Israel’s Generation of Tent-dwellers Is Cringing With Shame

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ignored the social protest’s demands. We face an ongoing housing crisis, a collapse of social services and a soaring cost of living.

A couple takes part in the Israeli 'tent protest' over housing prices in 2011.
Moti Kimche

How to mark the fifth anniversary of the social protests that swept Israel in the summer of 2011? One option: Wallow in nostalgia. Recall our huge grins as we stood on Kaplan Street and beheld a sea of demonstrators. Think about how we slept in tents and how easy it was, for three sweaty months, to start a friendly conversation with the complete stranger in the next tent. How proud we were to be Israelis that historic summer.

The situation these days isn’t all that great, to say the least, and nostalgia can be wonderfully soothing. But wistfulness isn’t an option for anyone who truly cares about our future.

And so we come to the second option: Examine what has happened over the past five years and try to understand what must be done so that the protest’s powerful cry – “The nation demands social justice” – becomes a real plan for the government, not a fleeting summer hit.

There is only one answer: politics. No matter how impressive a protest movement is (and ours was one of the largest and most impressive in the country’s history), it can’t realize its goals if no one in the Knesset adopts its energy and ideas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ignored the protest’s demands and has let its concrete achievements be whittled away – and not because he was busy dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. Somehow we expected him to stop being himself. We face an ongoing housing crisis, a collapse of social services and a soaring cost of living for the very reason that Netanyahu achieved his objectives.

Netanyahu made cuts, privatized, directed billions to the settlements and his associates, gave the tycoons a free hand and deliberately withheld funds needed to strengthen the country’s outskirts. And finally, so the public wouldn’t know what was happening, he devoted his energy to dismantling the delicate mechanisms designed to rein him in while creating ever more divisiveness in our society and sowing fear and hate.

“We’ve awakened,” we shouted during the protest that expressed the outcry of all the people who simply aspired to live a normal life. But our awakening also awakened the forces on the right that see normalcy as a threat to their political survival.

Netanyahu and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett know that a fair distribution of resources that would put money into the country’s outskirts would come at the expense of the huge sums being transferred to isolated settlements. They know that “normalcy” would require political resolve and the drawing of a border between us and the Palestinians that would safeguard Israel’s security as well as its identity as a Jewish and democratic state.

The hate-addicted folks leading the government, whose power rests on frightening the public, on cutting Israel off from its friends around the world, and on keeping it stuck in a status quo of no security and no hope, are terrified by the desire for normalcy. They know that if the protest succeeds, they will have to say goodbye to power.

And so, for the past five years, we have seen steadily growing extremism and a vicious reaction by those who will do anything to hold on to power, even if it means renting the delicate fabric of Israeli society.

The 2011 protesters marched a thousand steps ahead of the political leaders who were supposed to be leading them. The generation of the tent-dwellers is cringing with shame at the sight of leaders who don’t devote a single minute to the fight for our country’s future.

Week after week, in the Knesset Transparency Committee, I witness the implications of our generation’s abandonment of the political arena. Finance Ministry bureaucrats, the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division and the religious councils have all turned our tax money from a powerful public resource into a private piggy bank for extortionist schemers and narrow interests. The bureaucrats I summon to testify before the committee are surprised when somebody asks them for an accounting of what they and the politicians have been doing with our money for years, without hindrance.

Not long ago, Coalition Chairman David Bitan threatened to have me removed from my post as head of the Transparency Committee, complaining that I had turned it into a “commission of inquiry.” He apparently forgot that this is precisely my job – to inquire on behalf of the public what the government is doing with our tax money, to inspect its work plans and to see what it’s planning for our future. In other words: to uncover the truth.

The time has come for us to demand a reckoning from the state; to achieve what we dreamed of together in 2011. We must confront the politics of fear with an aggressive and determined worldview that can win the public’s trust.

This is the great battle for our country – against the corrupt, the uncaring, the zealous and the racist. The first campaign began with the big bang of 2011, but there’s still a long way to go until victory. If doubt or despair creeps into your heart, think back to that summer. That’s the best thing you can do with the memory of that time: Carry the protest forward.

Stav Shaffir is a Zionist Union MK and was a leader of the 2011 social protest.