With tent encampments expanding and Twitter hash-tags tweeting, downtown Tel Aviv has begun to resemble none other than Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Last Saturday, over 250,000 Israelis took to the streets in protest across several Israeli cities, citing the high cost of living. The protests mark the largest Israeli demonstrations in decades, and domestic media outlets report that over 85% of Israelis approve of the movement.
“It’s unbelievably hard to make ends meet, yet all the statistics claim that the economy is flourishing,” explains 23-year-old protester, Sheerlie Ryngler. “Some of the main rallying points that people seem to agree on are affordable housing, better wages, improvements in health care and education, and a fair distribution of wealth ... a restoration of the welfare state.”
While many analysts cite the systematic weakening of the welfare state in the 1980s as a historical cause of the current economic inequity, more recent developments shed further light on the some of the protesters’ immediate grievances. Al Jazeera English reports that, despite Israel’s economic prosperity, food prices are at an all-time high while, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, the price of a 3-bedroom apartment has increased by more than 40% in the past four years. Activists are calling on the government to provide solutions; many are suggesting tax reforms in order to more equitably distribute wealth or to incentivize property owners to keep prices down. This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a committee was exploring solutions; yet many organizers plan to wait until the measures take effect before leaving the encampments, and mass demonstrations have already been called for on the 3rd of September.
Initially, the protests began on July 14th (thus, #J14), when a hand-full of young Israelis set up camp on Rothschild Boulevard, one of Tel Aviv’s chicest boulevards. In the coming weeks, the movement exploded with over 400 tents constructed within the initial Rothschild Boulevard encampment alone. Demonstrations notably included a vast cross-section of society, from the ultra-secular to the ultra-religious, from families and the elderly, even to a limited number of Arab Israeli citizens.
“Usually when Israelis protest, it’s restricted to very defined groups: leftists, right-wing, pro-something, anti-something,” explains 22-year-old Matan Jonas of Qiryat Tiv’on, a site of peripheral protests. “This seems to encompass a very large part of the Israeli public, and that’s very encouraging to me.”
Along these lines, many supporters of the movement claim that the demonstrations are opening up new opportunities for dialogue in Israel. “By using social media, a whole generation of Israelis has bypassed both the government and the media,” Haaretz correspondent, Ashel Pfeffer, explains. “The internet has given the youth the tools to create an entirely new discourse.”
Israeli activist, 23-year-old Sheerlie Ryngler celebrates this new momentum, saying, “I can’t believe this is all really happening ... Just a few weeks ago, I felt totally disillusioned, but now I have hope.”
What’s Missing? A Stance on Palestine
Arab-Israeli citizens and progressive Israeli allies have voiced frustration with the unwillingness of the movement to include the Palestinian Occupation and Siege into the #J14 definition of social justice or to relate the cost of war and settlement expansion to the failure to make adequate investments within Israel proper. With Jewish attacks on the 1948 Tent, Israel’s announcement yesterday of further settlement expansion, the Gaza blackout, and continued airstrikes this week, will the Israeli #J14 movement sustain itself in light of these underlying tensions within the movement and the up-coming declaration of Palestinian statehood? What do you think? In the meantime, check out +972 Blog for the up-to-date English language commentary on the movement, and keep an eye on Israel on Saturday as the #J14 movement hosts mass demonstrations in 11 peripheral cities across Israel.