Rabbis with Itzik Shmuli
Religious Zionist rabbis sit with protest leader Itzik Shmuli last year. Photo by Nir Kafri
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Hadar Cohen
The growing rhetoric of leftist politics in the social justice protest movement is turning off some right-wing participants. Photo by Hadar Cohen

Itzik Alrov, the man who sparked the mass cost-of-living protests in June 2011, returned to the streets this month, joining this year's renewed tent protests in Tel Aviv. But this time around he has some criticism for his fellow protesters.

“The only things that got the public to take to the streets in the summer of 2011 were the cost of living and the economic concentration choking the market," Alrov said last week. "The protest movement must remain a national one relevant to the settler in Samaria, leftists in Tel Aviv, as well as Arab Israelis or the Haredi from Bnei Brak who pay high prices.”

He went on to reproach protestors for engaging in confrontations with the police, city hall and Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai.

Alrov hit on a delicate point: the complex relationship between the right wing and national religious public and the social-justice protest movement.

Many right-wing activists and members of the national religious public have weighed in on the matter. While they don't identify with the social justice protest and its leaders on a person-to-person level, they say, they do share many of the central concerns.

At its conception, the struggle against the high cost of living and economic concentration seemed like an overarching goal that enjoyed wide support and cut across Israel's social borders. However, it didn't take long for the public consensus to fracture. Placards and slogans against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in central Tel Aviv and complaints that government earmarks too much for settlements and the ultra-Orthodox, cutting into funding for health, education and welfare, left many right-wing Israelis feeling unwelcome under the tent of communal struggle.

Most of the religious and ultra-Orthodox public supports renewal of the social justice protests. However, the rate of support among the secular Israeli public is the highest among the Jewish population in Israel: 79 percent of secular Israelis support a continuation of last year's social justice protests compared to 53 percent of the national religious public and 57 percent of Haredim (among the entire Jewish Israeli public, support for the protests stands at 69 percent).

“This entire protest isn't a social phenomenon but rather a political protest – one that is justifiable from [the left wing's] perspective,” says Yisrael Banner, a Jerusalem businessman and right-winger to the core. “The left failed to win at the ballot box, so they are trying to take things to the streets. This is also legitimate, as long as it is conducted within the confines of the law.”

Free-riding termites, begone!

One of the leaders of the right-wing Zionist movement Im Tirzu, Erez Tadmor, also labels the renewed social justice protests as a left-wing endeavor.

“A majority of the public doesn't relate to the social justice protests in the shape they appear to have taken over the past several weeks,” says Tadmor. He continues, “And I'm not only talking about people who consider themselves on the right.”

According to Tadmor, even though a sizable share of last year's protest leaders were leftist, the political messages were kept on the margins of the protest. This year, he finds that is not the case.

“Now that the issues are on the table and the political message has become central to the discussion," he says, "it's clear that people from the right wing won't be taking part in the protests.”

Along with this reason, it is impossible to ignore another, structural reason behind the lack of engagement by the religious parties and many right-wing voters: the political parties that represent them are part of the current government coalition targeted by the protesters' wrath.

Last year, Im Tirzu joined the social-justice protests. On its Facebook page, the movement announced that it was joining the protest to reduce housing prices “as a Zionist social movement that represents many students and other young Israelis.” 

The left didn't exactly welcome Im Tirzu into the tent. Responses on the organization's Facebook page included the following: “This is a left-wing protest, go live in Judea and Samaria, there is a lot of open space there” and “Free-riding termites! Get out of there with your heads held in shame! You have no connection to this protest."

“Im Tirzu is not a socialist movement,” says Tadmor. “It has members who identify with capitalism and others who hold more socialist views. I think that most of the public doesn't what to live in a socialist reality. They believe in the current way of doing things and just want to make adjustments within the current system. When the message is one of all-or-nothing, I don't think half a million Israelis will get out of their homes to fight to live in a socialist country.”

Tadmor doesn't share the assessment that last year's protest made only very small gains.

“I think that the protest leadership has a utopian view that all of the major problems in Israeli society can be solved within five minutes. When you add some radicalism and political motives into the mix, it is impossible to expect that right-wing Israelis will take part in the protests. We certainly won't take part in it this year.”

The solution: Settle the territories?

While he was still the head of Yesha Council, one of the principal voices of the settler movement, Naftali Bennet also came to Rothschild Boulevard last summer to see the focal point of the social justice protests.

“Religious Zionism is involved in social issues in a way that is rather exceptional among broader Israeli society,” says Bennet. “I feel a huge amount of support exists for the social justice protest. Economic difficulties harm everyone's well-being, including within the religious Zionist community.”

He continues, "However, there are also stumbling blocks that irritate our community. For one, the phrase 'the nation demands,' and 'where is the money?' come from sentiments that don't exist in the DNA of religious Zionism, which always concerns itself with how it can contribute to the greater good. The second stumbling block is that there are many participants with very politicized agendas and they are trying to direct the protest towards achieving these goals.”

According to Bennet, these obstacles led to a reduced presence of religious Zionists at the more purely political parts of the protest, such as on Rothschild Boulevard. But he said that religious Zionists were much better represented at the protests taking place outside of the country's densely-populated center.

"One can say that there are actually two protests. One is very positive, which is the protest we have joined – a protest to fix the system and provide real equality of opportunities, a protest that is moving towards shattering the economic concentration and says, 'We won't just identify the problem, we will also be a part of the solution.' In contrast, we are not participating in the bitter or anarchist protest that is being led by organizations like the New Israel Fund and the Hadash Party and that isn't pointing towards any concrete solution."

Several days after the start of the protests and their increased media attention, the religious Bnei Akiva youth movement publicly clarified that it had not called upon its members to join the ongoing demonstrations in Tel Aviv.

"The Bnei Akiva movement is a national movement," said a Bnei Akiva spokesperson. "As such, it supports the reduction of the cost of housing and the development of cheaper options for young couples and students. However, at the same time, we are vigilant to ensure that we do not end up linking hands with extreme political groups.  We don't see the need to take part in the derision of public figures and the hurling of harsh insults at the government."

Several leading right wing activists took a while to formulate their position on the issues. But by the end of July they had already come to Rothschild Boulevard and organized their own procession among the tents there.  They proposed their own solution to the housing crisis and the high cost of living: redoubling settlement efforts in the territories. The same solution was advanced by MK Michael Ben Ari of the Knesset's ultra-nationalist National Union Party.

Another right-wing organization called Lohmei Zion ("Fighters for Zion") organized its own counterdemonstration, with approximately 100 participants, against the tent proclaiming the social justice protests "bullshit." The right-wing demonstrators claimed that the Rothschild protest wasn't legitimate, but rather was an attempt by radical left activists to bring down the government. 

It's often said: He who is happy is the person who is satisfied with his lot.   In light of this, perhaps the lack of identification among the right-wing and religious public also stems from tension between a pragmatic, practical-minded perspective and a more spiritual worldview that discourages complaints over personal economic hardships. No one can entirely avoid financial concerns, but at least some refuse to admit to being preoccupied with money.  This ethos demands that a person avoid focusing on material problems and thank the Lord for every breathe they take.

"We religious Zionists have been educated on ideals that demand we make great sacrifices for the Land of Israel.  It is a given that we will carry that burden," says Karni Eldad, who wrote a column last week in Haaretz explaining why she couldn't help feel some schadenfreude about the police's violent reaction to demonstrators in Tel Aviv two weeks ago.

"We went to the streets to protest the removal of the Gush Katif settlers from Gaza," says Eldad, "not because of a bank account overdraft. It's really not pressing for us.  We wouldn't grab the children and drive to a protest. Not that we aren't bothered by the issues. Of course everyone would like to have a positive bank balance and have better education options. Today there are almost no government subsidies in Judea and Samaria. There too are expensive plots of land that we can't afford to buy. But that's not a reason to go into the streets."

"I live in a caravan home that costs NIS 700 per month," she continues. "My choice was not to live in Tel Aviv and pursue a career, but to live in [the West Bank settlement of] Tekoa. Part of that was an economic decision.  I live next to goats and hens. It’s a simple life. People here are happy. No one here says, 'I won't have another kid anytime soon because it will cost me a ton of money.'"

Eldad says she sympathizes with those facing skyrocketing rents in Tel Aviv but emphasizes that there are options for cheaper living. "We have everything we need, so what's all the ruckus about? I'm dying to go to a gourmet restaurant, but I eat pasta at home. That's a choice. Thank God, we get by."

The settlers in the West Bank benefit from a housing that is a world away from the real estate market elsewhere in the country. In the settlements, housing prices have experienced double-digit declines. Aside from housing costs, settlers benefit from lower prices in transportation, education, and personal goods as well.

Last month, when the government continued to assert that it had no way to finance the recommendations made by the Trajtenberg Committee, the Knesset Finance Committee authorized, with only a 30-second debate, an NIS 850 million tax benefit for organizations that promote the settlements.

"Likud is no longer an option"

Still, a right wing presence at the social justice protests isn't entirely lacking. Between a revolutionary secular left-wing and a reactionary religious right wing, there stands a broad base of desperate Israelis who voted Likud for decades and have kept the character of their traditional values. And despite their support of right-wing policies and their affinity towards religion and traditional values, the harsh economic conditions they face has for the first time propelled them to seek a new path.

Tamir Hajaj, a prominent protest figure who helped lead the Kfar Sava tent protest last summer, is such a person.  He has voted for Bibi Netanyahu his whole life.  His entire family, he says, is right-wing.  Still, something compelled him to take action.

"My economic situation brought me here," says Hajaj. "There are few right-wingers participating in the protests. They see the symbols and slogans of the left, which I have also fought against, and it irritates them. But at the tents, I got to know a few leftists and realized the bogeymen weren't so frightening. Little by little, I started to form relationships with them.

According to Hajaj, the protest has a diverse circle of supporters, more than most people realize – including right-wingers who don't actually come to the demonstrations, simply because they can't get away from work.

"Many right-wing voters are desperately poor. Many people told me that they can't even afford to lose one day's pay in order to attend the demonstrations. I ask them whether their children's future is worth one or two days of the month."

Hajaj says his opinion on government policies still remains "more or less" the same, "but Likud is no longer an option. I don't know who I will vote for in the next elections, but I will vote for any party that isn't Likud. They've screwed me over enough already."