Debate: Does J14 herald a new political era in Israel?

By Libby Lenkinski & Noam Sheizaf

For a month now, Israel has been going through an unprecedented upheaval. What started as a small protest at the heart of Tel Aviv over housing costs, turned into a nation-wide call for social justice, which had brought hundreds of thousands to the streets. Some feel that this unexpected event marks an opportunity for a radical transformation of the political debate in Israel; others are not so sure. Critics of the protest pointed to the fact that most of the protesters come from the secular upper middle class; that they lack a clear political leadership; that they failed so far to rock Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition; and that they haven’t presented an agenda on issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and most notably, the occupation.

In this second installation of 972 Zone, we have presented our panel of public figures and bloggers with the following question: Does social unrest and emerging tent city protest movement signify the dawn of a new political era in Israel?

Tamar Zandberg | Tel Aviv City Council Member (Meretz Party), who has been taking part in the protest from its first days:

The tent protest is the most exciting political trend in Israel’s history.   It’s most important characteristic is the rise of a new political discourse, a counter-action to the rapidly deteriorating space for democracy and living conditions in Israel over the past years.   Politics of loyalty has been pushed aside to make space for the surprisingly unique tent politics.

In tent politics there is no patience for shallow slogans and baseless promises; in tent politics old molds are irrelevant. In over three weeks we have hardly heard the words: left/right, Zionist/traitor, security, Iran or threat.

This is not because the tent protest is “apolitical.” It is because too many times in the past, the right-wing conservatives have tried to pull the wool over Israelis’ eyes and de-politicize politics: of salaries, of prices, of privatization and of the Occupation.

In an enormous outpouring from all types and all over the country, Israelis are clearly saying: we see you and we don’t believe you.  The expansion of the struggle and the inclusion of the doctors’ protest, the social workers, students, local authorities and municipalities, is unprecedented.

It is still too early to say whether the tent protest will culminate in a collapse of the government, and the rise of a new political movement – or the rehabilitation of existing parties.  The major challenge ahead is developing a political discourse that includes humanism, democracy, social and environmental justice.

We can already say that the best chance of shirking the old order toward a better future is in the tents throughout Israel.

MK Dr. Ahmad Tibi | Deputy Knesset Speaker

On Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, they are protesting rising housing costs, but in Arab towns like Taibe and Magdal-el-Krum there is no such protest. In these places, the state is not releasing land for construction but confiscates it -not building but destroying. In Lod, the el-Id family is still homeless after their house was demolished and they were thrown into the street; in Ramle I visited El-Aju family, where Solidarity activists are standing guard to protect them from having their home destroyed. Since the founding of the State of Israel not a single new Arab town has been established in the center or North of Israel.

Immediately after entering the Knesset, I put forward a proposition for a new Arab city. It was rejected, with the government stating that it would promote such a plan independently. Guess what? Nothing happened. Every Knesset term I submit a bill for equal distribution of land, and it is automatically rejected.

When the Israeli middle class is awakening, it seems that things have truly reached a dead-end. I support the protest.  Social justice can start with housing costs but mustn’t end there, because the power of the people can and should be used to change the wrongful distribution of resources in this country.

I want this struggle to succeed and I hope that Arab citizens and communities far from the center will benefit from the margins of this protest, yet a direct protest to solve the distress of the Arabs will never be carried out by the middle class.

Avrum Burg | Author, former Knesset Speaker

“It’s not political,” protesters are shouting but they want politics to change their lives. In a few months they won’t be here and it’s the old politics that will remain to clean up the mess on the streets. All that will be left of the protest will be memories and the lists of things accomplished. With time, the following truths will be recognized: that the defamed “Tel Aviv state” is the only one that can move mountains and hills here.
It will also be recognized that it is easier for people to whine over the price of cheese than to change the economic system and the values which drive it. By saying “no politics” one avoids the most fatal of our diseases – the war we have subjected ourselves to in the West Bank, also due to short term economical interests.

Over there – on the hills of Judea and Samaria – the government does build, and subsidize, and give benefits – for Jews. Those who wish to disconnect the tent protests from this war also disconnect their struggle from the real opportunity to change the internal process which has brought us here.

And to the protesters: don’t shy away from politics. Take part in it, take it over. Offer a complete social alternative and not just a struggle over another Shekel in the price of cheese. Don’t run away from the occupation – end it before it swallows us all.

Aziz Abu-Sarah | Co-executive director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, +972 blogger.

Israel is seeing the birth of a new movement, one that calls for a major and perhaps unprecedented social change. The strength of this social movement has been its ability to bring together citizens of Israel from different political and ethnic backgrounds. However the strength of this movement is also its weakness.  To be able to bring the masses to the streets, protesters have largely ignored the effect of the occupation on Israel domestic problems.

Israelis are ignoring the connection between the Israel which continues building in the West Bank while failing to provide housing to its citizens within Israel proper. The standard of living in the settlements is much higher than in most of towns and cities in Israel.

Israel’s budget is burdened by its efforts to sustain the occupation and develop West Bank settlements. The current Israeli government is more concerned about the advancement of the settlement project than protecting the interests of Israel’s broad population.

Israelis are paying a very high price for the occupation. At this important crossroad, Israelis cannot afford to continue ignoring the impact of occupation on their lives. They cannot continue living and voting out of fear, basing their choices solely on security issues. This is the time for Israelis to rise up, not just for a cosmetic change, but for fixing Israel problems from the roots. This is the time to end the occupation.

Att. Eldad Yaniv | Leader of the National Left movement

The answer is simply yes. It’s new politics. After years of fighting that hasn’t reached Israelis, the tent protest’s message went straight into their hearts. It sounds simplistic but this is the truth. For years, there was no way of relating Israelis to the political camp which believes in social justice and strives for a more perfect society. It’s because we always began the conversation at the point in which we defend another people and not our own. And suddenly, when one speaks of our people and their right to justice, equality and equal opportunities, the hearts open up. And when hearts open up, it is also clear that a just society cannot be an occupying one. So simple, so precise.

This was our problem in the Left. For years we thought we should speak to people’s minds. It doesn’t work anywhere. People engage from the heart, from the deeper place in the heart. When we learn how to explain that there is no “geo-political left” and “social-left” but rather one camp that puts selfish needs in the center and another that believes in mutual guarantee and in a just society, this camp will win over our beloved Israel.

Ami Kaufman | Journalist, +972 blogger:

My mind tells me that it’s too early to reach any conclusion about a change in political discourse in Israel – but my heart says “yes,” something fundamental has happened here. It seems like the discourse is being transformed from the “warped” left-right discussions based on security and diplomacy, to the “normal” left-right discussions based on economy.

I feel that Israelis, over the last few years, have developed a keen “economic awareness”. A large part of this is due to the economic boom Israel has gone through over the past decade, which has also resulted in the local business scene being scrutinized by the local media. After years of having only one financial daily (Globes) we now have three (with The Marker and Calcalist). Not only are the top CEOs and tycoons now household names, so are their profits and salaries. Also, the most popular pages in these papers are the “gossip” pages, showing pictures of the rich and famous on their yachts and at their parties.

As this “economic awareness” has grown, so has the frustration from the absence of the “trickle-down” economy that Netanyahu promised. Israelis now understand more about money, and they easily track to whose pockets it goes to. Not theirs.

This “economic awareness”, combined with the security issues that interest fewer and fewer people as time goes by, have the potential to change the political discourse sooner than we think. We might even see slogans in the upcoming elections saying “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Mairav Zonszein | Journalist, +972 blogger

Despite the feeling of unity and empowerment across Israel evoked by the protests, and even putting aside the blatant absence of the debate over Palestinians and the Occupation, what is glaringly missing is the participation of those citizens who live beyond the Green Line – and for obvious reasons. They do not have the same housing issues as they are privileged by government subsidies, living alongside Palestinians who are completely disenfranchised. Their inability to be part of this movement and from Israel proper reflects the deep split in the Jewish nation living in Israel.

Surely this popular uprising is a process that has hopefully only just begun, and will continue to develop and take shape. But for it to really constitute a new political era in how Israel defines social justice, it must define its identity clearly and demand to take the country back, not only from the government, but from those people with whom they have very little in common, who have a different vision for this country (whether it be segregating men and women on buses or Palestinians and Israelis at the supermarket) and have been too comfortable in their position at the expense of the majority for too long. If a redefinition of social justice and equal distribution is to really take hold in Israel, Jewish citizens must also deal with their own demons.

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