Watching Israel's Social Revolution From an American Idyll

Many Israelis living in the United States aren't sure what to make of the tent protests.

WASHINGTON - There are about 500,000 Israelis living in the U.S. and many of them have likely asked themselves in the past few weeks if they would be among those setting up tents on Rothschild Boulevard or pushing a stroller in a protest.

My Israeli friends in the Washington, D.C. area weren't quite sure what to make of the protests, following the sudden tide of friends' Facebook messages related to the "social revolution."

'The Israel Project' Ambassadors with Netanyahu on Monday - David Katz - August 8 2011
David Katz

There was, of course, some decent coverage of the protests in the American press, but it didn't stir the same emotions of Israel as reports of suicide bombings or scorched olive groves.

When it's the purse that bleeds, it hardly leads. Just ask the Greeks. It didn't help the protesters' case that they provided vague answers to American reporters wanting to know what their goals were.

Israelis living in the U.S. for years seemed to be as bufuddled as Americans seeing reports about the tent cities on CNN. Do the Israelis, with 5.8 percent unemployment, know that in the U.S. unemployment is stuck over 9 percent? Would they try to complain about the rent in Manhattan? What do they expect the government to do? Don't they want to solve first the Palestinian-Israeli issue?

Those who came to the U.S. more recently were divided among those who said they vividly remembered the feeling of helplessness and anger, with both partners working and having no chance to buy an apartment in the middle of Tel Aviv, even if they were natives of the city - and those who said, well, that's nice, but enough of the mothership's troubles.

"The first thing I was taught in Israel after 'slowly slowly, it will be fine,' was 'don't be a fraier [sucker],'" said a Jewish-Russian immigrant and post doc student who was pretty skeptical about the protest. "But the one thing we know coming from the former Soviet Union is that someone is going to pay for the revolution. That's why I didn't see many of my 'Russian' friends in the tent cities. We already had a state that took care of our parents once, so thanks, but no thanks."

Another friend, a year in the U.S. by a contract with local company, says she is very excited about the protests and would certainly join them, although her family almost finished paying the mortgage for their house in Israel, pretty far away from the center. "There is this great feeling that for the first time, the Israeli government is answering to someone," she said. "The feeling of empowerment. The solidarity. There are many groups and many different agendas, but there is finally a feeling of a movement that cares - and it's not a religious sector that rabbis gave them an order to crowd the streets. I would join the protest, at least the big demonstration, for sure."

When her American colleagues scoffed politely, she said she didn't expect them to understand. "For Americans, the government involvement is a sort of blasphemy," she said. "They prefer to pay the doctor the money they don't have, just don't let the government in."

But mostly, the Americans, with their own debt ceiling crisis and then the credit downgrade blame game, didn't pay much attention to Israel's middle class grievances. The initiative of the group of young Israeli artists to recreate the tent protest in front of the White House in Washington, and later in Times Square, didn't attract too much attention - these places have seen all kinds of messages delivered in every possible form.

The protesters themselves said they wanted to express solidarity with those in Israel - and expressed certainty that soon tent protests will hit America.

Jewish-American organizations, usually quick to react to tragic/outrageous events in Israel, kept quiet this time. As one friend pointed out, they are likely not interested in being asked to donate to help the Israeli middle class.

Tents? What tents?

A group of Democratic lawmakers who landed in Israel yesterday will have the chance to witness the protests first-hand, though they may skip it. Over the summer recess, roughly one-fifth of the U.S. congressmen will visit Israel on trips organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, the educational arm of the pro-Israel America Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC won't release the names of the participants of the delegations, but it's safe to assume many of the new Tea Party congressmen will make their first trip to Jerusalem, along with political veterans making their annual summer trip to Israel.

If their week-long trip doesn't include a planned visit to the tent cities, it will still be difficult not to notice the demonstrations, and one can only wonder how this story will fit the narrative presented to them each summer.

Another group of visitors to Israel this summer is a delegation of 19 ambassadors from four continents serving in Washington, D.C., whose visit was arranged by The Israel Project, an organization dealing with Israel advocacy.

Yesterday, they met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. Besides meetings with politicians, including opposition leader Tzipi Livni, the program includes a commemoration of the Ninth of Av in Jerusalem, marking the destruction of the first and second Temples, a helicopter ride over the northern and southern borders of Israel meant to demonstrate Israel's security challenges, and even a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah - but no mention of the tent cities.

The purpose of the trip, afterall, is votes, not tents.

Netanyahu asked the group to reject the recognition of the Palestinian state at the UN, explaining that this resolution might make it very difficult for the Palestinian leaders to make compromises for peace with Israel.

Ambassador of Trinidad and Tobago in Washington, Dr. Neil Parsan, told "Haaretz" following the meeting, that "The fact finding mission has proven to be of value to the visiting group. The group was informed by the wisdom of the President of Israel and perspectives from the Prime Minister. Trinidad and Tobago values the open dialogue in carving a path for the peace and security of all peoples of the region - the principle for the future ought to be that ‘sovereignty is guaranteed by nationality, humanity is guaranteed by commonality'. We look forward to an informed decision making process at the United Nations general assembly in September".

Netanyahu asked the group not to vote for the resolution.

On Tuesday, they will meet Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah, who will probably ask them the opposite.

Most Israelis would be hard pressed to name the capitals of Albania, Barbados, Belize, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Liberia, Macedonia, Mongolia, Montenegro, Slovakia, Timor-Leste, Trinidad and Tobago or Uganda, but their votes will count just the same at the UN in September.