The images of young people erecting protest tents on Rothschild Boulevard on Sunday made it feel as if no time had passed since July 2011, when a camp stretching along the iconic Tel Aviv street sparked massive protests across Israel and dominated the national conversation for an entire summer.
“Objectively, the situation is worse now, particularly when it comes to housing,” says Avia Spivak, an economics professor at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, who advised the 2011 protesters as they were preparing their demands for the then-Netanyahu government.
“Today, the prices of buying a home are out of reach for even more young people – and bringing down purchase prices was a key goal of the protests back in 2011. Homeownership is so out of reach for so many this time around that the focus isn’t even on purchasing a home, but being able to afford rent,” he says.
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a Bar-Ilan University political scientist who published a book on the history of Israeli protest movements, says the unrest brewing in 2022 is ”far less surprising” to him than it was 11 years ago.
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“In 2011 it surprised everyone, because you couldn’t put your finger on any specific event or trend that was occurring that sparked the protests. Today, there’s a clear reason: We’re seeing prices jump because inflation is skyrocketing around the world, and that phenomenon is piggybacking on Israel’s already high cost of living.”
Another difference: geography. The 2022 tents on Rothschild Boulevard went up a full week after the launch of the current protest movement, which officially began on June 13. On that day, the first tent compounds were seen in the north and south of the country – first in Pardes Hannah, and then Be’er Sheva, followed quickly by similar efforts in Holon and Rosh Ha’ayin, and subsequently Ramat Gan, Herzliya, Kfar Sava and elsewhere.
The fact that the current movement emerged – and is growing – in the periphery “testifies to the fact that it’s a truly grassroots phenomenon, and suffering is happening around the country,” says Guy Lerer, a television host and consumer activist who is encouraging the protests on his television show and Facebook group (which has 1.2 million followers).
While it is early days, Lerer predicts that “while this protest won’t be as large as in 2011, it is shaping up to be more focused and more practical and hopefully more effective. Back then, the movement grew so huge so quickly that it became unwieldy and unorganized, and eventually it was caught up in infighting between its leaders.”
Housing, housing, housing
The 2011 protests spawned weekly marches in cities across Israel, culminating in a massive march through central Tel Aviv. While they led to some significant achievements in other areas of social welfare – notably early education, transportation, cellular and food prices – and spurred stricter government regulation of executive pay and the reach of wealthy “tycoons,” its long-term impact on the issue that started it all was negligible.
This time around, discussions on social media platforms and the WhatsApp groups of the various tent cities reflect a desire to avoid 2011-style generalized calls for “social justice.” Instead, they focus on the issue of housing and, specifically, the increase in rental costs as salaries remain stagnant.
Unlike many European countries and North American cities, the Israeli rental market is nearly regulation-free. Public housing is sparse and neglected, with thousands on apartment waiting lists for years.
When the first group of tents was erected in Pardes Hannah, the group announced that its goal “is to lower housing and rental prices, and the cost of living, and to reduce the gap between these expenses, and the minimum wage that remains so low.”
Although the activists have yet to issue recommendations or demands to the government, their messaging in the media has stressed the demand for the creation of a public housing law that would better regulate the rental market and landlords, who they see as greedily taking advantage of a supply-and-demand deficit that tilts heavily in their favor.
“I think it’s an excellent idea for the protesters to focus on housing,” says Spivak, pointing to it as the major issue that was not sufficiently addressed 11 years ago, aside from “gimmicks” like housing lotteries for discounts on home purchases.
He notes that in the early days of the state, legislation was in place that protected renters, but “over the years these laws dissolved.” While government policies have focused nearly exclusively on purchasing apartments, the rental market has become a Wild West of individual landlords with almost no government oversight or intervention.
Some policies, like raising the purchase tax on multiple homes – aimed at increasing the number of apartments for sale in a market where prices have skyrocketed – has resulted in driving rental prices up, reducing the number of homes available to rent.
The high cost of renting in the Tel Aviv area has also had a ripple effect: as housing in the center of the country has become less affordable, many young people have moved to cities further out, increasing rents both in adjacent towns and more far-flung parts of the country as well.
On the lawn in front of Herzliya City Hall on Sunday, two single mothers, Adi and Yafit, were the occupants of the first two tents in their Tel Aviv suburb, as their young sons kicked a soccer ball in front of them.
Adi, a first-grade teacher in the city, says she lives at the crux of two concurrent crises. Negotiations for an increase in historically low teachers’ salaries have been stalled. At the same time, inflation has led landlords to dramatically raise rents “almost to the level of my entire salary.”
She fears what will happen when her current lease ends shortly. She already lives with her son in a one-bedroom apartment in which she sleeps in the living room. It is impossible for her to consider moving to a less expensive part of the country, because her son’s father lives nearby.
“I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says. “When I saw the first tents were going up in Pardes Hannah, I wanted to join – but the cost of gas is so high I didn’t want to make the trip. So now we’ve set up tents here.”
Across social media channels devoted to the housing protests are stories of landlords in outlying areas raising rents dramatically in recent months. In one post, a young boy living on a moshav in the south dissolved into tears in a video selfie, recounting how his single mother’s rent would be increased by 2,000 shekels ($580) per month. “My family is going to have to go live in the street,” the boy sobbed.
Yitzhak Shabtai, 32, set up the first protest tent in Pardes Hannah. “All we want is for the state to allow us to live with dignity, in a country with a government that respects us and cares about our welfare,” he said in a video posted on the Facebook group Warriors for Housing.
“In a reality where the minimum wage is 5,400 shekels, with the vast majority going to housing with prices continuing to rise, there is a whole generation of working people who can no longer exist here. And it’s as if the government doesn’t see us,” he added.
Former Labor lawmaker Stav Shaffir, a leader of the 2011 effort, believes that another large-scale protest movement is the only way to get affordable housing and other kitchen-table issues on the government’s priority list.
”Back in 2011, people said, ‘Don’t bother going out on the streets, because nothing will change.’ But the only way to drive change is to put massive pressure on decision-makers by getting out of the house and protesting. Unfortunately, people have to be out on the streets for anyone to pay attention,” she says.
Build, build, build
Prof. Elise Scheiner Brezis, professor of economics at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Azrieli Center for Economic Policy, has some bad news for the protesters and their cheerleaders: the rent control they dream of won’t really solve their problems.
Rent control and other forms of regulation is merely a “band-aid” solution for the country’s housing crisis, in her opinion. What good are reasonable rents, she asks, if there are no available apartments?
“The big problem isn’t the high price of renting: the problem is that we don’t build enough. Israel’s demographics – our constant increase in population, in new couples entering the market, couples divorcing and splitting into two households, and immigration – is overwhelming our housing supply,” she argues. “We have excess demand and that’s going to be a problem whether people are renting or buying, and no matter what the prices are. We need to build, build, build. Until that happens, nothing else the government does can really help.”
The current distress over high prices, she says, is less a function of landlord greed than of supply chain issues and inflation, which is raising costs that are being passed on to the renters.
In the coming months, she predicts, prices will stabilize as interest rate hikes in the United States take effect in the fall and winter, and a predicted recession results.
“Inevitably, when interest rates go up, demand will decrease and that will affect prices. The people asking for crazy rents will see that nobody is there to pay them,” Brezis says.
But no amount of economic change or fluctuation can eliminate what both Brezis and Lehman-Wilzig identify as the biggest obstacle to success for the 2022 protesters: the fact that there is currently no stable Israeli coalition government to whom they can address their concerns, and from whom we can demand action.
“When it comes to protest movements, timing is crucial and I fear that, in this case, the timing is certainly not the best,” Lehman-Wilzig says. “It will take some really serious policymaking to address the problems the protesters are pointing to. And this government, which is on its last legs, just doesn’t have the wherewithal to get serious housing legislation – or any kind of significant legislation – passed right now.”
If the Knesset votes to dissolve itself in the coming weeks, as many predict, the next year will be consumed with election campaigns and coalition negotiations – hardly the time for introducing game-changing economic legislation.
Still, Lerer doesn’t believe the Bennett government’s instability and the specter of new elections will deter the tent-dwellers, and nor should it.
“Obviously it will be a huge disadvantage to this effort if we’re in a transitional government situation,” he says. “But if it’s big enough and makes enough of a real impact, whatever government comes along next will have to take notice.”
He adds: “If politicians get the message that people are in real economic pain, that could affect the direction of the election campaigns and hopefully get people to vote for leaders who pay attention to it and address it. Just like corporations, politicians understand the difference between a public being awake and aware, and one that is discouraged and indifferent.
The bottom line with these protests is that they make politicians pay attention to the public, Lerer says. “It sends a message that they can’t be ignored. They are out there, and they care.”