Social Activists Debate: What Happened to the Spirit of 2011?

If things only got worse over the past 3 years, why aren't people back to the streets?

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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A few hundred demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square Saturday night three weeks ago in another attempt to rekindle the social justice protest and bring the Israeli public back into the streets. They carried signs bearing the familiar slogans from the summer of 2011, chanted “the nation demands social justice,” jostled a bit with activists from the Not Nice Guys movement for the underprivileged classes, and then went home. The ground didn’t shake and the public as a whole remained indifferent. Why?

It would seem such a question shouldn’t even be asked. After all, since the protest broke out the situation for most of the Israeli public has only gotten worse. It is still being ripped off by the same economic forces that plundered it back then.

The past two years didn’t go by without any triumphs. The public’s awareness of unfairness and distortions in the eocnomy and business changed beyond recognition – and with it its attitude towards budsiness concentration, monopolies, inequality and poverty. But things like the state budget and the annual report on poverty are accepted by the public without much fuss. The bottom line is still quite dismal.

To find out what it would take to get the Israeli public back out in the streets and, moreover, if this type of action is still as relevant as it was in summer 2011, TheMarker brought back together some of the more prominent voices from the protest.

Or-ly Bar-Lev manages the social justice movement’s “situation room” and a leader in the struggle over natural gas profits. Alon-Lee Green, one of the protest leaders in 2011 and a leader in the waiters’ struggle, is now a consultant to MK Dov Khenin (Hadash). Zahava Greenfeld is a leader in the struggle for public housing. Eldad Yaniv, once the definitive link bringing together wealth and power, has more recently founder of the Eretz Hadasha party. Also in TheMarker roundtable was Daphni Leef, the main instigator and symbol of the 2011 protest; Eyal Ofer, a founder of the Dear Israel protest organization; and Sapir Slutzker-Amran, a member of the public housing team, an activist in the feminist organization Sister and among the organizers of street demonstrations against the export of natural gas.

If we were to jump ahead and construe the bottom line reached in the stormy meeting, it would be that there is no longer anything that can be called a “social justice protest.” While something occurred in 2011 that managed for the first time ever to band together a whole slew of various causes under one umbrella called “the protest,” in 2014 we are mainly left with the sobering reality of social, ideological, and perceptual gaps that would be hard, if not impossible, to bridge. Here is what the participants had to say about why the miracle of 2011 will probably remain a one-time event – that is unless another miracle occurs.

The masses are missing

Slutzker-Amran: “Asking if the protest will return ignores what is happening today. The 2011 protest had enormous impact. It spawned groups that have continued to work since then. Every few weeks there’s a demonstration.”

Ofer: “The rage has disappeared. There’s no rage.”

Yaniv: “It’s not true that there isn’t any rage. Before the summer of 2011 there was no socioeconomic awareness in Israel. You could hear arguments about the Palestinians, about the occupation, but people didn’t concern themselves with economic issues. The tent encampments generated the awareness.”

Bar-Lev: “Ever since the tents came down there have been flare-ups of public awareness. Suddenly something comes up and for two days or a week or two it becomes the subject of discussion. Sometimes the smallest thing can inflame everyone and suddenly everything ignites. Look at the Rani Rahav story, at how much effect the Internet discussion can have without rallying any demonstration. There are minor tremors like this all the time and the earthquake will come.”

Leef: “The agitation isn’t the same agitation. People aren’t yet at the point of taking to the streets. The question is if the goal is a massive overtaking of the streets or the goal is change.”

Slutzker-Amran: “People feel they went out and nothing changed, although in my eyes a great deal has changed. I also see it in the public housing struggle which began before the protest but still lacks much public support.”

Ofer: “I’ll tell you something you won’t like to hear: Public housing, in my opinion, has no place at all in the 2011 protest. In 2011 it was something else entirely: Instead of protests by interest groups, there began a protest by the public – which could be called the 99% or the 80%.”

Greenfeld: “Public housing doesn’t concern everyone?”

Ofer: “Let’s differentiate between public education, public healthcare, and public housing. Public education is for everyone. Public healthcare is one of the only things in this country that still somehow works. Public housing, however, means taking a group of people with less ability to obtain housing and finance their apartments by increasing the price to everyone else who buys an apartment from the same builder. I say it’s necessary to first solve the country’s overall housing problem.”

Greenfeld: “When you talk about a widespread protest you need to look at everyone. I didn’t see people taking to the streets in rage for the sake of affordable housing for the middle class. Three hundred thousand people went out, listened to Shlomo Artzi and didn’t break even one window.”

Ofer: “Breaking windows isn’t a solution; it’s a wonderful way to bring a protest to an end.”

From Woodstock to breaking the system

Bar-Lev: “The most dramatic story underway in my view is the public’s realization that it has power.”

Ofer: “Power? Where do we have power? I really don’t agree. I pay 8.5% more on average now at the supermarket.”

Yaniv: “That’s because someone else is fighting back.”

Green: “The question of power is irrelevant. The question isn’t if we’ll bring 500,000 more people to the streets but if we establish a camp. We are creating a political power camp.”

Yaniv: “A counter-political club needs to arise. In July 2011, when there was a feeling such a club had been created, Bibi (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) was certain his rule would collapse. Since then he feels he doesn’t face any political threats.”

Greenfeld: “I stood 100 to 200 meters from Moshe Silman when he set himself on fire. I was on a small podium making a speech about public housing, that they’re killing people, and then we saw the flames. In the protest I saw many more people really panicking from a broken window at Bank Hapoalim than from Moshe Silman. There was no revolution here. People here are too faithful, to the point of stupidity. To bring about revolution you need to break the system. Who can break the system? Not cottage cheese. Those who can are those without any other choice, with nothing to lose, with their backs against the wall. Unless they break it, nothing will happen, period.”

Ofer: “It’s too bad about the public housing people who continue following just this cause. Public housing will never be something the whole country will get behind.”

Yaniv: “Why don’t you try to connect to their pain?”

Ofer: “I don’t think everyone needs to connect to someone else’s pain. We need to find those points that hurt 80% of the public. We can only base ourselves on those.”

Leef: “I didn’t take to the streets in order to protest against the government. I understood that within half a year I’d be out on the street and decided to do something that says I’m going to save on rent. They said it was Woodstock but it brought hope. There is a difference between my language and the language of some of the people in this room, because in my eyes the public housing struggle doesn’t bring hope.”

Old politics

Green: “Just as we couldn’t foresee in 2011 a rising wave of protest that would swoop crowds into the street, neither can it be predicted now. What we can talk about is what we have at the moment, and that’s the formation of a political camp facing another political camp representing interests other than those of the Israeli public…”

Ofer: “I have a problem with the word ‘camp.’”

Green: “…A camp that can offer alternatives, that knows how to talk about how the funds going to the settlements are enormous.”

Ofer: “You said settlements. You lost half the public.”

Green: “Peace is also something the Israeli public wants.”

Ofer: “What unites everyone is the cost of living. That’s what makes people feel there’s no hope. Our collective power as consumers is our biggest strength.”

Green: “If you were Arab you would also have struggles that aren’t consumer-related.”

Ofer: “That the thing. You’re trying to split the protest into specific sector-based causes. The regime knew very well how to stem the protest: divide and conquer. The Prawer plan? There are those opposed to the Bedouins and those in their favor. Divide and conquer. Settlers? There are those in favor of settlements and those opposed. Divide and conquer. Protest can only move ahead by identifying what 80% of the population has in common and going with it.”

Green: “So protest needs to remain within the consensus?”

Slutzker-Amran: “Maybe we should address what you see as change. For some it’s enough to replace Bibi with (Isaac) “Buji” Herzog and call it quits.”

Ofer: “Replacing the people won’t bring change. Herzog takes care of the welfare of the weakest 10% to 20% very nicely, but on the other hand he’s connected with the lawyers of the wealthy and powerful.” (Shouting ensues from every direction)

Slutzker-Amran: “It’s as if we’re not living in the same country.”

Leef: “This room can’t say what will happen. The groups operating here aren’t spontaneous – they’re organized groups thinking about strategy, about media. This room won’t bring about the next protest.” 

Daphni Leef.Credit: Daniel Bar-On