The world is abuzz with the ongoing fallout of the Arab Spring, while the Occupy movement still reverberates in the US. But what endures from Israel’s less-noted summer months of street protest for social justice? I’m going to review what I’ve learned in recent months and project forward.

Protest leader, Daphni Leef

First of all, street protests continue, including a clash in recent days with police over the removal of protest tents; but these activists are in the hundreds rather than the tens and hundreds of thousands who rallied peaceably during the summer. Still, the structure I reported on for In These Times magazine, continues to operate, with the movement attempting “to carry itself beyond the streets”:

…. Alongside “general assembly” meetings in parks, neighborhood committees have been formed around the country, as well as advisory committees comprised of prominent personalities from Israel’s diverse ethnic and religious communities.

By any estimation, Israel’s summer of protest was an impressive display of progressive social activism, rallying nearly half a million protesters (out of Israel’s seven million population) into the streets at its high-water mark on September 3rd. More than one hundred tent encampments for social justice dotted the entire country. It united Arabs in Jaffa (at least rhetorically) with traditional working class Likud and Shas supporters in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikva. (See this YouTube video of the great liberal Orthodox activist, Leah Shakdiel, speaking on this unifying theme at the Yerucham protest.)

The following is from a Dec. 25 news article in the Jerusalem Post:

Leaders of the summer’s “J14″ [July 14] protest movement for social justice announced Sunday what they called the formation of a political movement based on the protests that swept the country over the summer.

Daphni Leef, the 26-year-old Tel Avivian who started the nationwide tent city protests against housing costs this July with a post on Facebook, said the movement “will forge an extra-parliamentary means to protest the cost of living, fight for Israeli democratic and cultural values and serve all branches of the protest that started this past summer.”

One likely result of the movement is that it has helped catapult the Labor Party over Kadima as the number one opposition voice within the Knesset. In the national election to occur within the next year or so, Labor’s new female leader, Shelly Yachimovich, will probably displace Kadima’s Tzipi Livni as leader of the opposition. Yachimovich emphasizes a traditional Labor-Zionist social democratic agenda, whereas Livni remains an economic conservative.

But the conflict with the Palestinians and the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem remain a gaping wound that the social protest movement does not address. Progressives who embrace the movement hope that average Israelis will eventually connect the dots and come to agree that funding West Bank settlements has been at their expense; but so far, the movement as a whole has tried to soft-pedal this central political issue as too divisive.

Labor Party head, Shelly Yachimovich

This is but one of a number of contradictions confronting Israeli society. For one thing, Israel’s economy is stronger than that of most other countries. Since its banks are not especially tied to international banks, it has avoided the mortgage crisis that has rocked most of the West, and its level of unemployment is not high. Still, as reported in a front-page article in the New York Times in August, Israel has undergone a consolidation of wealth and economic power in a handful of family-owned conglomerates. This is ascribed to the fire sale of state-owned assets to politically-connected “cronies” in the 1980s and ’90s, as occurred later in Russia and other socialistic economies that were privatized.

The housing crisis that sparked Daphni Leef’s initial tent protest was caused by a rush of apartment purchases in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by Jews from abroad who still live most of the year in France, the US or elsewhere in the West. This problem could be remedied by restricting foreign investment in the housing market within central Israel. Yet this would do little or nothing for the very different housing issue that confronts Israeli Arabs.

Arab citizens of Israel mostly face a land problem: their towns and cities are unable to expand to meet their housing needs. While numerous new towns and cities have been built with Jewish Israelis in mind, hardly any such development has occurred for Palestinian Israelis.

Recent opinion polls consistently show a majority of Israelis optimistic about their lives and satisfied with the direction of the country, despite their massive support for last summer’s social protests. Ron Skolnik, executive director of Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA) , in his latest column for Jewish Currents magazine, tries to explain these puzzling findings:

…. Writing over the summer in support of the nascent protest movement, [Yediot & Ynet] columnist Yehuda Nuriel suggested that it was as much about reviving Israel’s familial sense of national solidarity as it was about the principles of social democracy. “[H]ere is the Zionism we almost lost,” Nuriel gushed, explaining that the protest encampments had allowed “Israelis from all walks of life [to] meet . . . each other, like relatives who had never met.”

Interesting! The idea that the masses of Israelis who had supported the social-justice protests had been less motivated by a sense of fairness and equality than by a more tribal need to reconnect with “kinfolk” in a spirit of self-defense rang a bell for me. During the days of the yishuv, Zionists had endured the difficult struggle for statehood by invoking such principles as arvut hadadit (mutual responsibility), derived from the old Talmudic injunction, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh,” “All Jews are responsible for each other.” Throughout the decades, Jewish Israelis have prided themselves on their ability to overcome their differences and come together as a nation….

This doesn’t mean that Jewish Israelis will never attempt to resolve the problems of their Arab fellow citizens, but it’s going to take a lot of effort to broaden this old Zionist tradition of Jewish solidarity to include them as well. And this would mean reversing the anti-Arab reactions of the last few years, fueled by Jewish frustrations at Arab attacks from beyond Israel’s pre-’67 borders, despite several withdrawals since the 1990s from parts of the West Bank, all of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and two failed attempts at negotiating a final peace.

As CUNY professor Dov Waxman pointed out at a Manhattan JCC panel discussion in October, Israeli “fatigue and fatalism” on the peace issue drove their focus inward into a personal and depoliticized direction. The protests have reignited political and society-minded passions, but not necessarily in a coherent way. In the end, Waxman concluded, the usual over-arching political concerns of the Arab-Israeli conflict and security may still trump social justice. One must hope that these are somehow finessed to allow the pursuit of social justice to facilitate the quest for peace (or vice versa); but this is not going to be easy. And so far, the social justice movement may help Labor re-emerge as Israel’s #2 party but does not appear to be displacing Likud as #1, nor replacing it with a more peace-oriented coalition.

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