rapid.

Today, Israel has some of the biggest gaps between rich and poor in the “developed” world. This is before even considering the more extreme poverty under which Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza suffer.

The occupation plays a special role in the development of neoliberalism in Israel: the project of the occupation and the settlements, with its military and civil components, make up Israel's largest national expense.

More and more resources have been diverted from all sectors of Israeli society (except from the very rich) to fund the segregation system, the military machine and the ever-growing illegal settlements on Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

The only form of public housing available to Israelis today is in the settlements. But instead of being the focus of public anger, the occupation is the main way in which the Israeli state suppresses or coopts most of Israel's social movements into the Zionist consensus (support for Israel as an exclusively “Jewish” state).

The occupation is presented to Israelis as crucial for their survival. “Security needs” has become the magic phrase for every Israeli government seeking “national unity” and a distraction from social hardships.

The decision by many Palestinians to adopt non-violent resistance in recent years enabled the current protests to develop in a significant way.

It will not be as easy for Israel’s government to use “security needs” to disperse the protests. Yet the danger of using a “security emergency” to distract from the protest always looms.

The protests spread like wildfire across Israel. Protest tent compounds were erected in many cities, including Palestinian ones within Israel (a minority of Palestinians hold Israeli citizenship).

The movement grew without a formal leadership, but as a broad coalition of organisations and individuals.

Due to the eclectic nature of the movement, the demands are not yet clear. The main thrust for the first wave of protests was housing costs, yet the protests quickly became about more.

The main demands emerging from the huge rallies that took place on July 30 and August 6 seem to be a return to welfare state principles and the resignation of the government.

The question of the government is one of the many possible problems with the movement. If it becomes too focused on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an early election may be perceived by many protesters as a victory — though no other big party offers any real alternative.

Yet there seems to be a deeper alienation from the current political and economic system at the heart of these protests. Within three weeks, a protest involving some tents in a busy Tel Aviv street led to rallies of more than 300,000 people on August 6, shouting for social justice.

The word “revolution” has even started to be expressed during the rallies: it is not yet a revolutionary movement, but the revolutionary spirit is undeniable.

Another problem for the movement is the desire of sections to keep it “non-political”.

This is because in Israel the concept of being on the political left is mainly associated with a willingness to engage with the Palestinian issue. It is an attempt to keep the movement within the bounds of Jewish Israeli society.

This alienates many Palestinians, who should be a natural and fundamental part of this movement, as they are some of the poorest communities with the most serious housing issues in Israel.

But despite the attempts by some to block or limit the participation of Palestinians, reports from the protests tell of a slowly growing number of Palestinians joining the protests. Some have erectedjoint tents of local communities and left-wing activists.

The movement faces a large variety of problems and potential dangers.

First and foremost, for it to succeed, it must challenge the “Zionist consensus”. No revolution can win in Israel without turning its rage towards the occupation as the centrepiece of social injustice in Israel.

But for all its problems, the dangers of cooption and the lack of clarity in its demands, this groundswell offers one thing which has been sorely missing in Israel for so many years: a glimmer of hope.

[Guy Gillor is an Israeli citizen and campaigner for the rights of Palestinians. He is completing a PhD on social movements at the University of Western Sydney.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.