In many ways 2011 has, thus far, been a year of public protest and action, frequently verging on the revolutionary. With the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Algeria and Syria, either having proved successful in changing government and/or government policy, or showing no signs of abating until they do, global media attention has become focused on how such outpourings of public discontent are being organised and maintained. Much writing and commentary has been devoted to the internet as a source of free-floating information that circumvents the controls governments have previously been able to exert over their populations. A negative aspect of this preoccupation, has been the increasing ‘threat’ to social cohesion that the internet has come to represent even within supposedly democratic governments such as France, the UK and the US.
After the UK riots at the beginning of August, much of the press and government criticism was directed toward the ease with which individuals were able to organise and incite public violence via on-line social media and mobile technology. In many ways this has paralleled the increasing mistrust of the internet amongst more obviously totalitarian regimes, such as Iran and China, which in turn is fuelling the desire for western democracies to crackdown on the ‘too free’ circulation of information via the internet’s various social media sites. Part of the UK government response to the riots was to utilise emergency legislation to prosecute individual’s who were seen to be using the internet to spread provocative and inflammatory information regarding the public violence. In America the S.773 Cybersecurity Act of 2009, proposed by Sen. John Rockefeller and Sen. Olympia Snowe, has been working its way through Congress. This act whilst seeking to tighten the US’s Federal interstate internet security procedures, also includes the possibility for the federal government to seize control of private-sector internet networks (in much the same way as the Chinese government does), in the event of a ‘cybersecurity emergency’.
The internet has become a source of intense paranoia for global government regimes, as internet users far from being bound to their desks by the ready availability of frivolous on-line entertainment, have increasingly sought to use the powers of the internet to organise large-scale public activities and demonstrations. Aside from the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, there have also been Tea Party and anti-Tea Party rallies throughout the US, all year long, many of which have harnessed similar social media tools to give their movements shape. In Greece and Spain general strikes and protests have been organised, via the internet, in response to vast and rapid cuts to ailing public sector institutions and state welfare services. Throughout Europe and North America regular protests against the Afghan War have similarly been prompted by direct internet action. Whilst in Chile students have organised various actions against the government during August, in protest at the poor infrastructure in the Chilean secondary and higher education systems.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing and challenging of recent national protests have been those taking place in Israel for the last six weeks. Whereas the ‘Arab Spring’ protests, were in effect uprisings, whilst the Greek, Spanish and Chilean protests were limited to narrow, if important, political aims, and the Tea Party/anti-Tea Party rallies in the States were more about different, conflicting ideas of governance, the Israeli protests have featured a panoply of social and political issues that have come from middle-class Israel, as well as lower-class Israel, and have sought to blur the strict, dividing boundaries between Palestinian and Israeli concerns. At the core of these protests is a disillusionment with the lack of socially responsible economic reforms made by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government, which has in turn spilled over into increasingly radical demonstrations against social issues that are, as a result of this inaction, biting at the financial heels of more than just the worst-off in Israeli society.
These economic and social action protests have politically energised and engaged a normally relatively docile, if divisive, Israeli population, with over 450,000 people having taken to the streets in various different demonstrations and activities over the last six weeks. Unlike in London, where a slow-acting and alienating government, endured the kind of violence that stems from a generalised breakdown in the relationship between youth and authority, with little or no obviously articulated political agenda underpinning the rage and chaos upon the streets, Israel has seen weekend after weekend of carefully marshalled and organised political and social demonstration. Much of this activity has directly stemmed from the population’s engagement with different internet forums (at the forefront of which have been the ‘Activism’ blogroll and the ‘Wisdom of the People’ portal, which utilises a live chat messenger service to help organise events and actions) and social media, leaving Netanyahu’s government looking increasingly embattled.
The origins of the Israeli protests can be traced back to the issue of housing and accommodation in Israel, as well as a more generalised concern with the cost of living, as embodied by the effective protests regarding the price of an Israeli dietary staple, cottage cheese. The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, has written extensively over the past six weeks about the protests. Initially the protests developed around a Facebook-organised protest instigated by Daphni Leef, which asked for people (at first mainly students) to congregate along Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and construct a ‘tent city’. Leef, a filmmaker who had been involved in previous political protests regarding army service and civil marriage, had discovered, when she was looking for new accommodation in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, that rent costs had doubled over the previous five years. Concerned and shocked by this information she set about sounding out students and young people on Facebook, to see what other people’s experiences were of the rental issue.
On Thursday 14th July 2011, the first tents began to be erected in and around Rothschild Boulevard. Within days the movement had transferred to other cities and communities (such as Beersheba and Ramat Gan) and the Likud government began to realise that there was a significant Israeli popular political protest underway, for the first time in the country’s brief, but troubled, history. Normally Israeli’s would limit street protests to issues of defence and settlement, fearing that a protest directed at domestic policies of government would destabilise their regional power base in the eyes of external aggressors, such as Iran. Leef’s movement seemed to be establishing a different relationship between Israel and her neighbours, seemingly channelling some of the energy from the Arab uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Bahrain and directing this toward Netanyahu’s government and their apparent lack of understanding of basic domestic issues affecting the majority of Israelis.
As Bronner points out Likud and their finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, initially were seen to react quickly to the concerns and demands of the protestors:-
“promising construction of thousands of new housing units, along with a set of changes to bulldoze bureaucracies and press landlords to expand the market through a mix of carrot and stick (sell and get a bonus; don’t sell and face a tax)”
Yet some are now beginning to question whether Israel’s government have perhaps been a little too responsive to the demands of protestors.
A few weeks prior to the tent protests, Israel’s government had faced political pressure over the soaring cost of cottage cheese. Under fire from various protest groups the Knesset authorised State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to look into the issue of cottage cheese prices, resulting in a 25% reduction in the price of cottage cheese. Clearly buoyed by the success of this particular issue, certain groups on the political left in Israel, such as The National Left, had begun to cultivate and mobilise protest groups against the issue of housing costs. Leef’s decisive intervention in establishing a Facebook site for much of the political dissent bubbling under the surface of Israeli society, has since snowballed into the longest period of political protest in Israeli history and has effectively brought together elements of the political right and left, as well as Israeli and Palestinian communities – one of the most noted ‘tent city’ constructions was that carried out by Palestinian activists in the Israeli-Arab city of Tayibe (or Taibeh).
On consecutive weekends during the last week of July and the first week of August, protestor numbers swelled to over 300,000, counting for something like 5% of Israel’s total population, a figure unheard of in Israeli domestic protests. The movement had shifted from its narrow focus on issues to do with housing, to a concern with something it was terming ‘social justice’, with the left-leaning independent mayor of Beersheba, Ruvik Danilovich listing “education, health care and affordable housing” as the most pressing social issues that the Israeli government needed to address. The general tenor of the protests themselves was seen as being a commitment to numbers rather than issues, with a feeling that the protests whilst being mainly peaceful, were doing nothing more than creating ‘party atmospheres’ in which politics was taking a backseat. Regardless of the protestors intentions, the sheer volume of people on the streets couldn’t be ignored by Netanyahu and his government.
As Gideon Rachman puts it in his excellent FT column, 2011 has had a the feel of “the year of global indignation” and whereas nothing obviously links the politics behind the street demonstrations in Chile, Greece and China, with those occurring in Israel, Rachman is right to point out that
“Many of the countries hit by unrest have explicitly accepted rising inequality as a price worth paying for rapid economic growth”
The free market, possibly neo-liberal, economic theories of the likes of Friedman and Stigler have been refined and gradually worked into policy in countries like Chile, Sweden, the US, the UK and, of course, Israel. The aggressive rolling back of the social policy mechanisms of state in many countries, after the economic turmoil of 2008, have left an increasing number of people around the world feeling dramatically disenfranchised from the apparent wealth of their national economies. In Israel, as Bronner points out, Netanyahu’s government has, on paper, managed economic growth superbly. Yet despite the fact that the
“unemployment rate was 5.8 percent, a 25-year low and about half of that of Europe. Its currency, the shekel, is strong. Its exports outstrip its imports. It is attracting foreign investors, especially in the high-tech sector”
it has still being unable to adequately convince large parts of its population, particularly those under forty years of age, that these are indeed times of plenty.
Having already extracted numerous ‘assurances and guarantees’ from the Likud government, as well as some noted immediate policy intervention, in recent weeks the protest movement has once again morphed from peaceful protest and demonstration to a slightly more legally ‘dubious’ approach. Esther Witt, a special education teacher, originally from the Netherlands, is one of the figures who has spear-headed the ‘lightning squat’ recently adopted by ‘social justice’ protestors. Witt had been in attendance at ‘tent city’ protests in Independence Park, Jerusalem, earlier in August. In an article featured in Haaretz she had given a very clear, individual picture of some of the difficulties families were facing in Israel just to meet the costs of keeping a roof above their heads.
During the last weekend in August Witt, and a coalition of fellow activists, engaged in the first truly ‘controversial’ piece of political theatre of the protests, thus far. The group broke into a vacant building owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), not far from Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. Taking over the four-storey building they christened it the ‘People’s House’ and held a public squat, that Witt hoped would force the government to introduce stricter property-ownership regulations, making it impossible for such buildings to remain unoccupied. In a Guardian report by Luke Brown, Witt claimed
“We’re trying to make a point – this building could easily house four families but it has stood empty for 15 years, … We want those people who own apartments in Israel but only come to the country for two weeks a year to feel that if they leave their apartment empty, it’ll be squatted, and so it’s in everyone’s interest if they rent them out instead.”
Witt, and those like her in Israel, are people newly committed to an old-fashioned idea of ‘society’ in the face of a perceived widening of social inequalities, as a result of aggressively pursued policies for economic growth. Whereas the noises from governments throughout the developed world are mainly of the bemused variety (how can people be protesting when so many nation’s are wealthier than they have ever been?), it is in protest movements like that in Israel that we are seeing the first articulations of dismay with the self-serving nature of much global economic policy and social reform.
CODA:- (Since starting work on this article much has changed about the situation of the protests, that can only really be reported, rather than directly commented on. What follows is an addendum tracing outlining recent events)
This latest escalation in the protest movement was followed by a momentary lapse in demonstrations, where the numbers of protestors in ‘tent cities’ across the country dwindled, but on Friday 2nd September the largest protests of all were stage across Israel, pulling in upwards of 450,000 people. The largest protest was staged at Kikar Hamedina, a large plaza in the centre of Tel Aviv. Protest leaders and student groups addressed the crowds asking for action and recognition from the Knesset. In the aftermath of this historic night Israeli city councils poured pressure on the protest movement to begin sustained dialogue with the Knesset and the Trajtenberg Committee instituted by Netanyahu on August 8th 2011 to examine the socioeconomic issues at the heart of the protests.
A temporary hiatus was called amongst the protest movements various bodies, but no solid attempt, as yet, has been made to discuss issues pertaining to Israel’s socioeconomic problems with the Trajtenberg Committee (many protestors remain opposed to any talks other than with the Knesset). The protest movement has since intimated its demands are to
“ “eliminate economic centralization”, propose a discussion to end monopolies, dismantle economic pyramids, increase competition, tax reform that would cancel the lowering of corporate taxes while raising taxes on high-income individuals, lowering indirect taxes, and monitoring of the capital market.”
Furthermore there have been increased calls for a return to the ‘welfare state’ model of social governance, that Netanyahu’s government has assiduously dismantled. Within the last 48 hours, a hardcore contingent of protestors that have chosen to ignore the requests of the government, local councils and the protest movements leaders, have been engaged in skirmishes and clashes with Israeli police. It remains to be seen what will happen next in this monumental protest movement, but it is unlikely that Netanyahu’s government will be able to ignore the events of the past six weeks and attempt to draw a line under proceedings.