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5 August 2011

Tent Cities Are Springing Up All Over Israel


A man sleeps near tents at a camp set up on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard calling for lower property prices in Israel August 2, 2011. Reuters


In this photo taken on Sunday, July 31, 2011, an Israeli man sets up a tent in a protest tent encampment in central Tel Aviv, Israel. Israel's President Shimon Peres has stepped into a burgeoning popular revolt over rising prices and expensive housing, hosting a televised meeting with young leaders of the protest. Peres welcomed the casually dressed demonstrators into his official residence Monday, Aug. 1.


Israelis push baby strollers during a march against the costs of raising children in Israel, in the southern city of Beersheba Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011. What started out as a sprinkling of tents pitched along Tel Aviv's tony Rothschild Boulevard - named for a scion of the fabulously wealthy Jewish banking family - has swollen into the most ferocious popular outcry in decades. Initially targeting soaring housing prices, it quickly morphed into a sweeping expression of rage.


Date: Fri, 5 Aug 2011 09:09:47 -0400 (EDT)
From: Tikkun <magazine[at]>
Subject: Israel's Tent Cities--a Movement Suddenly Emerges. Perspectives

Three perspectives on the amazing growth of tent cities of protest across Israeli society.

Uri Avnery

How Goodly Are Thy Tents

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. 

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 . 

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 flourishing 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. 

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.


Published 01:25 05.08.11
Latest update 01:25 05.08.11

From protest to power

The young demonstrators would do well to remember May 1968 in Europe; a protest that does not find immediate political expression is destined to disintegrate.

By Zeev Sternhell

In these times of hope and anticipation, it is difficult not to wonder what form the protest might have taken, and what results it might already have achieved, if there had been a large and authentic social-democratic party here with a labor union worthy of the name, at its side. Indeed a spontaneous uprising that does not find political expression very soon, and does not threaten those who are in power, will of necessity have very limited achievements.

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands that when there is no opposition with an ideology of structural social change, and which is capable of garnering electoral support for a comprehensive national economic program, the danger facing him and his party is negligible. The truth is that the protesters themselves have already presented him with a way out. His representatives will anoint the protest leaders with pure oil, will set up teams and present ideas, will throw them a few bones and then will move to the area where there is no greater expert than Netanyahu: drawing out time and making promises that no one intends to keep.

The real problem, however, is not the government but rather the political elite. Except for a small number of politicians on the center-left, like Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich (Labor ), most of the political leadership is partner to the blind belief in the unique qualities of a free market. There were indeed people outside the political arena who for decades contended that a free market creates no less poverty and misery than wealth and welfare; there were those who believed that poverty is not some kind of natural phenomenon but rather something created by man. But all of them were considered "populist." There were people who saw in the state a tool for correcting distortions and supplying cheap and good-quality services to the entire population, but they were denounced as wanting to return to the 1950s.

Therefore the young demonstrators would do well to remember May 1968 in Europe. Beyond the obvious differences, there is a common denominator: a protest that does not find immediate political expression is destined to disintegrate.

New forces that were not involved in politics until now could play a key role. They could break the neoliberal consensus and to be the motivating force behind the creation of a broad opposition front that brings together all those who recognize the need to address the chronic ills of Israeli society - and not just deal with the milk cartels.

A front of that kind would have place for all those who shy away from the neoconservative "economy of compassion" which is the basis of the impure alliance between the government, the Histadrut labor federation and the people with big money.

Indeed a protest against the obstructed social horizon of the middle class is not out of touch with numerous other problems. In order to create a society that is more egalitarian and just a change is needed in the political balance of power. The protesters will be able to achieve substantive results only by linking up with all the forces that are opposed to the present government, but not to the settlers who are its pillars of support. It will not be enough to demonstrate and march, especially since the marchers will tire a long time before the politicians and before the Yesha Council of settlements.

Therefore, after their preliminary success, they will have to begin the process of dull political work and building up a force that can compete in the next elections. The tent dwellers may be able to provide part of the leadership and to refresh the lines. The hope that was born in the Rothschild tent city must not be allowed to expire in the argument over VAT accounts. Unless an ideological and moral force arises that can be an alternative to the destructiveness of neo-liberalism, the life expectancy of this welcome protest will be as long as the length of the Israeli summer.


Published 09:49 05.08.11
Latest update 09:49 05.08.11

Memo to the marchers

The answer is that the atmosphere on Planet Netanyahu is slowly suffocating us.

By Bernard Avishai

Are our economic problems a result of the absence of peace? If we continue with the peculiar version of Zionism that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu represents, are things bound to get worse? Yes. Hell, yes. But before we connect the dots, a word of caution:

Israel s high degree of inequality is not, by itself, proof of economic injustice so much as of how globalized the Israeli economy is. Our growth is driven by high-technology exports in software, value-added components, advanced medical devices and other solutions. So we are bound to have a social profile more like Silicon Valley than a manufacturing city like Wolfsburg, Germany. I could work a lifetime teaching at a business school and not amass the fortune of one former student, who just sold his start-up to Getty Images for over $20 million. Bless him.

The real question is whether those of us who do not have a shot at a fancy technology jackpot have growing incomes and an improving quality of life. Does what we earn and pay taxes on leave us with enough for essential things like higher education, medical care, cars and fuel and, yes, housing? If not, why not?

The answer is that the atmosphere on Planet Netanyahu is slowly suffocating us:

The settlement project was, and is, insufferably expensive. Upwards of $20 billion have been spent on settlements and infrastructure in occupied territory, and that doesn t include the costs of securing them. Meanwhile, traffic on the coastal plain long ago graduated from heavy to infuriating; mass transit projects in major metropolitan areas are constantly postponed.

The industries that liberated Palestinians will focus on, and draw regional investment to, are precisely those that lower-income Israelis are bound to benefit from: tourism, construction, retail, food processing. Israel and Palestine are one business ecosystem. Israel could generate another $8 billion in GDP just from doubling its number of tourists from 3 to 6 million a year. (Florence gets 12 million.)

One-sixth of the government budget goes to defense, and that fraction is creeping up to incorporate new weapons systems. Social services are inevitably trimmed. Moreover, the ratio of national debt to GDP is stuck at around 75-80 percent, not unmanageable as long as interest rates remain low and growth rates remain high, say, 4-5 percent a year. But if Israel were to enter periods of lower growth as would be inescapable with greater political isolation, that is, with Israeli start-ups facing new obstacles to building relationships with European corporations it would be impossible to outpace the social tensions we now see or the discontent in the Israeli-Arab community.

Educational infrastructure is in serious decline. Critical preschool is crushingly expensive for young couples. High-school classrooms average 30-40 students. University budgets have been slashed. Yet the Netanyahu government is focusing on the Zionism content of the curriculum, not on development of critical thinking in a science-driven economy.

The health-care system is in crisis, yet Israeli medical training is world-class. Medical tourism, especially from neighboring Arab countries and the Gulf, could rejuvenate the Israeli medical realm overnight.

Participation in the Israeli workforce is among the lowest of OECD countries, about 56 percent as compared, say, with 68 percent in Japan, which is among the highest. This is largely because of the long-standing policy of the Likud and Company a policy Yossi Sarid, when he was education minister, tried to change to keep ultra-Orthodox yeshivas on the dole.

The major driver of high land prices is the Israel Lands Administration, a throwback to the old Zionist Jewish National Fund (whose lands still constitute about a fifth of the ILA s holdings ), managing roughly 90 percent of Israel s land for the Jewish people. Privatization and auctioning of land is necessary to bring the cost of housing down. But this would mean that Arab towns would be able to buy much more land for their own development, which is anathema to the Israeli right.

Ginning up the cost of flats themselves, especially in Tel Aviv s and Jerusalem s core, are absentee owners: Wealthy Diaspora Jews who excited by the right s pandering, and encouraged to think of Israel as a kind of metaphysical theme park drive out younger buyers and renters.

Incessant war tension, among other things, has degraded the quality of life. A million Israeli Jews live abroad today, disproportionately well-educated people who could be founding companies at home.

Last, though not at all least, is Netanyahu s freewheeling approach to market regulation so much like that of American Republicans, and masked by ultra-nationalist distractions. This means concentration of ownership in Israel: The wealthiest 16 families own 20 percent of the top 500 companies. Conglomerates take super-profits from, in effect, monopolies in banking, telecom, food retailing, media and so forth. But they are also over-leveraged, and highly invested in real estate. Let the air out of the housing market by releasing a great deal more ILA land, for example and some will find themselves under water, kicking off a recession. Until we break them up, we must live with their need for higher national growth rates than can be achieved with a continuing occupation.

Without peace, in short, the start-up nation is bound to run down. And the marches prove that the young of Tel Aviv with global experiences and cosmopolitan instincts do not live in a bubble. It is Netanyahu and the right, settlers and the Orthodox and Russian Putinists, who live in a bubble. God willing, the streets of Tel Aviv will burst it even before the streets of Ramallah do.

Bernard Avishai is the author, most recently, of The Hebrew Republic. He writes for numerous magazines, including Harper s and The New York Times Magazine. He teaches business at the Hebrew University and blogs at TPM Cafe and Bernard Avishai Dot Com.