Israeli Arab Spring

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.

Haifa protest Aug. 2011. Photo: Solomon Goldstein-Rose

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.”

3 responses to “Israeli Arab Spring

  1. Benjamin koriom

    iam very cite for good news you have gave to me iam student in international relatons study online in atlantic international university ,i will be graduate couple of two months on 10/11/2011

  2. Benjamin koriom

    My comment to israeli Arab conflic the moving of international comunity is very important , the people of arab to take peace seurioly the peace is address for human being .

  3. It is a very good comment, surely worth one’s while; full of insights, from you, from your Israeli friend who said, ‘You see that’s the problem’ and from Yossi Beilin, that the protests are “non-political, but political. This truly is a profound observation, which defines the specifity of our age. It is pregnant with new meanings of the very concept of opposition, which is at the very heart of modern civilization. The question that it seems to be asking is: Could there be a movement of opposition, of social transformation that doesn’t seem to be political, or, is ‘harmless’, non-violent, looking like marginal, and yet fulfilling all the meanings of opposition that drives social change.

    In a way it sounds the end of modern democracy, as it has been traditionally conceived, developed and practiced within the left-right framework of the last century, especially after the WWII. But if the parliament is the heart of modern democracy, or the sovereignty of it, the new opposition youth movements are questioning the centralization of power in any one social institution. After the winning of the parliament and sovereignty of the state, against the forces of political absolutism, they seem to be saying, its time that the power is returned to them, devolved to the people to whom it rightfully belongs.

    So they are not challenging the parliament, or the state which it represents, they just seem to render it irrelevant. This is what being non-political but political seems to mean. A nonsensical phrase has suddenly become sensible. Beyond modern democracy, we can hear the echoes of a new democracy apparently emerging spontaneously, that is, out of nowhere, or not through any known channels. It truly is coming from the young hearts and fresh minds that do not carry on their shoulders the weight of dead generations as their older living generations do.