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Moshe Zuckermann

The Israeli Summer: An Impressive Protest, but Not a Revolution

This summer something took place in Israel no one ever expected would happen here: hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in mass protests for social justice. These were the largest demonstrations the country had ever seen. But the rallies remained conformist: the demonstrators did not broach any fundamental problems or break any taboos. And they ignored the Palestinian issue entirely.

From a small protest initiative to a full-blown conflagration

In view of the eruptive upheavals that took place in some Arabic countries over the course of the past year in Israel as well the question arose of what was happening internally. Some hoped that the crippling stagnation of Israeli Near East policy might now be broken "from below". Others felt that what was happening in neighbouring countries would not touch the socially stable Israel. And still others interpreted the changes in the Arabic world as the dawning of a new era in the region that objectively would have to affect the Near East conflict and thus perforce Israel as well.

What actually happened, however, most likely came as a shock to both the hopeful and the fearful: the protest initiative started by a few young people on bourgeois Rothschild Boulevard in the centre of Tel Aviv rapidly spread like wildfire to become a mass protest movement. A row of tents occupied the entire boulevard, with more and more people arriving every day while the media presence showed no signs of flagging. Onlookers watched in astonishment as charismatic leaders materialized from the spontaneous movement. A political subculture emerged; debates, discussions and actions were ignited. Protesters also erected their tents in tent cities in other towns around the country. What had begun as a small protest movement culminated in mass demonstrations in mere weeks -- with roughly 400,000 taking to Israel's streets in the largest of them.

Soon the political establishment found itself in zugzwang. The government formed a committee intended to work with representatives from the protest movement to clarify and process their demands for the institutionalized decision-making process in the respective ministerial panels.

"The people demand social justice"

Meanwhile it was almost impossible to say what the protest movement was about. The groups involved were too different, as were their demands. If we attempt to find a common denominator -- for the dominant groups at least -- it could be called a civil rebellion of the Israeli middle class.

It is important not to be confused by the fact that the main slogan, "the people demand social justice!", resembled the rhythms of the rallying cry at Tahrir Square in Cairo. What is meant by "social justice" in this country has little in common with the economic outcry of the impoverished millions in Egypt. After all, the Israeli economy has recorded growth and progress in recent years.

The emphatic summer protests primarily questioned distribution. A middle class with considerable earning power has found itself unable to afford the price for the standard of living they demand. Middle class citizens can no longer pay the untenable cost of rent, food, child care, education and the other expenses associated with a "normal good life".

The turbo capitalism promoted and ideologically represented by Benjamin Netanyahu has pretty much hollowed out the Israeli social welfare state. The social and economic divide has never been as large as it is in Israel today. And this in a society once shaped by relative equality and proud of it. The drivers of the protest movement, however, were not the considerably impoverished classes, but rather the increasingly outclassed middle class who "suddenly" saw their good living disappearing -- to which they took emphatic umbrage.

Protest without critique of the system

The protest movement was able to grow as large as it did because its demands always aimed at consensus. But this also limited content. Of course, the activation of the masses started out impressively, and its transformation into a protest collective that could not be ignored was touching and even moving, and the dramatic spectacle of a mass of people awakening from an apathetic-seeming lethargy was astonishing. But it was also impossible not to see that fundamental issues were not addressed during these weeks of social outcry. No controversial topics were raised that might drive a wedge between the different factions.

Capitalism, for example, was not challenged in the least. There was some indignation expressed at the monstrous power accumulated by the tycoons, who by now have a lock on large segments of the Israeli economy. Demands were made to hit them massive taxes and regulated power restrictions. But in the end, the list of demands presented to the government, compiled by competent experts, only included fragmented economic measures. It was like simply wanting to slightly shift a stone in a solidly set mosaic without questioning the mosaic itself or the logical order upon which it is based.

The direction the demands took clearly demonstrated that this was not an issue of criticizing the system and most definitely not in a fundamental sense, but at best simply about modification. Modifying a system whose basic structure had in fact caused the distress in the first place though -- and would per force do so again and again.

Accused in the beginning by Netanyahu and those around him of being left-wing radicals only interested in toppling him, the leaders of the movement felt obligated to emphasize that they were not communists and, in fact, not even socialists. They were simply citizens fighting for their right to "social justice." They spoke nary a word about the link between the system and the crisis, the social structure and social injustice. And if the idea arose now and again, it was quickly repressed. They wanted to eat their cake and have it too.

A mass movement that refuses to be political

For the same reason, the leadership of the protest movement took care from the very beginning to ensure that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories never came up. They claimed not to want to "politicize" the social outrage. While this may sound abstruse for any European liberal -- declaring that a mass movement of 400,000 people on the streets of Israel demanding "social justice" is "not political", there is an Israeli-specific reason behind it. Here the term " politicization " is understood as one's attitude towards the occupation and settlement policy. Those on the "left" are the peace activists who seek a territorial compromise with the Palestinians including the founding of an independent Palestinian state in the near future. Those considered on the "right" ideologically oppose these efforts.

By now, though, the social left in Israel's political culture has pretty much been played out. The parties who have historically ascribed to liberal ideas and social policy -- with the Labour Party at the forefront -- are moving ever further away from their historical task. Driven by the rigid neo-liberalisation of the Israeli economy, they have divested themselves of the Palestinian issue.

Shelly Yachimovich, for example, the new Head of the Labour Party, has excelled for years as a genuine representative of a social-democratic approach to socioeconomic issues. And according to the latest figures, her actions are breathing new life into the Labour Party that had been given up for dead. She is however, keeping firmly shtum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the height of the protest movement in an interview with the "Haaretz" daily newspaper that received a lot of attention, she claimed that she took little notice of the occupation. She said she even felt a certain level of sympathy for the settlers, and went on to express other right-leaning political ideas.

With this attitude, Yachimovich is the political party reflection of the protest movement. It too wants to avoid a debate on the issue so as to keep from dividing the members of the movement. They seem unwilling to accept the importance of the occupation, which is not just an issue of morality and international law, it is also a serious economic problem. As such it is, in fact, closely linked to exactly what the movement is against. Additionally one cannot demand "social justice" on the on the one hand while accepting a brutal occupation regime undertaken by one's own country on the other without becoming deeply ideological.

External security: the government's trump card

This gives the government, whose policies had the protest movement up in arms, a certain level of security: the demonstrators will not move beyond any of the national points of consensus, they will not break any taboos. The age-old joke that no civil revolution could have succeeded in 19th century Germany because walking on the lawn was strictly prohibited is the mental equivalent of the attitude and general direction of action of the "Israeli Summer". This was revealed in two areas in particular: the protesters eschewed the use of any form of violence and always preserved civil obedience with respect to national "priorities".

When skirmishes occurred between the police and demonstrators at the beginning, the demonstrators who had been beaten were the ones who symbolically hugged the police and wanted to fraternize with them (as representatives of their interests) when later interviewed on television. The head of the Israeli Student Association and prominent leader of the protest movement, Itzik Shmuly, was asked what he would do if he were called up to serve in the reserve corps during the fast-paced stormy days of the protest. He did not hesitate for a second before declaring that he would pack his things immediately to fulfil his duty to the army. 

This was the government's trump card, which it was able to promptly play. After a terror attack on Israel's southern border, the Israeli military mounted a counter attack. The battle with Egyptian forces on the Sinai Peninsula resulted in casualties. The mass demonstration planned for that weekend was immediately cancelled and nothing more about protests was heard or seen in the media.

Speculation began in the critical feature pages -- and not without reason. If the "security issue" proved to be an effective instrument against civil unrest, then it could not be ruled out that the government might take steps to ensure that the situation at the border remained precarious. This seemed particularly applicable since at the time it was deemed to be in the interest of both Assad in Syria and Netanyahu in Israel to distract from domestic pressure. If both deliberately fanned the flames under the situation along their borders, it would solidify internal collective cohesion. The fact that Netanyahu is also a supporter of an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities opened previously unimagined perspectives.

So what was the Israeli Summer?

There is one thing it was certainly not: it was not a revolution. Not even a rebellion. For its supporters neither aspired to fracture system structures nor did they want to overthrow the established political rule.

Still, the "Israeli Summer" was a protest movement of a size previously unknown in Israel. This is an indication that the masses were interested in more than just the price of rent and the cost of living. It was about something that they and their leaders are still perhaps not yet even aware of. Something they did not dare articulate: they feel a deep sense of unease about the impasse into which Israel has manoeuvred itself.

But there can be no exit from this impasse without denouncing the deadlock in foreign and domestic policy and without changing socioeconomic structures. It may otherwise come to a horrendous Israeli winter with unimaginable consequences. We cannot rule out the possibility that a large part of the Israeli population already shares this sense of gruesome foreboding. And in that sense, the protest movement of the summer might simply have been the tip of the iceberg.

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