A Short Guide to Israel's Social Protest

After being declared all but dead, the movement is back. And it's not in a good mood.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Heavens to Murgatroyd, the Israelis are starting again. A year after hundreds of thousands of people stormed the streets of Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, Be'er-Sheva, Haifa and a whole lot of other cities in protest, here they are again, sweating in the intense heat of Israeli streets during the summer, demanding social justice. Only this time the streets are much less crowded. The police are much more aggressive and the people are chanting something different, too: "Democracy".

Following the explosion of protests in the summer of 2011, committees met. Reports were made. Action was taken, at least some. Meanwhile, the protest's self-appointed, rudderless leadership crumbled into sparring factions. Media attention moved on. The movement had been thought dead and buried.

But it isn't: the protest is back and neither the marchers in the streets or the government are putting on their pretty faces this time.

Perhaps its founders were inspired by the social upheavals around the world, but the movement here had purely local roots. Haaretz takes a broad look at what the protest movement was, and where it is today.

When did the protest start?

Officially, it began on July 14, 2011, when Daphni Leef, a 25- year old video editor and filmmaker, set up tents on Tel Aviv's ritzy Rothschild Boulevard, the most expensive real estate in the country. Some people who joined the Facebook event she opened about a week before helped her organize.

The 10 people who started the protest only met five days before it began.

Some argue that the protest started in May 2011 with another Facebook post protesting a hike in cottage cheese prices, which had risen by more than 40% in three years, during which time the price of raw milk increased by only 3%. The public response was explosive. Within a month a grassroots activist network of almost 5,000 people had formed, catapulting the issue of the soaring cost of living in Israel to the highest levels of government.

Protests continue in Tel Aviv under increased criticism, July 2012.
The height of the social justice protests in Tel Aviv, August 2011.
The tent city on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Blvd. in the autumn of 2011.
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Protests continue in Tel Aviv under increased criticism, July 2012.Credit: Moti Milrod
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The height of the social justice protests in Tel Aviv, August 2011.Credit: Tal Cohen
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The tent city on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Blvd. in the autumn of 2011.Credit: Daniel Bar Or

Meanwhile, the "tent city" sprouting on Rothschild grew at an alarming pace, thanks in part to overwhelming media support. Within days the entire formerly neat, elegant central reservationrunning down the boulevard had been taken over by tents. Not just a few; thousands of them. Within a mere few days more dozens of encampments had were blanketing city centers throughout the land.

The original encampment in Rothschild became the biggest party in town. Singers, authors and politicians appeared by the dozen each day.

Tremendous energy of discontent was unleashed. Thus began the summer of mass rallies. At the peak, some 10% of the Israeli population attended rallies in a single night.

What was the impetus behind the sudden upheaval?

Many people still claim the protest started because of the rise in housing prices, specifically rental prices in Tel Aviv, which easily vie with prices in Manhattan and London and rose more than 40% between 2005-2011. But it isn't so. Housing prices did spur Leef to pitch her tent, yes. But even she says housing was just a symbol for much deeper problems: the increasingly onerous cost of living in Israel, and the growing inequality within Israeli society.

We already mentioned that cottage cheese, a staple on Israeli tables, had risen 40% in three years, while its cost of production hadn't risen anywhere near that. All three companies worthy of note in cottage cheese manufacturing charged about the same, by the way; they moved in a pack.

Two months before the protest started, the big food companies jacked up prices of beef, dairy products, frozen vegetables, baby food and diapers yet again. Also, for years housing prices – whether buying or renting – had been rising fast. Meanwhile, salaries had largely stagnated; the average wage didn’t grow anywhere near as fast as the cost of living.

So who's in charge of this thing? Who's leading the protests?

Two words: no one. Much like the other protest movements that sprung up around the world over the past year, the Israeli movement is non-hierarchical, horizontal and leaderless.

During the summer of 2011 the original initiators - Daphni Leef, Stav Shaffir, Regev Contes and Yigal Rambam, and others – were considered to be leaders of the movement. But they didn't control it in reality; the movement was uncontrollable. Their role was mainly as spokespeople. Most have receded back to anonymity; others, including Leef and Shaffir, continued to lead the way, in a way.

What do the protesters want? What is "social justice"?

That's the million-shekel question. Everyone has their own definition of social justice and what the government should do to bridge the growing social gaps and bring down the cost of living.

Some think the answer lies in breaking down economic concentration, dismantling the great conglomerates and forcing competition. Others call for more government spending, at the expense of charging business and the rich more tax. Some demand a social democratic model of Israel, some advocate socialism and yes, some are anarchists.

But the main demands are pretty much the same all around: a return to a welfare state, with more public investment in health and education, tighter regulation on corporations and banks and higher corporate taxes, better transparency and programs to eradicate inequality.

What was the height of the movement?

A series of rallies on Saturday night, September 3, 2011, in Tel Aviv and other cities around Israel. No less than 500,000 people, or about 10% of Israel's adult population, participated in protests that night. The day after, however, Itzik Shmuli, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students and one of the media-appointed leaders of the protest movement, announced the union would decamp from Rothschild and elsewhere. Within days the municipal authorities evacuated most of the tent sites, apart from several hosting disadvantaged, homeless people with nowhere else to go. Rothschild itself held on for another month, until it was ultimately cleared on October 3.

What happened come winter?

Some say the movement went into hibernation. In fact protests did continue throughout the winter, though rallies were much smaller and began to involve confrontations with police, who began making arrests, sometime with brutal force. The winter was hard, cold and excruciatingly frustrating for most activists, filled with futile attempts to instigate another mass movement.

Media coverage waned. The original founders split into opposing factions; some began trading public insults. By May the protest movement had dwindled to a few hundred activists. It seemed dead.

Is it resurrected?

In a way. In June Daphni Leef, symbol of the protest, along with hundreds of other activists, tried to pitch tents on Rothschild again. Within minutes the city's "green reconnaissance unit" tore down the tents. Leef and 11 other protesters were beaten and arrested.

Social media networks exploded with pictures and videos documenting the events and posts accusing the government of trying to subvert freedom of speech. The next day, in large part thanks to the documentation of police brutality, thousands marched in Tel Aviv, starting at the end of Rothschild Boulevard and, passing police barriers, ending in front of City Hall, were they demanded the resignation of Mayor Ron Huldai. Chanting "Democracy! Democracy!" the protesters congregated outside banks and broke the window of one. A crowd of about 2,000 went on to block the Ayalon Highway, a major Tel Aviv traffic artery.

The police responded with force, arresting 89 – many under false premises, as it turned out later – and beating others.

The upshot is that the protest is back, and it isn't as "nice" as last year.

Why did the protest resume?

Because nothing happened. The situation that brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets a year ago did not change for the better. In fact, things took a turn for the worse, as prices of pretty much every product and service – apart from cellphones – increased. Now Israel finds itself on the cusp of another summer of discontent, that promises to be much more tumultuous than the previous one.

Protesters hold up signs calling for democracy and revolution in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moti Milrod



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