States, says Aristotle, come into existence for the sake of the bare necessities of life, but continue to exist for the sake of the good life. Of course in Aristotle’s days, long before the age of consumerism, the good life was not reducible to purchasing power and a high standard of living. The good life was rather the life worth living — a life governed by a conception of what it means to be human and how one might ultimately live up to it. This is not to deny that the ability to pursue the good life depends on some freedom from preoccupation with the bare necessities of living.
Now Israeli society is unique in that it has turned its physical existence into a conception of the good life. To live the good life, according to the dominant Israeli ideology, is to be sufficiently secure from physical threats, which is why each and every aspect of life in Israel is carried out under the tutelage of the notion of security. We have a powerful “security system” which makes sure that our “security forces,” led by our “minister of security,” will fend off any “security threat” until we are, well, sufficiently secure (all terms in quotation marks are literal translations of Hebrew phrases central to Israeli political culture). What this security is for, what higher end it serves, is a question seldom asked and never answered.
It is precisely this willingness to settle for “security” that made this summer’s paroxysm of defiance so perplexing. For the region had been swirling out of control, the Palestinians were heading to the Security Council, relations with Turkey were plummeting, and, to the best of our knowledge, the Iranians were still busily enriching their uranium. If anything, we should have cowered ever more intently under the protective wings of the security apparatus. The summer was upon us, September was approaching, and the government, failing to hide a tinge of satisfied anticipation, began to prepare us for a third Intifada.
But then the traditional summer torpor gave way to an unprecedented explosion of social unrest, culminating in the largest mass-rally in the country’s history. Out in the streets, Israelis soon honed in on an emblematic chant that seemed to unite the different fragments of Israeli society: “The people demand social justice!” In both rhythm and content, the chant was based on the battle cry of the young Tunisians and Egyptians who ushered in the Arab Spring: “The people want to topple the government!” What was particularly interesting is that it was pretty clear that “the people” in question was not “the Jewish People” — a metaphysical, trans-historical entity that Israeli governments increasingly regard as their constituency. No, the masses in the streets formed an earthly and historical body politic. They were Israelis. One is almost tempted to say that a nation was born this summer in the sexagenarian state of Israel.
Journalists framed the protests from the outset as “the housing protest,” “the cost of living protest,” “the real estate protest,” or “the middle-class protest.” This gave many pundits and politicians the opportunity to rebuke the protesters, portraying them as overindulged kids with “rich people’s problems.” Avigdor Liebernman, Israel’s belligerent foreign minister relished in his snide observation that all the restaurants in Tel Aviv are packed; and a mayor from Netanyahu’s Likud party advised the prime minister to ignore the protests since “everyone at the Rothschild tent-city is eating sushi and smoking hookah. There’s not one available cart at the airport.” Israel might be the only place where people’s obsession with getting away is considered a sign of the health of society.
These disparaging comments reflected a deep misunderstanding of the actual motivations of the protesters. For even in its early stages, when the protests still focused largely on rising rents and excessive prices, few people claimed that they were too poor to afford groceries. Israel is not lacking in indigents, but they weren’t the ones voicing their outrage. When Israelis launched their first effective consumer boycott a month before the eruption of the social protest, they did not claim that the three shekels added to the price of cottage cheese since the removal of governmental price control in 2008 were beyond their means. They simply expressed their understanding that the price hike was not a result of objective economic conditions, but rather of the greed of the new owners of Israel’s recently privatized largest dairy manufacturer and the casting off of all responsibility by the state. They renounced their role as engine fodder for the yachts and jets of Israel’s small circle of debauchedly rich. They were crying out, in short, because they understood that they were being walked all over, swindled, ripped off. Those who failed to realize that the so-called “cottage protest” was about justice rather than prices were surely taken by surprise when the larger waves hit the shore a couple of weeks later.
Some in Israel’s economic establishment were actually thrilled by the events. The Haaretz daily newspaper’s business supplement quickly tried to co-opt the protests for the sake of its campaign against market failures, specifically the problems of economic concentration and lack of competition. But the protests were not about market failures. They were about the failure of the market to provide us with the opportunity to develop and live up to a conception of the good life. And this economic failure is just an instance of a much larger one, the failure of the Israeli political imagination, our institutions and our society to produce a positive ethos, a conception of the common good that goes beyond merely living.
Anyone who followed events unfolding this past summer through the eyes of the press must think that I’m getting this all wrong. After all, Israel’s avenues were lined with tent dwellers demanding cheaper housing, and its streets were filled with demonstrators clamoring for the reinstatement of dwindling social services. It was about living well, not about a better way of living. True, these were central causes of discontent. But here is Daphni Leef, the protests’ unofficial leader, in a recent interview: “I pitched a tent because I got sick of the system, not because of housing issues…. The ability to create, to dream was taken away from me. I was personally deprived of my intellectual freedom; my creativity was blocked.”
What has the cost of living to do with intellectual freedom and creativity? Perhaps it is the growing awareness of the fact that the systematically oppressive cost of living is indicative of a social and political configuration which continuously reduces us to merely living. Surely it is the humiliation of having to succumb to your landlord’s capricious rent increases despite the fact the vast majority of citizens support rent control and public housing — and the near certain knowledge that their support would never translate into policy. And perhaps it has something to do with the fact that just three days before Leef pitched her tent in Rothschild Avenue the Knesset passed a law effectively prohibiting Israeli citizens from endorsing political boycotts against Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. These lead to a feeling of airlessness, of helplessness, that easily taps into the deep-seated disquietude of the Israeli bourgeoisie.
Leef, whose first performances as spokeswomen for the social groundswell were confused and inarticulate, quickly turned into a persuasive voice — less for the concrete demands of the masses that joined her as for the underlying anxieties, hopes, and concerns that led them to take to the street. She was astute enough to rob the settlers and their backers of their biggest asset: the audacity to speak for the people. She understood that the tent-cities and mass-rallies were about much more than the quality of life, that they were, in fact, about the meaning of life — not, God forbid, the fuzzy philosophical question of why are we here, but the painfully concrete question of why are we here in Israel. And whether simply being here is what it’s all about.
Indeed, when Leef found her voice at the record-breaking rally of September 3 she had much more to speak about than rents and prices. She said her generation grew up on the ethos of competitiveness, of every man for himself; that we were deprived, in short, of a sense of the common good of the society. She was brave enough not to shy away from exposing the roots of this social malaise in our most sacred icon: “It is time for the term ‘security situation’ to stop being a value and go back to being what it truly is — a situation. And one that needs to be changed at that.” She accused the government of employing divide-and-conquer tactics, of abandoning the old and sick, of marginalizing its own citizens. But the truly poignant part came when Leef reflected on her life, and ours:
I’m 25 years old. My biggest memories from growing up in Israel are the second Lebanon war, the terror attacks, friends who got killed, the Rabin assassination, Gilad Shalit. Not to mention the fact that I am a third generation to holocaust survivors. That has been my consciousness, moments and memories filled with death, bereavement, pain, fear, and a sense that everything is temporary. [The social protest] created a discourse of life. This is the most important awakening we’ve had. We’re not here just to survive, we’re here to live. We’re not here just because we have no place to go. We choose to be here, we choose to be in a good place, in a just society. We want to live in a society, as a society, not as a collection of individuals who sit in front of one box – the TV – and every four years vote in another, the ballot-box.
Having felt caged, Leef continued, she all of a sudden understood that she was being caged:
They want to keep us at a certain level of distress because distress precludes hope, and without hope there’s no chance for change, and where there is no chance for change there’s nothing to live for. But this summer, day in day out, we took to the streets and made clear not only to the government, but also to ourselves, that we have something to live for. And as soon as we understood that, as soon as we began thinking about tomorrow together, we were all liberated.
This sense of liberation comes from realizing that the overall good of the community consists in more than just existing, that our identities are open-ended, and that we’re entitled to think them through. It comes from understanding that we want to take part in the creation of the society we live in, and that that requires that at least some questions remain open, that not every conclusion is foregone. Above all, it comes from coming to terms with the fact that Israel’s founding is over, that the threats ahead are no longer existential but essential; that the struggle for survival must be replaced with a struggle for the ethos of Israeli society.
Ten days into the protests, I was sitting in my apartment in Jerusalem when I heard a raucous commotion from the street below. I ran down, and as I approached Gaza Street — which, somewhat ironically, begins next to the official residence of the Israeli Prime Minister and passes by Benjamin Netanyahu’s private apartment — I saw a mass of young people marching vigorously down the road. In addition to the already iconic “the people demand social justice,” they were chanting a new slogan: “the answer to privatization: revolution!” (in case anyone still thought this was all about housing prices). They rhythmically thrust their fists skywards each time the explosive word was cried out: Re-vo-lution! Everyone looked cheerful and youthfully free, except for the policemen who were overwhelmed and befuddled as more people poured down from the surrounding buildings and joined the flow. I naturally joined too. We proliferated by the minute, our excitement growing with numbers. The police futilely tried to blockade us and soon gave up. By the time we reached the central intersection at the foot of Gaza Street, we were in the thousands. Those in the lead signaled us to sit down, and, to the chagrin of our uniformed chaperons, the four-way traffic was blocked. People started singing, but the crowd was too energized to remain on the ground. The throng arose and veered to the right. Next stop was the Knesset.
As we approached the Israeli legislature, an electrifying gust went through the crowd. People began marching faster, and when the familiar quadrangular structure was in sight, everyone spontaneously started to run. I’m sure nobody stopped to think about it, but, as a matter of fact, we were storming the Knesset that night. It was, without doubt, a revolutionary moment. But it was evident that this was not going to be the kind of revolution that threatens the fundamentals of the regime. Although they could have easily broken through, the protesters wisely chose to stop the stampede at the gates of their house of representatives. With the moment gone, the demonstration kept on for a while and died out. But this was precisely the spirit that enabled these protests to become the most popular movement in Israel’s history. On the other hand, it impeded them from achieving a transformative impact.
The Israeli social justice protest of the past summer is revolutionary — but it is a revolution of a very odd kind. It is more likely than not that its influence will unfold in the long-term, affecting states of mind rather than political institutions. Ordinary revolutions aim at toppling governments. Toppling the current Israeli government at this stage would be disastrous, since at best the same coalition would be elected again and at worse Lieberman could ascend to power. Why would so many people vote for a politician who vehemently scorns a popular protest supported (according to some polls) by close to 90 percent of the citizenry? Or reelect a prime minister who actively divested them of a sense of solidarity not to mention social services they are entitled to and desperately need? This is the crux of Israeli politics. Reflecting on it, one could even say that the Israeli body politic is not really the sovereign here. In Israeli politics, sovereignty is a term typically associated with territory. When terrorists cross the border from Gaza our “security” pundits bemoan our injured sovereignty. But the fact the political establishment is so clearly and systematically out of touch with the interests and expressed desires of the vast majority of citizens never seems to hurt our sovereign integrity. For in Israel, politics is not about the interests and will of the people; it is about “politics,” which in popular parlance is simply a synonym of the question of Palestine. A question on which there’s such an overwhelming consensus that everyone and everything is constantly consumed by fighting about it.
Daphni Leef and her fellow organizers of the social protests made a smart move in avoiding “politics.” What happened this summer would have been utterly impossible had the fundamental question of Israeli politics been on the table. But that also prevented them from truly revolutionizing Israel. Hannah Arendt said, “Revolutions are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning.” Israelis are not ready to confront the problem of their polity’s beginning, and that’s why an Israeli revolution, almost by definition, is crippled from the start.
It remains to be seen if this was all just a summer fling, or if Israelis are truly ready to live up to the conception of the good life that they began to forge. For that to happen, they must come to terms with the fact that their eventual liberation from servitude to survival depends on a radical shift in their understanding of politics: specifically, that politics is not just about assuring our security and asserting our sovereignty over a beleaguered stretch of land. Politics is rather about how we choose to live in this land, and moreover, who gets to be counted in our “we.” And because Israelis have never made this choice before it is inevitably a revolutionary one. For the struggle for the soul of Israeli society will not be settled without foundational transformations, going all the way back to the beginning. And when that revolution finally comes, the perennial question of Israeli “politics”, the question of our relation to the co-inhabitants of the land, will resolve in and of itself.