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Social Origins of the Tent Protests in Israel

By       Message Max Ajl       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   5 comments

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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H2 8/19/11

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It started in mid-July, when Dafni Leef, a Tel Aviv filmmaker, was met with a hike in her rent that she couldn't afford to pay. Instead of moving to a new apartment, she moved to a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, the city's sleekest thoroughfare, and set up a Facebook event calling for her compatriots to join her. And they did. First, scattered hundreds, then on July 30 more than 300,000 people in Tel Aviv alone, with tents mushrooming across the country, in self-conscious defiance of state-peddled neoliberalism.

Leef's background is important. The "tent protests" did not begin in the sectors most affected by economic dysfunction -- not in the ramshackle population centers of the Negev, like Sderot, nor in destitute and immigrant-rich south Tel Aviv. They began in the city's affluent north, by those who had gone to Hebrew University and Ben-Gurion University -- the seminaries of the country's elite -- those who had done the requisite military service, the children of the bourgeoisie or the declining bourgeoisie, who had expected a smooth ride into an affluent future and are now colliding with the debris of the shattered Israeli social compact.

Complaints started in response to rapid increases in the price of cottage cheese, moved on to the housing crisis, and have spread to the general crisis: a country peppered with billionaires but without a functioning public transportation system; a country that produces high-tech drones which it markets to militaries worldwide, but in which one third of the workforce earns the minimum wage; a country whose name still connotes "socialism" in some corners and which is the second-most-unequal industrialized democracy on the planet. At the protests, demands, complaints, cat-calls and concerns have centered on...

Danger, Construction -- for the Rich
Bibi, Wake Up -- Women Are More Valuable (this rhymes in Hebrew)
The People Want Public Housing
Welfare State Now
The People Are Calling for Social Justice
The Answer to Privatization?  Revolution!

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The demonstrations' demographics run the gamut. They began with the university educated, newly graduated middle class, but their spread to development towns indicates that they are touching a broader socio-economic base. Most importantly, the Arab Jewish (Mizrahi) underclass, which can compose as much as 90 percent of the population of perilous border towns like the municipalities in northern and southern Israel, where the white European elite, eager to fill out the territorial envelope of the new Israeli state and thereby safeguard its borders, deliberately placed them.

Polls suggest that 87 percent of Israelis support the protests. Among them are 98 percent of Kadima voters and 95 percent of Labor voters. Kadima and Labor are the bastions of the middle class and the upper-middle class. As much as 85 percent of Bibi Netanyahu's Likud, which tends to draw support from poorer Mizrahi sectors, also supports the protests, indicating the breadth -- if not the depth -- of popular support for those out in the streets.

Calls to end the occupation have thus far been mostly absent, a silence that speaks eloquently to the composition of Israeli society, in which a call to end the occupation or dismantle the racist juridical structure is perceived as an attack on the state religion -- militarist nationalism. Such a call would be "political," as opposed to the current protests, merely "social" in nature.

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It is still early, but two things seem clear.

One, this movement will not break the Israeli structure of power. Two, this is an early fracture -- a foretaste of later ruptures -- within Zionism.

It would be wonderful to be wrong about the first point. One could not predict the fall of the Iranian Shah from the Peacock Throne in 1977, before months-long street melees sent him into flight. The rise of Hugo Chavez was not pre-figured in the caracazo of 1989 -- the countrywide riots against Venezuelan neo-liberal austerity measures.

Revolutions are inherently unpredictable, as people move out of the gentle ebbs and flows, the quotidian cycles, of their lives, and move to messianic time. At such moments, belief in their own power, a kind of "collective effervescence," can create opportunities that no one would have predicted or believed possible just weeks before, and radical change becomes a kind of mirage that people suddenly will into becoming real. Such sparks of human creativity and the instinct for freedom kindle flames within structures designed to douse them.

Still, the fractures within those structures are real. The average apartment is unaffordable for 90 percent of the population, and is what Danny Ben Shahar calls a "social time-bomb," in part the result of housing inflation as a jet-setting Jewish transnational elite flits into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the summer, stays at their "ghost apartments," then returns to Paris and Los Angeles.

Inflation is not restricted to the housing market. As Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman Ofer Eini said, "If once I was able to go to the supermarket and make a NIS 700 purchase, today I pay double. And that is not linked to the CPI. If the CPI rises 3%, the supermarket prices rise 30%. The one benefiting from these rising prices is the government."

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Of course, the Histadrut is only nominally a "labor federation." In reality, it assists an accumulation process tightly tied into the state apparatus, regulating wages and -- notoriously -- off-loading state enterprises onto politically-connected figures in the private sector in the robbery euphemistically called "privatization." As ever, the state is not looking out for the interests of the dispossessed. It's looking out for the interests of the possessed, and looking out for them with great care and skill. Ten large business groups now control 30 percent of the market value of public companies, while 16 control half of the money in the whole country.

Furthermore, the idea that it is the "government" benefiting from rising prices is dubious. The government might push inflationary policies, but historically, Israeli inflation has led to a redistribution of economic clout from the bottom and middle of Israeli society to its upper echelons, and they, welded solidly into transnational capital circuits, are inflation's real beneficiaries, behind the veneer of the state and the politicians they push into office. Israeli elites frequently do not bother with the veneer: amidst a cartelized economy, prices are pushed higher and higher by price-setting corporations, while wages do not come close to keeping pace with price increases.

So what Eini is doing is reminding state managers that Israeli social cohesion is fraying, with taxes among the highest in the Western world relative to state welfare spending, and telling them to respond to ensure that fraying does not produce a threat to Israeli social stability. Revealingly, Eini publicly opposed toppling Netanyahu, clarifying that the protests "must not shatter the national agenda," code for the heady communal cohesion, the consensus on the settler-colonial project, with which Israeli elites corral the populace into support for militarism.

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Max Ajl is a Cornell PHD candidate in development sociology and has worked with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in
Gaza. He blogs at

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Social Origins of the Tent Protests in Israel