The Tent Protests in Israel: Can They Break Out of the (Zionist) Box?

6 August 2011

The demonstrations currently roiling Israel constitute a grassroots challenge to Israel’s neo-liberal regime.  Beginning as an uprising of the middle classes — especially young people who have trouble finding affordable housing — it has spread to the working class, the poor, and the Arab communities as well, though not the religious as yet.  Many of the working sectors have joined the three-week protest: doctors, single mothers, parents demanding free education, taxi drivers upset with the price of petrol, even the police.  The Histadrut, Israel’s general trade federation, and many municipalities have also joined.  Tonight nationwide protests are expected to bring a half-million people into the streets.

The big argument is whether it should be “political” or not.  I attended the demonstration last Saturday night (30 July), and while the main slogan was “We Demand Social Justice” (although chants of “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu” could also be heard), it was clear that most of those attending wanted the movement to remain “non-political,” rooted squarely in the mainstream consensus.  Its thrust is anti-neo-liberal, though not framed in those exact words.  Instead, issues are still defined in narrower, technical ways: affordable housing, affordable education, etc.  This may be an effective beginning strategy, since it does bring in the wider public.  Many of those who support the protests, the taxi drivers for example, tend to vote for Netanyahu’s Likud Party.  The politics of it all are just under the surface.  “Bibi [Netanyahu] Go Home” is all over the place, from posters to leaflets to chants.

There are those of us from the left who are trying to push the protests into a more political direction, though we are sensitive to the fact that a gradual process of political consciousness-raising has to occur.  In our statements and in discussions we have in the tent cities around the country, we try to put the finger on neo-liberalism as a fundamental cause of inequality in Israeli society; neo-liberalism as the dominant government ideology, as its overarching set of policies, as a system and not merely a disjointed collection of policies from which one can pick and choose.  We also link the issue of social equality and allocation of resources to the Occupation and Israel’s massive military budget ($16 billion, or $2,300 per person, the highest ratio of defense spending to GDP among the industrialized countries).

This is being resisted especially by the Tel Aviv Students’ Union that has taken on some of the amorphous leadership.  So far there is a conscious effort by the majority of protesters and organizers to exclude the Occupation from the discussion and to keep the protests “non-political.”  Ironically, it is the settlers who are pushing the protest into taking a stand on the Occupation.  At first they opposed the protests, arguing that the movement is only a guise to weaken Netanyahu in anticipation of the Palestinians’ call for statehood at the UN in September.  But last week the extremely right-wing and racist settler youth set up tents at the protest site in Tel Aviv (under the slogan “Tel Aviv Is Jewish”) to push the idea that the solution to the housing crisis is to build massively in the Occupied Territories.  In the meantime, forty-two Knesset members of the right have sent a letter to Netanyahu urging him to solve the housing problem by building massively in the West Bank.

So two questions remain open.  First, will the protests stop when they hit the glass ceiling of really confronting the neo-liberal system, including the Occupation?  Are the protesters capable of “going there,” do they have the potential to genuinely call into question the fundamental premises of the system and its policies?  Here is where Zionism continues to play a role (even one of the large “left” factions at the protest is called the Nationalist Left).  If the basis of Zionism is not challenged — that is, that Israel must be a Jewish state on 80% or more of historic Palestine — then the primary issue underlying the protests, social justice for all, cannot be attained structurally as well as ideologically.  Inclusion, full equality, and genuine democracy cannot arise inside Israel as long as Jews claim privileged rights over Palestinian and other citizens of Israel — all the while keeping millions of Palestinian non-citizens living under occupation or stuck in refugee camps.  The reality is that the vast majority of protesters serve in the army and are, genuinely and sincerely, part of the consensus.

At the tent city in Tel Aviv I encountered a seven-year veteran of the IDF who tried to convince me that Che Guevara (pictured on a poster with an X across his face) could not be a role model for revolution because he was violent.  My interlocutor, who saw himself as liberal and enlightened, simply could not grasp the connection between serving in the Israeli army — which falls under the rubric of the national “consensus” — and his non-violent beliefs.

The other question is: where can this movement go?  After Ehud Barak & Co. finally dismantled the Labor Party, which had gone neo-liberal twenty-five years ago, Israel lacks a major social democratic party.  (Meretz does not even count at this stage.)  Dov Khanin of the Community Party is perhaps the clearest and most respected voice against neo-liberalism in the Knesset and is very popular among the protesters (and is one of the few Knesset members even allowed in the tent city).  But his party, which is identified almost exclusively with the Arab community, cannot serve as that vehicle.  A very real and interesting possibility is that Arye Deri, an ultra-orthodox Mizrahi founder of Shas with great credibility even among the secular middle classes, will found such a party.  As of now, however, the protests have no vehicle for grounding their movement.  This, of course, is the Establishment’s hope: that the uprising will just die once a few demands are accepted, others doomed to interminable committees and summer vacation ends.

Still, there’s potential here.  Some of the discussions are becoming political (the tent city in Tel Aviv includes a 1948 tent) and it remains to be seen what will happen as the government stonewalls and pushes back.  This is an uprising worth following.  Not an Arab Spring perhaps but a promising Israeli Summer.  A process of consciousness-raising has certainly begun amongst mainstream Jewish Israelis who for generations have been locked in “The Box” of conformist thinking.  So process, flux, potential are still the order of the day.  One test of how far the protests can go will come in September when the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories initiate massive protests around the UN vote.  What will happen if the tent protests survive and develop into September?  Will they link up with their Palestinian counterparts?  Will we in the critical left, who are engaged in both movements, be able act as a bridge between them?  Imagine a mass march from Tel Aviv — to Ramallah — and back!  Now that’s when paradigms get smashed and possibilities of an entirely new social, political, and economic order open up.  May we all reach September.

Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).  He can be reached at <>.

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