It’s been four years since I last walked the length of Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. Then, as now, I was a “tourist” from Israel’s northern periphery (Haifa). Then, as now, I came to see a provocative display. Then, the boulevard was adorned with two-meter-high sculptures of planet Earth. Each work of art was sponsored by a corporation, real-estate company, bank or other business traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, which organized the event. Rothschild Boulevard is now occupied by the stepchildren of those corporations.
The slightly grungier but festive boulevard is now, as has been extensively reported in the media, lined with hundreds of small tents adorned with a mosaic of protest signs, artwork and handwritten manifestos. What started three weeks ago as a demonstration for affordable housing is now a cacophony of support for dozens of different causes: rights for single fathers, funding for schools, lowering the high cost of water and electricity (one tent was adorned with the occupants’ monthly bills), increased investment in the Galilee and Negev, and an end to privatization of public services. There are anarchists and Bratslav Hasidim, students and bona-fide homeless, youth groups of all stripes, socialists and free-market capitalists (featuring the sign “Yes to the government, yes to a free market, no to monopolies and cartels”).
The tent camp is a sea of statistics and factoids. One placard traces the inflation of building costs in Israel to the unnecessarily high price of concrete, which is produced in this country by a monopoly. Another provides lists of major supermarkets, airlines, construction companies, newspapers, cable stations and cellphone companies (and more) that are controlled by a small handful of ultra-rich Israeli families. All around are small groups of people huddled together at impromptu teach-ins.
With so many protesters, so many slogans and so many different causes, it takes a while to get a grip on what’s going on here. Fortunately, during my visit, I meet Ori Tarablus, a former student who pitched his tent shortly after the protests began. He recounts the genesis of the growing movement: “First it was a handful of protesters, and then many more individuals showed up. The social-justice organizations arrived shortly after. But more people kept coming. Hundreds.” Ori speaks as if he is trying to contain his euphoria. “It was a spontaneous, collective outpouring of frustration. There were all sorts of reasons, but as people spoke, they increasingly found a common language. They came because they feel something in Israeli society is lacking; something is wrong with our collective priorities.”
Indeed. According to the OECD’s 2011 “Society at a Glance” report, Israel has the fifth-highest level of inequality among the 34 OECD countries, topped only by the United States, Turkey, Mexico and Chile. Among these five, Israel’s inequality is growing fastest. It has the second-highest level of poverty, as measured by the percentage of the population living on less than 50 percent of the country’s median household income (20 percent in Israel). Only Mexico fared worse. But unlike Mexico, where the poverty rate has stayed fairly stable, here it’s growing at a rate of 2.2 percent a year.
The campers on Rothschild have forced these statistics into the headlines. But when I ask Ori what the protesters are suggesting as solutions to their list of social ills, he gives a half-smile, and responds: “A protest is not the place for a solution it’s the place to point out the problem, to put it on the public agenda. Solutions happen when we sit down the public, government, experts.” In fact, we are now entering that phase of public discussions, with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the protest leaders organizing their expert panels to formulate policy solutions.
As for the demonstrations, “everyone is now talking about the cost of living, about debt and poverty and the inequitable distribution of wealth,” Ori says.
“We’ve succeeded,” he concludes, “in moving public discourse from reality shows to reality.”
I am reminded of the second wave of Zionist settlers to Palestine more than 100 years ago: that fanatical group who would argue endlessly into the night about the utopian society they hoped to create. This sort of public discussion in Israel had been on the wane over the century, and by the turn of the millennium seemed to have disappeared altogether in a sea of privatization, shopping malls, “reality” shows and fast food. But on Rothschild Boulevard, it’s back. Idealistic citizens have taken back a public space and have turned it into the geographic center of the most refreshing and meaningful ideological discussion to take place in this country in a century.
For those who haven’t been there, I recommend a visit to Rothschild, where the new boundaries of public discourse are being drawn. It is a chance to converse with a large and diverse group of people who truly care about the collective future of our country and its citizens. They may be a bit ragged, but they have an endearing passion worthy of those other grungy idealists who helped found this country over 100 years ago.
Daniel Orenstein is senior lecturer in the architecture and town planning faculty at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology.