Debunking claims of a ‘leftist cabal’ behind tent city protests

By Don Futterman

Accusations from the right that the tent city protests are the product of a left-wing conspiracy backed by the New Israel Fund overlook the fact that the NIF and other NGOs have been addressing housing issues for years, before the middle class woke up

Imagine the body heat – not to mention the sweat – generated by a hundred thousand people walking close together, clapping, drumming, chanting, and occasionally, with no warning, but in complete harmony, raising our voices in imitation of a banshee. Mostly young, but not all young – I don’t qualify as young anymore – the crowd in Tel Aviv Saturday night was attentive, non-violent, and hopeful.

Debunking claims of a 'leftist cabal' behind tent city protests
Tent City protest camp in Rothschild st, Tel Aviv. July 31, 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv / activestills)

The speeches at the Tel Aviv Museum plaza were earnest and passionate, specific in rejecting Bibi’s first bid to divide and conquer but perhaps facile in calling for free everything without outlining how to pay for it. Protest leaders went out of their way not to exclude anyone, although I’m not sure to what degree Arabs were in the minds of the speakers, and did not accuse anyone of being a traitor just for disagreeing with them.

There was anger, directed at Netanyahu – a suitable target for charges of making the rich richer, the poor poorer, and abandoning the middle class – but even these were not words of rage. They were talking ‘bout a revolution, as the Tracy Chapman anthem of the evening declared, not violent overthrow; emphasis on talking.

Of course, it’s simplistic to only blame Bibi or to detach the struggle for social and economic justice from other political struggles. When you squander the nation’s wealth on settlements, there’s less for public housing, education, health services and social welfare.

But protest leaders are determined not to allow the left-right divide to derail them. They want to outflank the usual political polarization by putting social and economic justice at the top of a new – and in this way revolutionary – national agenda.

And no criticism or unfulfilled expectation can reduce the significance of getting 150,000 people into the streets of a sweltering July. The upbeat tone with its inclusive message was as far as possible from that of the right wing diatribes that have sickened our political discourse for the past two and a half years.

So it was disheartening if not surprising to hear government leaders and settler spokesmen still claiming that the protest is a leftist cabal. They called demonstrators irresponsible, anarchists, and puppets of a left wing conspiracy – sigh – manipulated by the New Israel Fund. Maybe it’s time to get some facts straight about this national protest movement and a much maligned foundation.

The New Israel Fund (NIF) is not big enough, rich enough, or powerful enough to manipulate hundreds of thousands of people.

The New Israel Fund is engaged with the issues at the heart of the protest, having launched a social and economic justice initiative in 1994, including efforts to promote decent public housing and affordable rentals. Two years ago, the foundation decided to make housing a top priority, and in this sense, NIF was there before the middle class woke up.

But it is in the DNA of the New Israel Fund not to dictate to activists how to fight their battles. Far from being a puppet master, NIF listens, and enables, and empowers people who don’t have power, giving them resources necessary to fight for social change.

The New Israel Fund’s values are in sync with this “revolution” of priorities, but NIF is neither behind it, nor leading it.

It will be a shame if the leaders of the street decide to turn down funding because it does not want to risk being colored leftist, fearing that will compromise their ability to speak for “the people.” Political necessity does not demand surrender to the right wing tactic of “guilt by association,” especially when there is nothing to be guilty about.

The New Israel Fund (NIF), like most progressive foundations, promotes more than one agenda at a time, and they are not all dependent upon one another. NIF works for agunot, (women denied divorce by their husbands and stranded in marital limbo) and thousands of other oppressed women in Israeli society, for Israel’s environmental movement and for Jewish pluralism. It also empowers Arab citizens and promotes civil rights.

This diversity is something that the one-track demagogues running the Knesset – who have sacrificed all national priorities to settlement expansion – find it impossible to comprehend. The point is that you can fight for social and economic justice even if you do not agree with NIF’s view on the territories, or that of any other progressive foundation.

These demonstrations are a genuine expression of the frustration of huge segments of the Israeli population. Israel’s beleaguered middle class and working poor did not take to the streets because of their views about Palestinians, or because of the actions of any foundation.

In any case, progressive foundations will continue helping the dozens of NGOs who have been researching, organizing, and setting up storefront offices for years to help besieged lower income and middle class citizens, whether in Tel Aviv, Sderot or Nazareth. The leaders of this “revolution” are already busy learning what’s been tried and seeking concrete suggestions for what needs to be done. They have found activists and thinkers ready to share their experience and their knowledge, as evidenced by daily streetside lectures and debates.

And if protest leaders decide they want fiscal support from progressive foundations, they will find funders who already share their passion and their dreams.

Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel at the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation which supports the New Israel Fund and numerous other NGOs working for social and economic justice in Israel.