Israeli Society's Once in a Lifetime Chance for Change

The demonstrators must look Israeli society straight in the eye, and remind it that on July 14, 2011 they gave it a once in a lifetime opportunity for change; it should rely on them.

Seven and a half weeks after it erupted, everyone agrees that the greatest achievement of the social protest is the revolutionary change in discourse. For the first time since the establishment of the state, the "socioeconomic issue" is Israel's top priority. As though someone had entered a room in which alienated and frightened people, suffocating with a sense of no-exit, were crowded together back to back, opened the door for them and invited them to go out into the fresh air. And they went outside, by the hundreds of thousands, and in a forgotten language demanded social justice, equality, a welfare state.

The achievement, as we said, is tremendous. Incomprehensible. But at precisely this point in time, and in light of the impressive success, the protest is fragile. While the students are folding up tents and are apparently preparing "to bring results" from the Trajtenberg Committee, others are initiating challenging campaigns like the "10 Plagues," the first of which is asking the public not to fill up at the gas stations owned by Yitzhak Tshuva, "because the tycoon took a loan from you and didn't return it." Although the determined young people succeeded in repelling ugly attacks and the anticipation of a "waning of the protest," there is danger awaiting at the very door that opened, and through which the historic opportunity for change came.

Days before the first tent was set up on Rothschild Boulevard, Israel was swept by an ugly wave of fascist legislation, whose high point (so far ) is the Boycott Law. In the air were threats of silencing, exclusion of anyone who doesn't meet the "Zionist" and "Jewish" criteria of the law's initiators, racist letters from rabbis, demonstrations against Arabs "who want to marry your sister," and more. Israeli democracy has never looked so unstable.

Even those who insist that the protest expresses only the distress of the burned-out middle class cannot deny the tremendous change evident in the demonstrations, the rallies and the discourse around the tent encampments. Jews, Arabs, secular and religious people, began talking to one another, spoke of their hardships, felt solidarity - a concept forgotten in recent years. All at once the spirit of isolationism and hatred evaporated, and another spirit appeared - one of hope, belonging and pride.

The young heralds of the new spirit succeeded, by means of their character and the messages they brought, in breaking down the barrier of fear. It was enough to listen to the speech delivered by Dafni Leef in the most recent demonstration to understand how they did it. With great wisdom she, in effect, summed up the essence of the demonstration, and paved the way for its continuation; she mentioned the backlash - "go to the outlying areas," "sushi eaters and nargileh smokers," "the protest is dying out because of the security situation," "Leef did not serve in the army" - and proposed a new discourse: civic, democratic, egalitarian, humane and desiring normalcy.

But this message is not necessarily what led hundreds of thousands of embittered, angry and helpless people to the demonstrations, and many of them are now finding consolation in the deceptive words of various hitchhikers who are taking a ride on the protest. For example, Yaron Zelekha, former accountant general of the Finance Ministry, who swept up masses with pseudo-socialist speeches, but at the Israel 2021 conference this week actually recommended comprehensive privatization of state assets, mainly land, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been preaching for years.

More worrisome than Zelekha's zigzagging is his brutal style. At the present stage such belligerent ideas are liable to hit exposed nerves, and the anger and frustration are liable to be translated once again into sectoral hated and incitement. The danger lurking at the doorstep of the protest is therefore its total opposite: another ugly fascist wave, which will further undermine democracy, solidarity and freedom of expression. To prevent that, its leaders have to be more precise: to talk about the connection between equality, social justice, freedom of expression and transparency on the one hand, and democracy in the broad sense on the other. Not to be afraid to tell the politicians, the experts and the pundits who suddenly remembered that "they are also very social-welfare oriented," to stop bluffing and to refrain from using "pure" economics as an excuse for political decisions, and to avoid proposing instant solutions when what is needed is a profound change of the system.

The demonstrators must look Israeli society straight in the eye, and remind it that on July 14, 2011 they gave it a once in a lifetime opportunity for change. It should rely on them.