Activists Hope for Biggest Protest Ever Seen in Israel's South

Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, head of the new socioeconomic advisory committee says, “Some of the protesters cast doubt on our intention to listen, and I say to them, please put us to the test.”

Tent-city protesters in Be’er Sheva plan a huge rally for Friday night, hoping that 50,000 people will show up to make the demonstration the largest protest ever in the south.

One of the organizers, Adar Stern, said plans are on tap to bus demonstrators in from elsewhere around the country. Scheduled to appear at the rally are musicians Ahinoam Nini, Kobi Oz, Irmi Kaplan, as well as the group Hadag Nahash.

protester - Eliahu Hershkovitz - 12082011
Eliahu Hershkovitz

Another rally is planned for Friday evening on Haifa’s Ben-Gurion Boulevard at the foot of the Baha’i Gardens, featuring the rock band Monica Sex and musician Hemi Rudner. Organizers expect between 20,000 and 30,000 people to attend.

About 400 people marched Wednesday in the Haifa suburb Kiryat Motzkin, blocking traffic. The marchers represented a cross-section of university students, youth group activists, young parents pushing strollers and grandparents.“They say residents of the krayot [the Haifa Bay suburbs] are lethargic, but the bears are waking up from their hibernation,” said Sefi Shalem, 27, who set up the tent camp in Kiryat Motzkin.

Likud activist and Kiryat Motzkin resident Yuliana Eliezer Yishai noted that she has a master’s degree and her husband has a doctorate. Against that backdrop, she added: “We’re a couple that earns a nice living, but we rent. You can’t buy an apartment in Israel today. It doesn’t matter if you have a doctorate or are a professor.”

Shlomit Spitzer, 38, of Kiryat Haim and a mother of a 1-year-old daughter, said: “Up to today, its was shameful to say ‘It’s hard for me.’ I’m glad people are waking up and demonstrating. We want to bring another child into the world, but I don’t have anything to give him. I can’t afford payments for two day care centers. I earn less than the average, and I don’t eat sushi and I don’t go on vacation.”

Matan Dahan addressed the problem of affordable housing around the country. Dahan is the chairman of Ayalim, an organization that encourages young people to settle in disadvantaged areas of the north and south. Dahan said the effort to provide affordable housing must not focus on the center of the country.

“Today we have a historic opportunity to develop outlying areas and change the population map of Israel,” he said. “The decision to actually hold the main rally in the Negev shows that young people understand this message and support it.”

According to Dahan, “So that this opportunity isn’t missed, the government must understand that the young people’s pace around the country is not consistent with the bureaucracy’s pace. And new ways need to be developed so we can settle the Negev while we’re still young.”

Also Wednesday, President Shimon Peres met with the new socioeconomic advisory committee headed by Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg. Trajtenberg told Peres that the panel has a two-fold mission: It must listen to the public and translate those sentiments into a “professional language” and a change in policies.

“That’s a heavy task,” Trajtenberg added, saying he did not recall any committee in the past that had such a complex mission.

Trajtenberg also addressed the sentiments of protest leaders around the country. “Some of the protesters cast doubt on our intention to listen, and I say to them, please put us to the test,” he said. “We very much want to hear each one of you. Give us a chance, because if we don’t listen, we can’t translate this into the language of action. We’re seeking a partnership.”

Referring to Argentina, where he was born, Trajtenberg said he grew up in a country marred by social injustice. “I won’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I don’t address [social injustice in Israel],” he said.

Trajtenberg said his panel has a tight timetable. Even though it cannot be hasty, it must provide a rapid response “because the public rightly expects a change in direction and action, not just words.” He said the members of the committee reflect the necessary combination of professional expertise and social sensitivity. Both elements are necessary for success, he added.

The committee, which was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, includes the accountant general of the Finance Ministry, Michal Abadi-Boiangiu; the chief economist at the Antitrust Authority, Shlomi Prizant; and an Israel Prize laureate in education, Pnina Klein of Bar-Ilan University.

It also includes Tali Regev, an economist at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, social activist Shahar Cohen of the Nova organization, and economist Rafi Melnick of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

According to Peres, “From the standpoint of democracy, the protest is being conducted in exemplary fashion, without violence, without verbal attacks, and it’s very diverse. This protest is the result of two things: the genuine distress of the people, and change. And if we don’t deal with it, the distress will increase and disappointment will increase. The protest movement cannot be allowed to turn into disappointment in the end. Israel must see a real change in priorities. New hope for the people must be created from the protest. There isn’t much time.”