Social Origins of the Tent Protests in Israel

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 over 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, but 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!

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.  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.

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 prefigured in the caracazo of 1989, the countrywide riots against Venezuelan neoliberal 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, 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.”

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 — offloading 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 thirty percent of the market value of public companies, while sixteen 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.

One can see the current protests as the outcome of a process in which the relative egalitarianism — never “socialism” — of the early years of Israeli statehood has been replaced by increasing centralization and privatization of social wealth.  Through the mid-1970s, the Israeli elite was able to both increase its own power and pay off the lower ranks of the Israeli social hierarchy through a deft combination of re-distribution and dispossession, a system in which Israeli social discontent was defused and diffused through colonization, militarism, and alternative social welfare measures, both material and symbolic, with the common thread of resolving internal Israeli social problems on the backs of the native population: the Palestinians.

This tendency was institutionalized in the decision to militarize in the post-founding period, as David Ben-Gurion and other founders deliberately used the solder of state worship and jingoism to join millions of new immigrants to the state-linked Israeli “new class” inhabiting the upper posts of the Histadrut and other state institutions.  As Moshe Sharet, who found these policies distasteful, wrote, in their view the state “should see war as the principal and perhaps only means of increasing welfare and keeping the moral tension. . . .  For this purpose we can concoct dangers,” and were even “obliged” to do so.

Later, the Israeli elite responded to economic malaise and episodic industrial unrest among the North African immigrants by going to war in 1967, a war that led to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  In turn, the settlement project began to gather a social base from the Mizrahi, with the tacit and explicit assent of both politicians and social elites, with several factors, material and symbolic, serving as the warp and woof of that social base.

First, with the infusion of Palestinians from the occupied territories into the Israeli labor force, the Mizrahi were shoved upwards in Israel’s socio-economic hierarchy, in the process becoming a petty bourgeoisie.  As a group of Moroccan Jews explained to Amos Oz, “If they give back the territories, the Arabs will stop coming to work, and then you’ll put us back into the dead-end jobs, like before.  If for no other reason, we won’t let you give back those territories. . . .  As long as Begin’s in power, my daughter’s secure at the bank.  If you guys [i.e., Labor] come back, you’ll pull her down first thing.”

Second, the lifestyle settlers living just over the Green Line, and in the settlements ringing East Jerusalem, are also mostly Mizrahi, as are the rank and file of the Israeli Defense Forces.  It is the Israeli lower classes that most strongly support the settlement project and it is their socio-economic grievances that have been addressed by it in the cheapest way possible.  The reason why the settlements are built on Palestinian land is that the cheapest land is freshly stolen land.  And there is always more to steal.

Third, insofar as social pressure mounts for affordable housing or welfare disbursements from the state, releasing that pressure is only partially a question of currentdistributions from the state.  A second aspect of the same question is future distributions, promised by Labor and Likud governments alike.  The poor can look forward to low-cost land or housing on the settlements that they cannot look forward to in unaffordable urban centers.  Polls show overwhelming Israeli popular support for maintaining the settlements and the occupation of the territories.  Their respondents are, perhaps, dimly aware of the role settlement expansion plays in cementing Israeli social cohesion by letting off lower-class social pressure.

Fourth, the army and the settlers are deeply invested in the settlement project, with the latter increasingly occupying the front line and elite units that would be tasked with the kind of population withdrawal contemplated in two-state resolutions.  The settlements are a problem, but they are also a symptom of deeper problems, and what they are certainly not is the delusional descriptor applied to them by Israeli liberals and American realists alike: the “begetters” of all sins.

Fifth, the Israeli lower classes, predominantly Arab Jews, gain from being able to consider themselves part of the dominant socio-ethnic group — Jews — as opposed to a part of the Arab lower class, alongside the Palestinians.  Yet that consciousness induces a schism, as the truth of their background is betrayed by the simplest device possible: the mirror.  Ashamed of their reflection, they project that shame in outward displays of hatred.  The Mizrahi population has historically been far more racist than the Ashkenazi founders, a racism that lingers even as the cultural markers of its background have been partially scoured from Israeli society.  And the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide lingers: most Jews are of unmixed heritage, Israeli Jewish populations vote along ethnic lines, and spatial segregation endures.  As Sammy Smooha writes, “Most Mizrahim share a collective memory of being subject to large-scale ethnic discrimination, cultural repression, and ill treatment during the 1950s.  These are some of the indicators demonstrating that the dormant ethnic problem may still breed resentment and strife.”

Finally, those at the top ranks of the military, as well as those with investments in construction or who benefit from cheap Palestinian labor, are directly invested in the settlement enterprise.  Between the fraction of the elite invested in the settlement project and widespread popular support for it, it’s no wonder that it continues.  The occupation and constant warfare provide a justification for Israeli militarization, and it is off that militarization and the axial role of the military in the Israeli economy that the Israeli elite gorges.  If there’s one thing the Israeli elite do not want, it’s an intra-elite feud.  Most of the Israeli elite may receive little direct economic benefit from the settlement project, but it is cheaper to maintain the occupation than to end it — at least for the time being.

The occupation also finds its place in the ideological struggle over what Israeli society is, a struggle that involves battles over what it was and over what it will be.  The Israeli right wing routinely points out that the same logic that impels an end to the occupation could as well be applied to the entire process of Israeli state formation — that if the takeover of Lydda, Acre, and Ashdod was justified in 1948, then the occupation of Judea and Samarra in 1967 was likewise justified.  There is truth to their argument: if Israeli colonization was condonable in 1948, why is it suddenly condemnable in 1967?

The question’s answer touches on a deeper truth: the role that the belief in the rightness of Israeli actions plays within Israeli society.  Amidst the odd jumble of social blocs — ultra-orthodox Haredi, Central and Eastern European Jewish, immigrants from ultra-religious neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Ethiopian, Iraqi, Kurdish, and Algerian Jews, the recent Russian immigrants, 15 to 20, perhaps 50 percent of whom are not even Jewish — Zionism is the integument holding together a fissiparous society in which over 25 percent of the population was not even born in Israel.

A society united by nationalism is one that is unlikely to notice the division that matters most: the constantly widening one between the rich and the poor.  Settlement withdrawal could become a solvent to the nationalist binding of Israeli society, and it is for that reason that the elite stalls constantly on the issue of a final settlement, preferring the stasis of a peace process that is long on process and short on peace to a rending withdrawal of 250,000 — or 500,000 — settlers, a withdrawal which might tear Israeli society apart on economic and ethnic fault lines.  Few within Israel are prepared to contemplate the costs of that withdrawal when the status quo costs them so little.

But those costs are changing constantly, as the Israeli economy and its interweaving with the global economic system alters.  Through the mid-1980s, Israeli elites adroitly combined occupation, militarism, and irredentism into a smooth social consensus.  By the end of that period, with military spending running at 30 percent or more of Israeli GDP, and, after a bout of hyper-inflation that helped cartelize the Israeli economy into huge business groups, the government put in place the scaffolding for a new phase of development: the July 1985 economic stabilization plan.  It scuppered the social contract, ending government subsidies, devaluing the currency, restricting wage growth, and opening the economy to foreign capital, which moved in and voraciously bought up Israeli assets — Israeli “globalization.”

Along with “globalization” came a need for a new way to deal with the Palestinians: the Oslo process, as the Israeli elite attempted the impossible task of squaring the circle of managing the occupation at a low simmer and normalizing Israeli relations with the region, attempting to turn Israeli into a high-tech regional entrepôt, while maintaining Israeli nationalist fervor and cohesion, all the while not cutting too sharply into the military that is the breeding ground for the country’s elite.  With fractures and fissures running along and through Israeli society, the Oslo process ended with the arrival of the second Bush II, putting paid to American quavering about the occupation, as Israeli militarism and Zionism again were smoothly in sync with the imperial policies of its patron.

Yet after eight years of tremendous looting, the Obama administration and its renewed commitment to the “peace process” again foregrounded the tensions inherent in Israeli accumulation: the strains stemming from a large fragment of the elite’s links with global capital, the need to keep the occupation at a low simmer, and the burgeoning militarism and reactionary fanaticism pushed along by militarism, creating, as Gabriel Ash writes, “a powerful demand not as much for peace as for the absence of war,” an unstable alloy, with its precise composition capable of being adjusted depending on the prices to the elite of the various inputs.

It is that cost-benefit matrix that the #J14 protests can indirectly affect.  They can do so by highlighting the fact that the occupation and, more importantly, the militarism which produced it and which it reproduces, both relies on and reproduces ethnic cleavages so as to divert popular attention from the deepest fissure of all: that between the haves and the have-nots.  And it is along precisely that fissure that the #J14 protests are taking place.

So on the one hand, despite the idiosyncratic Israeli insistence that the protests are “social,” not “political,” these protests are clearly open political confrontation.  Gathering, talking, joking, making street-theater, facing down the police, the protesters are in the midst of an open battle between poor- and middle-class Israelis and the state-elite nexus, which is amazing not merely because it is bridging the historical rift between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi — one of a series of intra-Israeli social cleavages that the elite uses to maintain power — but also in that demonstrators are not merely emulating the Egyptian protesters, but articulating that thinking on mainstream media, publicly and unabashedly echoing the Arab example and claiming that the Arab Spring has blossomed into an Israeli summer.  As one middle-class Israeli suggested, “We have to do what they did in Egypt.  Yalla, tahrir, jihad.”  To exalt the Egyptian example shatters Israeli social taboos, and that is one of the more striking and under-noticed aspects of the protests.  In Gaza City a friend once asked me if the Israelis considered themselves tourists in the region or were here to stay.  In a painfully partial manner, these tent protests are, perhaps, beginning to glint with the glimmer of an answer to that question.

But one must squint hard to see that glimmer.  Without a call for ending the occupation, the demonstrations cannot encompass the most structurally disadvantaged stratum within Israeli society — the ’48 Palestinians.  Nor can they attract the passive support of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories or in the Diaspora.  Without such a call, there is something odd and unreal about the social justice protests, like a photograph in which all the red tone has leached out, leaving it cold and lifeless.

Meanwhile, from the Palestinians, under a decades-long occupation, the intricacies of internal Israeli social discontent and the nuances of Israeli social mobilization have understandably elicited sneers and jeers.  The cost of bread to a Jewish family in Ashkelon is a real problem, but, in the hierarchy of suffering, it cannot rank next to the experience of oppression of a family in a Gaza City refugee camp that lived in Ashkelon when it was called Majdal, was cleansed from there in 1948, and whose bakery was destroyed during the 2008-2009 attack which most of the Israelis now complaining about high bread prices openly supported.

Looked at from the outside, the lacuna when it comes to the Palestinians is a sociologically jarring absence, like poor American antebellum field hands clamoring for the minimum wage without blinking an eye at the dark men in chains working in the fields next to the ones in which they are toiling.  But that a racist society produces a racist protest movement is almost unavoidable.  Resistance movements must start with the human material which they possess, not with the human material they wished they possessed.  As historian Staughton Lynd asks, “Who were the workers who made the Russian Revolution?  Sexists, nationalists, half of them illiterate.  Who were the workers in Polish Solidarity?  Anti-Semitic, whatever.  That kind of struggle begins to transform people,” a transformation one sees in embryonic form in the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi solidarity within the protests themselves.  Furthermore, people articulate their resistance to oppression — at first — in the terms in which that oppression appears to them.  To the average Israeli, the ones at these protests, the occupation is not tied into their experience of oppression.  Indeed, that occupation is part of stoking the Zionist sentiment and soldering the intra-Jewish communal bonds such that Israel’s Jewish citizens either do not notice intra-communal oppression or do not act upon it.

But there is no force growing a radical consciousness, and there is no reason to believe that the conditions are ripe for such a consciousness’s development in the first place.  Thus far the leadership has been inchoate, but the Tel Aviv Students’ Union has taken on a central role, active in quashing talk of the occupation, and chary about raising the core triad of injustices at the heart and inception of Israeli society: the occupation, the denial of equal rights to Israel’s Palestinian minority, and the refugee issue.  For that reason Palestinians have broadly responded to the protests with reinvigorated calls for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.

Yet the past week has seen some meager developments with respect to Palestinian grievances.  A tent baptized “1948” was set up on Rothschild Boulevard, in which Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish activists have been housed, discussing Palestinian rights and Palestinian issues.  Among the protesters’ demands are two injustices central to the 1948 Palestinians: recognition of the unrecognized villages of the Bedouin in the Sinai, and expansion of the municipal borders of Palestinian villages and towns so as to allow for their natural development.

But such calls are just sparks in the broader “non-political” landscape of Israeli protest.

The feeling seems to be that to introduce the occupation would be to “politicize” the protests, which would lead to their fracturing, because the government would be able to dismiss them as so much leftist seditious rabblerousing.  And the whole country would line up behind the government because the whole country despises the left.

Even if the tent protest organizers are willing to hazard a gambit on total change –something they are unlikely to do, indeed, despite their current mobilization, something they have been raised to oppose — that call will have unpredictable effects on the Israeli lower class, which benefits from the occupation, both materially and in the realm of symbolic capital, measured in the degree of racism and hatred towards the Palestinians, which is their main arena of competition for social prestige within Israel.  Indeed, it is the tragedy of the Israeli left that it is precisely amongst those lower classes that one finds the strongest support for occupation and anti-Arab racism — it is those social sectors which compose the social base of the rightist Likud and Shas parties.

Some are suggesting that if the protests mount, the defense budget — the core of Israeli militarism and a crucial part of the more bellicose fragment of the elite’s power — will be reduced.  A transfer of state resources from militarism to social infrastructure may not be intended to help Palestinians, but it will help them nonetheless, by weakening the machinery of oppression and occupation that grinds relentlessly into Palestinian society.  According to OECD figures, sixteen percent of Israeli GDP is devoted to military spending, much of which gets funneled to those who own the increasingly privately-owned Israeli military-industrial complex.  The occupation is not, strictly speaking, needed to sustain that military spending.  Yet peace and peace dividends would hardly suit a society that was built on and is sustained by warfare and a constant flow of weapons and military-oriented investment from the United States.

The protests could go in any number of directions: they could peter out as the disaffected lower- and middle-class organizers and participants return home, chastened, bored, and tired.  They could extract some victories from the government in the form of a redirection of spending from warfare to welfare.  The left could also come in from its long winter of isolation and quiescence, rejoining the social consensus in its historical role as an insistent nag, complaining about the occupation yet doing nothing about it.  Or they could draw the connections between Israel’s stratospheric subsidies for high-tech investment, the privatization of the state-owned industrial plant, the gutting of the social compact, the non-stop militarization, the constant wars, the rockets falling on southern and northern Israel from the Palestinians the Israeli military complex profits from persecuting, oppressing, murdering, and immiserating.  Doing so would mean confronting the Israeli lower classes with a clear political choices, and faced with such a choice, they are as likely to opt for xenophobic reaction, to descend into a right-wing riotous rabble, as to move to revolution.

The quandary of the upper class, somewhat ambivalent about the occupation yet wholly committed to neo-liberalism, is more convoluted.  What it will fight at all costs is an end to Israeli economic inequities, because it is off those inequities that it gets fat.  For that reason, any re-orientation of spending from militarism to housing will lay a foundation for further victories.

Perhaps more important than structural victories would be the effect of such victories on the Israeli consciousness, and for that reason the Israeli government will pay any price to divert, disrupt, or diffuse these protests if the pressure they create becomes too great to ignore, because such victories would offer a dangerous lesson to the human beings who make up the gears and pulleys and levers, all the whirring machinery of the apartheid system: that occupation and racism are not just a means of social control over a reeling and shattered Palestinian society, but over the Israeli lower classes themselves.

Yet there is little reason to expect that those in the tents will choose economic justice over the siren song of loyalty to the state and the occupation.  In their ability to ignore that siren song and combine opposition to the occupation with opposition to neo-liberalism will lie the ability of Israel to transform into a part of the region as opposed to a self-conscious irritant, placed there by the Zionists in cahoots with the imperialist powers — first Britain and France, then America — to whom they served up the favorite dish of the metropole: regional chaos.  The state and the elites it serves would plainly prefer more chaos to a loss in their power.  Hence the question is if they founder on the shoals of nationalism or sail around them to arrive at some measure of social justice.

These questions are not theoretical.  In September, Palestinians will mobilize en masse in the West Bank and Gaza against the occupation when the United Nations considers the resolution calling for Palestinian statehood, and the state will call up reservists to repress them — the reservists currently sitting in tents on Rothschild.  And the men sitting in tents in Rothschild will either stay in those tents and demand justice or head to the West Bank with guns in their hands to deny justice to the Palestinians.  Interior Minister Eli Yishai just tendered plans to build 2,700 new apartments in occupied East Jerusalem, a move meant to signal to the Israeli electorate that, as ever, Israel’s social problems can be solved by deepening the occupation, proof that the occupation will arise as a determining cleavage whether the tent organizers like it or not.

And then will come the moment of choice.  As in the mechanized army of Bertolt Brecht’s poem, “General, Your Tank Is a Powerful Vehicle,” the machine of Israeli accumulation cannot operate without human drivers.  In Brecht’s poem, he writes that man is useful.  “He can fly and he can kill.  But he has one defect: He can think.”  Do the “new men” of Israel share this flaw?  Nearly every #j14 protest has ended in the singing of the national anthem and the brandishing of the Israeli flag.  In a country founded on ethnic cleansing and bound by surety in the rightness of the past, the protesters are clearly having trouble bucking the barriers of the national consensus on ignoring the occupation.  Israeli history weighs like an alp upon the minds of the protesters.  Whether they will be able to throw it off is the question that is now before them.

Max Ajl studies development sociology at Cornell and blogs at <>.  An earlier version of this article was published in TruthOut on 13 August 2011.

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