Could Israel's Middle-class Spearhead a National Revolution?

The most significant thing about the new wave of tent cities sprouting up across Israel is that they're populated by the children of those in power.

David Sheen
David Sheen
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David Sheen
David Sheen

The issue of affordable housing darted directly to the top of the national agenda this week after hundreds of young Israelis established a tent city in downtown Tel Aviv, demanding that the government provide some sort of solution to what they are calling a major housing crisis.

Sympathy for the squatters was found to be widespread amongst the younger generation when, within days, similar protest camps sprung up in several cities and small towns across the country.

The tent protest on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard yesterday. It may look silly, but it raises real issues, economists say.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Dispelling criticism dismissive of the youth as unwilling to step outside their big-city bubble, students in periphery towns like Kiryat Shmona and Sderot set up their own encampments in public places, protesting the lack of affordable housing options throughout Israel.

Senior lecturer at the Department of Social Work at Ben Gurion University, Dr. Roni Kaufman, says he has been monitoring housing issues in Israel for the last 30 years, and he has observed that the struggle is rejoined every decade or so.

"If there is an issue in Israel that has seen a lot of struggles, it is the issue of housing. There were very big struggles historically, in the 80s and 90s, with the Black Panthers," he says. "I don't think there was a city in the country that didn't have one of these tent cities. In the 1980s, when immigrants arrived from Russia, here in Be'er Sheva there was a massive encampment. They pitched a camp in front of the Knesset for half a year."

But despite the cyclical persistence of protest movements vying for more affordable housing, Kaufman believes that this new wave represents a watershed event.

In the past, the protesters consisted of the working poor, he says, but in contrast, "today it is the middle-class youth - this has never happened in Israel. This is revolutionary in a big way, for middle-class students to come out. At-risk people always knew that they were on the bottom rung of society, that they have no chance of success, unless the state helps them out," says Kaufman.

"But the fact that the middle-class students began to struggle, that they feel that there is no future within reach for them - we are talking about the mainstream of society - this has never happened in Israel. I'm in shock over it, he says.

"All the theories that say that the middle class is in free-fall turn out to be correct," says Kaufman, pointing out the recent struggles of social workers, hospital doctors, and other professional fields. "The students see that it will happen to them in a few years, that they won't be able to support themselves. The job market in Israel has changed. It's all part-time jobs, there's no tenure," he says.

"Today, the government has stopped taking responsibility. Once, the government took a lot more responsibility for housing, for job creation. People feel like if they don't take responsibility and don't do something and don't organize and don't fight, they'll have nothing."

Veteran activist Ronen Eidelman teaches art at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan and has been frequenting the protest tents night after night to demonstrate solidarity with his students.

Eidelman says these youth feel they have been cheated out of their social contract.

"Here are the people who were told, 'Listen, if you be good kids, and you go to school and go to the army and do your service and pay taxes, then everything will be okay.' And then they're discovering that they're doing everything they were told, and are good kids, and everything is not okay. They're going into debt, and they can't get the basics. I'm not even talking about being close to what their parents had, or what they were used to, growing up. They're not even close to it," Eidelman says.

"If you see the apartments that some of these people live in, they're living in 20-square-meter holes-in-the-wall And these are people working full time."

Although their economic prospects remain bleak, Eidelman says that he believes this nascent protest movement is already bearing fruit. "People are really doing analysis, economics analysis, they're talking about how the system is built, about why the prices are like this, who is controlling the housing market, what is the responsibility of the government, what is the responsibility of the city council, and what is the relationship between the government and what they call the tycoons, and who is selling off the city to who," he says.

"And this analysis is happening here every minute. You hear people sitting around circles, writing and talking. And that is truly exciting."

Unlike some of the other struggles taking place in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region which have escalated into full-fledged physical confrontations, the Israeli activists have maintained peace and order - for the time being.

"It's very peaceful, and it's not because there's not a lot of anger. There's a lot of anger here," Eidelman says.

"Maybe because it's the middle class, they feel this country still belongs to them, in a way. There are banks on Rothschild Boulevard. There is no destruction of property here," he notes. "In a way, the politicians themselves - it's their kids who are here. It's almost like a family feud."

But Eidelman and Kaufman both believe that this relatively benign group of rag-tag activists may soon morph into a more potent force for change, if and when some of the more marginalized groups in Israeli society - who also struggle for affordable housing - join forces with the students.

"This hasn't happened yet, it's being talked about," says Eidelman. "It might happen, and when it happens, that's when the struggle will really become strong."



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