If there was one country thought not to be in danger of catching the contagion of uprisings in the Middle East, it was Israel. Nobody thought much of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement on March 30 that, at a time when “everything is shaking and rocking…the only stable place, the only stable country, is this democracy Israel.”
But a month and a half later, Netanyahu’s statement is laughable. A mass movement has now erupted in Israel, shaking the status quo. What first started as a tent-city protest in Tel Aviv over the high cost of housing has mushroomed into tent cities all over Israel, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators pouring into the streets and disruptions of business-as-usual in the Israeli Knesset. Angry over the high cost of living and the yawning gap between the rich and the poor in Israel, the protestors have called for “social justice” in the form of public housing, rent control and a raise in the minimum wage, among other demands. Stanford University professor Joel Beinin recently wrote that the Israeli protests were a revolt against neoliberalism.
The movement is said to represent the strongest challenge yet to Netanyahu’s government.
Criticism of the movement, though, has been voiced by Palestinians and activists involved in the Palestine solidarity movement. They have pointed to the fact that the social justice movement has stayed silent over the occupation of Palestine and has not connected the dots between Israel’s massive and illegal settlement project in the West Bank and the housing crisis within Israel proper.
To go beyond the headlines, I recently caught up with Noam Sheizaf, an independent Israeli journalist based in Tel Aviv. Sheizaf, whose work has appeared in the Nation, Haaretz, Yedioth Ahronoth and more, is an editor and founder of +972 Magazine, a blog-based web magazine. Sheizaf recently authored a piece titled, “It’s all about real-estate: Understanding the tent protests.”
Alex Kane: What is your general take on the tent cities and mass protests currently making headlines in Israel?
Noam Sheizaf: I think it’s one of the most significant events I have seen in Israeli politics, certainly in the 20 years I have been following it closely. In the events I can remember that I witnessed in my own lifetime, this is one of the most important ones, most unexpected, and most promising one, perhaps.
AK: What do you think the political significance of the protests are?
NS: If you’re talking the narrow political games of the Knesset and the government, I don’t think we’ll see a lot happening right away. I don’t think this protest right now is a serious threat to the government. It’s more a challenge than a threat.
I think the protest is challenging something very important in the Israeli social order. There’s an unwritten agreement between various groups in Israeli society—I’m talking about the Jewish society. This is something that enables the entire system that we see here. So by declaring that the current social order is not suitable for us anymore, I think that the middle-class, the upper-middle class, the people who are protesting, are making a serious challenge against the structure of Israeli society. It’s more of something that represents an undercurrent in society than what you see on the surface. Because, ultimately, this protest doesn’t touch the significant political questions that we always hear about from Israel: the occupation, the future of the West Bank, the relations between Arab and Jewish citizens. But it touches on the layer beneath it that holds everything together. So, I think this is a major, major thing.