The Arab Spring youth protest movement has done more than bring down two governments nonviolently (Tunisia, Egypt), removed one by force (Libya), and left others hanging in doubt (Yemen, Syria). It has also reverberated around the world, causing a fearful Chinese government to crack down on dissent, breathing life into African opposition movements, and strengthening youth protests in Spain.
In Israel, the Arab Spring has inspired a vigorous but ill-defined protest movement against high housing prices and more generally an unjust status quo. The protests are centered in Tel Aviv, the biggest city, where thousands of young people have pitched tents and occupied public space to make their demands heard, in the style of Egypt’s Tahrir Square earlier this year. A couple of weeks ago 300,000 protesters turned out, a huge number in such a small country. The protests have shown amazing staying power, lasting for months now with no end in sight.
At the same time, little tent protests have popped up all around the country. I have been traveling around Israel this week, and I’m fascinated to see these protesters camped out in every town. In Jerusalem, a couple of dozen people have pitched their tents in a park. In Migdal HaEmek, they have installed themselves by the side of the road into town. In the religious town of Safed, there they are with a few tents and protest signs in an open area near the middle of town. In Haifa, two guys with a guitar were holding down an encampment of a half dozen tents in the median strip of a traffic circle.
What do the young protesters want? They want affordable housing. They want a more just society with more opportunity for young people. They are not affiliated with a political party or political point of view, they say. They include both Jews and Israeli Arabs. One part of the tent city in Tel Aviv has parents of children with disabilities, another part has students, and so on. Maybe what they want, in part, is just to be together, to be young, to pitch their tents in public across the country and feel part of a greater cause. I asked an Israeli friend, “What could the government do that would cause the protesters to say, OK, we’ve won.” She said, “You see, that’s the problem.”
So today the protesters actually issued a list of demands, none too specific but focused on increasing the government budget for social services, paid for by fairer tax policies. As veteran Israeli opposition figure Yossi Beilin explained on Monday, the protests are “non-political” but political. A major reason housing is not affordable is that for years the government has poured money into cheap housing in the occupied territories. Beilin writes:
“Endless tracts have been written in recent years about the Israeli public’s indifference, its submissiveness and complacency, its capacity to swallow its discontent and leave to the politicians — even if it has no faith in them — the decisions that determine its fate. The excuses the public made for itself were so persuasive that we are still surprised to witness masses of mostly young adults filling the streets of our cities and refusing to go home until they are assured of ‘social justice.’ … People did not take to the streets because of extreme right-wing legislation, the cessation of the peace process, ongoing construction in settlements, or tense relations between the government of Israel and the US administration — but rather, here and now, because of the unjust distribution of resources in Israel.” Like in the Arab Spring, he writes, the protests build on themselves as people realize they have power. The Israeli protests are leaderless like their Arab counterparts, and similarly have vague demands, which can lead to frustration even if partial change ensues.
Beilin thinks the protests are in fact connected with the occupation: “It’s enough to observe the masses of demonstrators and tent dwellers to understand that they are mainly young, secular, living in the heart of Israel, bearing the primary burden of taxes and reserve duty… Whether they wish it or not, this is the most political demonstration Israel has ever witnessed.”