The Meaning of the Israeli Uprising: a Variety of Israeli Perspectives
Sushi, social justice and self-respect
This uprising is about social justice. And yes, it is driven by the middle class. And it’s time to say something about the middle class’s right to a decent life without being apologetic.
By Carlo Strenger
The current government of Israel has tried a number of times to delegitimize the social uprising. First by dismissing it as a conspiracy of the “radical left” to topple the government; then by saying that the protesters are a bunch of sushi-eaters with nargilas (Arab water pipes); and then Avigdor Lieberman noted that since he couldn’t find a seat in a Tel Aviv restaurant, the situation couldn’t be that bad.
This uprising is about social justice. And yes, it is driven by the middle class. And it’s time to say something about the middle class’s right to a decent life without being apologetic.
In June, when the second semester came to an end, I invited the class that was finishing its MA in clinical psychology at Tel Aviv University to talk about how they felt. I have done this for fifteen years; for fourteen years the students spoke about what they had found satisfying about the program, and what they felt was missing.
This year, I was in for a surprise. As yet, the uprising had not begun, and nobody (including Daphni Leef) knew that there would be such a thing. But my students spoke about their humiliation. After having worked around the clock to enter one of the most competitive programs in higher education; after having studied about the human soul and how to alleviate psychological suffering, the outlook for their future was bleak.
After finishing their MA, in order to qualify as clinical psychologists, they have to do a four-year internship, at least 30 hours a week, for which they receive less than NIS 2,000 a month. This means that all of them will have to take additional jobs, often late into the night, to make ends meet. To make things worse: many of them will have to wait for up to three years to find a slot for the internship. “I finished my studies to continue working as a waiter”, one of them said.
On Rothschild Boulevard there is a tent of clinical psychology interns. Nobody cares about them, of course. After all, nobody listened to the medical interns, who work inhuman hours for ridiculous pay for more than four months. So why listen to psychologists, who have even less power than doctors?
Social justice isn’t only about alleviating poverty. It is about a very simple idea: people should be able to make a decent living if they invest in their education, take a lot of responsibility and work hard.
The middle class is the backbone of every developed society. These are the people who drive and maintain the economy. In Israel they pay outrageously high taxes. And they receive close to nothing in return.
Bibi Netanyahu has been selling the story that Israel’s economy is doing fine and that we have very little unemployment. That’s so tendentious that it borders on lying. As the newest report of the Taub Center for Public Policy, chaired by economist Prof Dan Ben-David shows, only 57 percent of Israel’s potential workforce even seek work. The middle class is carrying on its back whole sectors that live off child-support and mostly don’t work.
Israel’s politicians have been paying off sectors like the Haredim and the settlers who for decades have used their political power to extort phenomenal amounts of money as payment for participating in government coalitions. And Israel’s middle classes hemorrhaged money to pay for Haredi education systems that made sure the children could not become productive members of society, but would raise another generation doomed to poverty and dependence.
Israel’s citizens demand social justice. The leaders of this uprising are middle class – and they have the decency to ask for social justice for the weaker strata of society, not just for themselves. Social justice is, of course about preventing abject poverty, and giving every child a chance for a decent life.
But social justice is also about hardworking people being remunerated decently for their work. The middle class has a right not to have their money taken away and to receive nothing in return. It is time no longer to be intimidated by cynical politicians who accuse the protesters of being spoilt members of the middle class. It is time to insist that those who work hard can expect a decent life; not as a favor; but as a basic human right.
And you know what? The middle classes should be able to eat sushi without having to apologize to Likud ministers or to Avigdor Lieberman.
The Global Uprising Intensifying
by Mazin Qumsiyeh
Watching the tragic unfolding events around the world from starvation in
Somalia to rioting in London, we are not feeling vindicated but merely sad
and angry. For a long time many of us said that the increasing chasm
between the rich and the poor (the haves and the have-nots) has grown to
obscene levels. The Soviet Union had in many ways replaced the chasm
between workers and owners of capital to a chasm between elites of the
communist system and millions of impoverished people. But the cold war had
kept the rains externally on unrestrained privatization and capitalism in
the third world. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, a vacuum was created and
the greedy capitalists moved in. In the privatization mania in the 1990s,
wealth of nations was replaced with debts of nations. With the help of the
IMF and the world bank (some with key connections to Israel), third world
countries were saddled with debts that were in some cases many times the
size of the GDP of those countries. But the capitalist mania effected
countries large and small. In Russia, the phenomenon stripped Russia of its
natural wealth to put billions in the hands of oligarchs, most of them ended
up in Israel as Russia tried to reclaim some of its plundered wealth. In
Greece, the debt and government expenditures could not be sustained by the
tourism industry (itself shrinking world-wide as the middle class shrinks).
Spain, Portugal, and Italy also have problems.
In the Arab world, the Arab spring turned into a bloody summer. Dictators
thought that if they were more brutal they could survive longer than the
dictators of Egypt and Tunisia. But people also have no clear alternatives
and some of these revolutions need to take time to hold meetings and plan
for the day after (the post regime collapse). Prime Minister of Israel
Benjamin Netanyahu (family is from the US) had pushed for privatization in
his first term in office in 1996 and 1997 and continued now with his extreme
right-wing coalition. The more moderate and reasonable Israelis saw the
damage this was inflicting and now, a small uprising ensued (300,000 out on
the streets). Protesters just gave their demands which include social and
economic equality. The Israeli stock market plunged in line with the
plunging stock markets around the world. There is a price to be paid for
spending billions on apartheid walls while 25% of your population lives
below the poverty line. There is a price to be paid when the US wages a
$3 trillion war on Iraq (to control oil and to help Zionism) and other
costly wars on Afghanistan, costly help to Israel, and more. The US racks
in debt and lives beyond its means (as China rightly points out). The value
of the US dollar plunges and gold which is now $1754/ounce will keep going
up. Around the world, prices of commodities and basics (food, housing etc)
goes up while incomes do not even grow as fast as inflation. Worse is yet
to come as countries grapple with the widening social and economic gaps
brought about by misplaced priorities that allocate trillions to the
military and leaves crumbs for food, education, and healthcare.
As the world spirals seemingly out of control, millions of Palestinians are
remarkably quiet and philosophical about these things. We Palestinians used
to lead social transformation and provide models for transformation and
challenging oppressive regimes. The PLO leadership used to help mediate
conflicts around the world but under the new unelected leadership, they
cannot even solve the conflicts between Fatah and Hamas (a prerequisite for
moving forward). It seems that after decades of challenging the system, the
older generation of Palestinians got tired and weary. But a new generation
inevitably arises. This happened repeatedly with each uprising; so far 15 or
more uprisings, waves that are 7-15 years apart. But still, many people
rightly see peace here as critical to peace around the world. This is not
only because it is so obscenely wrong to keep denying 11 million people
their basic human rights. It is also because billions around the world
believe in Christianity and Islam and they will not continue to allow few
Zionists in power centers to foment conflict and war to avoid facing
We are in the middle of a transition in global power, a global intifada that
I spoke of in my messages and articles last year. The old centers of global
power (in Russia, Europe, North America and by extension Eurocentric
Ashkenazi Israel) will lose power and new emerging powers will take place.
It is a shift from the Northern to the southern hemisphere. All global
transitions in power in the past 4000 years involved tremendous dislocation
and pain and upheaval. Population trends (aging among Euro-Caucasian
populations around the world, growing in other countries) and the global
environmental impending Nakba will accelerate the trend. As activists who
care about fellow human beings and about earth must help move things in the
right direction by minimizing the pain of transition while not standing in
For those who are religious, they can take scriptures that deal with that
and disregard the fanatical scriptures of their religions. From the Torah,
they can take “What does god require of us: to do justice, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with God” and discard the tribalistic notions where God
gives license to murder the other. From the New Testament take the sermon on
the mount and things like “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be
called Children of God” and ignore the notions of unique salvation only
through certain beliefs. From the Quran, take the statements about no
compulsion in religion and disregard the notions of religious superiority.
For those who are not religious, a reading of history and social
transformations can show indeed the natural transformation of societies and
give equally valuable lessons. We can emphasize how we achieved good things
such as ending slavery and ending many wars and gaining civil and women
The choices we make must be rooted in morality, justice, and caring for one
another especially the most vulnerable sectors of our society. We do have an
untapped reservoir of ingenuity, resources, and beauty to more than make-up
for the ugliness around. Humanity that creates great science, great art,
great music, and great social movements surely can cope. We just have to
believe in each other and more importantly act on our beliefs.
Action item: 81 US congressmen are visiting “Israel” to pander to the
lobby. Ask your congressman to come visit us in the ghettos and the refugee
The Global Uprising Intensifying: “How Goodly are thy Tents”
By Mazin Qumsiyeh
August 6, 2011
First of all, a warning.
Tent cities are springing up all over Israel. A social protest movement is gathering momentum. At some point in the near future, it may endanger the right-wing government.
At that point, there will be a temptation – perhaps an irresistible temptation – to “warm up the borders”. To start a nice little war. Call on the youth of Israel, the same young people now manning (and womanning) the tents, to go and defend the fatherland.
Nothing easier than that. A small provocation, a platoon crossing the border “to prevent the launching of a rocket”, a fire fight, a salvo of rockets – and lo and behold, a war. End of protest.
In September, just a few weeks from now, the Palestinians intend to apply to the UN for the recognition of the State of Palestine. Our politicians and generals are chanting in unison that this will cause a crisis – Palestinians in the occupied territories may rise in protest against the occupation, violent demonstrations may ensue, the army will be compelled to shoot – and lo and behold, a war. End of protest.
Three weeks ago I was interviewed one morning by a Dutch journalist. At the end, she asked: “You are describing an awful situation. The extreme right-wing controls the Knesset and is enacting abominable anti-democratic laws. The people are indifferent and apathetic. There is no opposition to speak of. And yet you exude a spirit of optimism. How come?”
I answered that I have faith in the people of Israel. Contrary to appearances, we are a sane people. Some time, somewhere, a new movement will arise and change the situation. It may happen in a week, in a month, in a year. But it will come.
On that very same day, just a few hours later, a young woman called Daphne Liff, with an improbable man’s hat perched on her flowing hair, said to herself: “Enough!”
She had been evicted by her landlady because she couldn’t afford the rent. She set up a tent in Rothschild Boulevard, a long, tree-lined thoroughfare in the center of Tel Aviv. The news spread through facebook, and within an hour, dozens of tents had sprung up. Within a week, there were some 400 tents, spread out in a double line more than a mile long.
Similar tent-cities sprang up in Jerusalem, Haifa and a dozen smaller towns. The next Saturday, tens of thousands joined protest marches in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Last Saturday, they numbered more than 150,000.
This”] has now become the center of Israeli life. The Rothschild tent city has assumed a life of its own –a cross between Tahrir Square and Woodstock, with a touch of Hyde Park corner thrown in for good measure. The mood is indescribably upbeat, masses of people come to visit and return home full of enthusiasm and hope. Everybody can feel that something momentous is happening.
Seeing the tents, I was reminded of the words of Balaam, who was sent by the king of Moab to curse the children of Israel in the desert (Numbers 24) and instead exclaimed: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, Oh Israel!”
It all started in a remote little town in Tunisia, when an unlicensed market vendor was arrested by a policewoman. It seems that in the ensuing altercation, the woman struck the man in the face, a terrible humiliation for a Tunisian man. He set himself on fire. What followed is history: the revolution in Tunisia, regime change in Egypt, uprisings all over the Middle East.
The Israeli government saw all this with growing concern – but they didn’t imagine that there might be an effect in Israel itself. Israeli society, with its ingrained contempt for Arabs, could hardly be expected to follow suit.
But follow suit it did. People in the street spoke with growing admiration of the Arab revolt. It showed that people acting together could dare to confront leaders far more fearsome than our bumbling Binyamin Netanyahu.
Some of the most popular posters on the tents were “Rothschild corner Tahrir” and, in a Hebrew rhyme, “Tahrir – Not only in Cahir” – Cahir being the Hebrew version of al-Cahira, the Arabic name for Cairo. And also: “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu”.
In Tahrir Square, the central slogan was “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime”. In conscious emulation, the central slogan of the tent cities is “The People Want Social Justice”.
Who are these people? What exactly do they want?
It started with a demand for “Affordable Housing”. Rents in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere are extremely high, after years of Government neglect. But the protest soon engulfed other subjects: the high price of foodstuffs and gasoline, the low wages . The ridiculously low salaries of physicians and teachers, the deterioration of the education and health services. There is a general feeling that 18 tycoons control everything, including the politicians. (Politicians who dared to show up in the tent cities were chased away.) They could have quoted an American saying: “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”
A selection of the slogans gives an impression:
We want a welfare state!
Fighting for the home!
Justice, not charity!
If the government is against the people, the people are against the government!
Bibi, this is not the US Congress, you will not buy us with empty words!
If you don’t join our war, we shall not fight your wars!
Give us our state back!
Three partners with three salaries cannot pay for three rooms!
The answer to privatization: revolution!
We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, we are slaves to Bibi in Israel!
I have no other homeland!
Bibi, go home, we’ll pay for the gas!
Overthrow swinish capitalism!
Be practical, demand the impossible!
WHAT IS missing in this array of slogans? Of course: the occupation, the settlements, the huge expenditure on the military.
This is by design. The organizers, anonymous young men and women – mainly women – are very determined not to be branded as “leftists”. They know that bringing up the occupation would provide Netanyahu with an easy weapon, split the tent-dwellers and derail the protests.
We in the peace movement know and respect this. All of us are exercising strenuous self-restraint, so that Netanyahu will not succeed in marginalizing the movement and depicting it as a plot to overthrow the right-wing government.
As I wrote in an article in Haaretz: No need to push the protesters. In due course, they will reach the conclusion that the money for the major reforms they demand can only come from stopping the settlements and cutting the huge military budget by hundreds of billions – and that is possible only in peace. (To help them along, we published a large ad, saying: “It’s quite simple – money for the settlements OR money for housing, health services and education”).
Voltaire said that “the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give it to the other”. This government takes the money of decent citizens to give it to the settlers.
WHO ARE they, these enthusiastic demonstrators, who seemingly have come from nowhere?
They are the young generation of the middle class, who go out to work, take home average salaries and “cannot finish the month”, as the Israeli expression goes. Mothers who cannot go to work because they have nowhere to leave their babies. University students who cannot get a room in the dormitories or afford accomodation in the city. And especially young people who want to marry but cannot afford to buy an apartment, even with the help of their parents. (One tent bore the sign: “Even this tent was bought by our parents”)
All this in a floshing economy, which has been spared the pains of the world-wide economic crisis and boasts an enviable unemployment rate of just 5%.
If pressed, most of the protesters would declare themselves to be “social-democrats”. They are the very opposite of the Tea Party in the US: they want a welfare state, they blame privatization for many of their ills, they want the government to interfere and to act. Whether they want to admit it or not, the very essence of their demands and attitudes is classically leftist (the term created in the French Revolution because the adherents of these ideals sat on the left side of the speaker in the National Assembly). They are the essence of what Left means – (though in Israel, the terms “Left” and “Right” have until now been largely identified with questions of war and peace).
WHERE WILL it go from here?
No one can say. When asked about the impact of the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai famously said: “It’s too early to say.” Here we are witnessing an event still in progress, perhaps even still beginning.
It has already produced a huge change. For weeks now, the public and the media have stopped talking about the borders, the Iranian bomb and the security situation. Instead, the talk is now almost completely about the social situation, the minimum wage, the injustice of indirect taxes, the housing construction crisis.
Under pressure, the amorphous leadership of the protest has drawn up a list of concrete demands. Among others: government building of houses for rent, raising taxes on the rich and the corporations, free education from the age of three months [sic], a raise in the salary of physicians, police and fire-fighters, school classes of no more than 21 pupils, breaking the monopolies controlled by a few tycoons, and so on.
So where from here? There are many possibilities, both good and bad.
Netanyahu can try to buy off the protest with some minor concessions – some billions here, some billions there. This will confront the protesters with the choice of the Indian boy in the movie about becoming a millionaire: take the money and quit, or risk all on answering yet another question.
Or: the movement may continue to gather momentum and force major changes, such as shifting the burden from indirect to direct taxation.
Some rabid optimists (like myself) may even dream of the emergence of a new authentic political party to fill the gaping void on the left side of the political spectrum.
I STARTED with a warning, and I must end with another one: this movement has raised immense hopes. If it fails, it may leave behind an atmosphere of despondency and despair – a mood that will drive those who can to seek a better life somewhere else. –by
Now of all times, during the moments that are liable to signal the protest’s gradual end, its leaders must continue to invigorate the language that is taking shape under them.
The protest now faces its most important test. After one of the country’s greatest shows of solidarity ever, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets of their cities to identify with the protest and demand social justice, the organizers of the tent city on Rothschild Boulevard are confronting the bitter enemy of any struggle anywhere: a loss of interest.
The high point of the protest, which came only four days ago, naturally was followed by an anticlimax. The people’s pleasure was a peak that the organizers will find hard to repeat, and the possibility that fewer people will attend the next rally has turned into a horror scenario that should not be put to the test.
Alongside the fear of a failure of numbers, the protest organizers are now confronting a far more destructive decline in excitement: ebbing media interest. In recent weeks it was television, the newspapers and the websites that placed the protest at the top of their agendas and enabled it to grow to unprecedented proportions. Now, after the initial stimulus has waned and the expected catharsis has been achieved, the media are looking for another issue, while the protest is being sidelined.
Now of all times, during the moments that are liable to signal the protest’s gradual end, its leaders must continue to invigorate the language that is taking shape under them. The protest must continue to be cast in this new language, without attributing too much importance to the tactical aspects. Public relations and media considerations are not relevant to an expression of anger and the taking of a stance. To a great extent these are the main characteristics of the old language that the tent city’s chiefs are trying to cast off.
The performance by singer Shlomo Artzi on Saturday night marked the dangerous stage in which the struggle measures itself by appearance rather than substance. Quality is replaced by quantity. The protest organizers must avoid this trap. Even if they bring fewer people to the next rally, and even if the media decide to withdraw completely from the encampment on Rothschild, the organizers should not be discouraged. To change national priorities, one needs to update familiar patterns of protest as well.
One tent, five dilemmas
by Uri Avnery
So far, the movement has conducted itself in an intelligent, mistakes have been minimal, if any, but this is just the beginning, the hard part is still to come.
The young protesters in the tents represent new hope for the state, as well as for the older generation that has despaired of ever seeing a significant struggle to change the public agenda.
But to move the quarter-million-strong demonstration to the next stage, five dilemmas must be dealt with.
First dilemma – leadership. This is a sore point. Movements such as these are allergic to leaders and becoming institutionalized. But without leadership it would be impossible to sum things up and conduct negotiations.
Compromise proposal: a fixed delegation, part of which would be replaced every month – perhaps by raffle, as they did in ancient Athens – to report to the general assembly once every two to three days.
Second dilemma – a lot or a little? In the film “Slumdog Millionaire” about the Indian youth who contends in the television game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” there’s a moment in which the boy wins 10 million rupees and faces the choice – take the money and quit, or risk everything to answer another question and win 20 million.
That is, should the protesters make do with what they can get out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now and stop the protest, or continue to achieve much, much more. I hope they continue.
Third dilemma – the settlers. The struggle has been hindered because the protest cannot point to the source of money to fulfill their justified demands. The statements made so far are not reliable and it is easy for the treasury professionals to contradict the numbers. It is well known the money can come from only three sources – the settlers, the ultra-Orthodox and the bloated defense budget.
The tent people are afraid to say it, for fear of being labeled “leftists.” This is true. But at a certain point they will have to speak explicitly.
Fourth dilemma – an overall view. Until now they have made a list of demands, each one separately, and it looks like a menu in a restaurant. At some point they will have to incorporate all the items into one overall view. They will have to portray to themselves and the rest of the public the image of the state they want – and the picture will have to include important answers to the “political” problems, heaven forbid.
Fifth dilemma – a new force. Clearly pressure from below can achieve something, even a lot, but real change can be achieved only in the political arena. Knesset members cannot be forced to legislate laws against their views; they must simply be replaced.
This is doubly true of Netanyahu, who appears to be willing to change his worldview in an instant. Netanyahu is reminiscent of the comedien Groucho Marx, who said: “These are my principles and if you don’t like them, well, I have others.”
Before the next elections, the tent dwellers will have to decide if they want to take part in them and form a large new force that will change the entire political map. I very much hope they decide they do.
So far, the movement has conducted itself in an intelligent, creative manner. All its major decisions have been correct and the mistakes have been minimal, if any. (In my opinion the demand to conduct the negotiations on camera was correct. )
But this is just the beginning. The hard part is still to come.
When they launched this protest they probably did not imagine it would go as far as it has already gone. But now a historic responsibility, which comes only once every few generations, is placed on their young, inexperienced shoulders. They can change Israel fundamentally – in the words of one of their slogans: “Get our state back!”