The other Israel: the politics of the social protests.

AuthorGreene, Toby
PositionNotebook - Essay

On 3 September 2011, 430,000 took to the streets of Israel to demand social justice. It was the biggest protest in the country's history and, per capita, the biggest protest in the world last year. Over five per cent of the Israeli population marched; the UK equivalent would be close to three million people. Here was the best response imaginable to the fear that Israel's democracy is in crisis.

The story begins in the middle of July 2011, when Dafna Leef, a twenty-five-year-old film student and freelance video editor living in Tel Aviv, was evicted from her apartment. Unable to find another she could afford, she pitched a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, a chic and fashionable avenue flanked by art galleries and cafes running through central Tel Aviv, and set up a Facebook campaign for others to join her.

On 3 September, six months later, she addressed a crowd of 300,000 in Tel Aviv - with 130,000 others demonstrating in cities around the country - as the leader of a campaign for 'social justice' that her protest had spawned. Leef attacked 'swinish capitalism' but at the same time rejected traditional political identities, declaring:

So they called us the extreme left. They tried to define us. How on earth do they know who I am? How do they know who you are? Where do they get the chutzpah? The best answer to their assertions came not from me or from my friends, it came from the tent camps that sprang up in the Hatikva neighbourhood, in Jesse Cohen, in Kiryat Gat, KiryatShmona, Modiin, Rahat, Kalansawa, Jerusalem, Haifa, Bet Shean, Yerucham, and in tens of other places. All of us, the whole country, realised that there is no right or left - we are all servants/we all serve. What produced this remarkable and unexpected political event? This article explores the historical contexts, political forms and theoretical implications of Israeli social protests of 2011.

Historical contexts

The social protests that swept Israel's boulevards and city squares during the summer of 2011 caught many observers of Israeli society and politics by surprise. Though differences over Israel's diplomatic and security policy have led to waves of activism, in over six decades the country has witnessed only a handful of incidents where social discontent led to the formation of organised protest movements. Several factors contributed to this phenomenon.

From its inception, severe external threats to Israel's security have inevitably pushed social, cultural and economic issues down the agenda. Though it succeeded in overcoming the military challenges of the 1948 War of Independence, Israel paid an immensely heavy price, losing one per cent of its population in the fighting. The country faced severe economic difficulties while at the same time taking in approximately 700,000 newly-arrived Jewish immigrants in the late 1940s. Lacking better solutions, whole communities were forced to reside in provisional immigrant camps well into the 1950s. The nascent social fabric of Israel did not tear, in good part due to the country's leadership at the time, and in particular, to Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Celebrated as the father of Israel's democratic foundations, he was above all a pragmatist who understood the fragility of Israel's society and was willing to suppress any challenge to it. When, in November 1951, seamen in the Haifa port announced a labour dispute that brought the country's only commercial port to a standstill, Ben Gurion and others in the ruling Mapai party, which preceded the Israeli Labour Party, took extreme measures to end the strike, even calling up the union leaders to military service. There was uproar among the country's intellectuals, but the episode solidified his reputation as a man determined to prevent social and economic dissent from undermining the country's stability.

With security trumping social questions, and Mapai politically dominant, protracted social unrest was not seen until the early 1970s. Ironically, it was Israel's decisive victory in the 1967 Six Day War and Israelis' (over-)confidence in their country's ability to defend its borders that allowed deep social grievances to rise to the surface. The Israeli Black Panthers, perhaps the most prominent Israeli social protest movement to date, emerged in Jerusalem in 1971 and though obviously inspired by its namesake in the United States, were rooted in local social and economic circumstances. The Panthers were mostly second-generation Jewish immigrants from Middle Eastern countries who fought against cultural marginalisation and social exclusion. The government's response was dismissive and patronising: after meeting representatives of the movement in April 1971, Prime Minister Golda Meir famously said, 'The Panthers are not nice people'. In a matter of weeks, however, small gatherings in slum neighbourhoods turned into raucous demonstrations that could not be ignored. Beyond specific grievances, the Panthers' demonstrations were the first real effort to challenge Mapai's hegemony and Israel's prevailing social order.

In purely political terms, the Panthers' success was short lived. Internal disputes within the movement became apparent early on and a plan by some members to attend an inter-national Black Panthers meeting exposed the group to allegations of collaboration with Israel's enemies. When the group competed in the Knesset elections that took place in December 1973, shortly after the Yom Kippur War, it did not pass the electoral threshold. Nonetheless, for a brief period Israel's political landscape had been transformed; overtaken by a new vocabulary of social justice and equal opportunity. It took the grave outcome of the 1973 Yom Kippur War to reverse this trend and return the country's agenda, once again, to security and new divisions over the fate of land captured in 1967. Thereafter, a dynamic was established: in times of insecurity, the social question takes a back seat.

The real political impact of the Panthers only became apparent in the late 1970s and generated a dramatic change in Israeli political culture. The relative silence with which Mizrahi Jews had born their grievances for decades was over, and the dominance of the country's liberal European elites was no longer taken for granted. In the 1977 elections, these social and cultural currents took on a concrete political form, sweeping the centre-right Likud party into power. Likud's leader Menahem Begin astutely identified the popular anger at the old political guard, first ignited by the Black Panthers, and a staggering 75 per cent of Likud voters in 1977 were Mizrahi Jews.

Even during the 1980s when the global turn to neo-liberalism saw Israel's social democratic foundations radically eroded, politics remained stubbornly focussed on security...

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