The A-Z of Israel
On 22 January, Israelis will go to the polls. The world watches – but how much do we really know about the country that calls itself “the sole bastion of democracy” in the Middle East?
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P is for Protest
Israelis gather on a balcony in Tel Aviv as they occupy an abandoned public building and protest against the rising cost of living. Photograph: Getty Images
Dimi Reider writes: There’s protest (mecha’a) and then there’s The Protest (ha-mecha’a), applied as a collective name for all aspects of Israel’s nascent social justice movement. The word is used to refer to the enormous demonstrations of July to August 2011, rallies and “popular assemblies” that mirrored the likes of the actions by the Spanish indignados. It is used to refer to what is intuitively perceived as the mesh of ideals, grievances and taboos uniting the movement: “the goals of the Protest”; “the Protest is not political”; “the Protest is not about the occupation”; and so on. And it is used as a collective noun for “the movement” itself.
What began on 14 July 2011 as an inconspicuous tent camp on Tel Aviv’s plushest boulevard – sparked by outrage at soaring rents and a housing shortage –marked a watershed moment in Israeli political history. Not only did J14, as the movement is also known, produce unprecedented scenes of unrest (the peak in 2011 was a rally of 500,000 in a country of seven million people – the largest turnout ratio anywhere in the world during that tumultuous year), it also fun - damentally changed the popular discourse, driving both the conflict with the Palestinians and the glare-contest with Iran away from the front pages.
For the first time in recent memory, the ongoing general election campaign (see B for Bibi) is placing as much emphasis on socioeconomic issues as on the conflict with the Palestinians or the broader tensions in the Middle East. What’s more, the neoliberal policies that have delivered economic stability to Israel but multiplied the gaps between the very rich and everybody else have come under public scrutiny.
This may not seem like the best of news for progressives. Indeed, one of the chief criticisms levelled against J14 by activists both at home and abroad was the movement’s reluctance to discuss the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (see W for Wall) and the blockade in Gaza (see C for Calories) – two policies inflicting hardships on Palestinians that dwarf those experienced by the middle-class and working-class Israelis who took to the streets.
There were several good reasons for J14 to leave the conflict largely off its agenda. For a start, a mass movement that focused on the occupation would have been a contradiction in terms. The conflict is the single most important wedge issue in Israel – think the divisiveness of abortion, gun control and the Middle East in US politics all combined. When critics chide the Israeli indignados for imposing a “let’s not talk about the war” etiquette, they forget that progressives and conservatives in Israel talked about nothing but the war for the past 62 years and it got neither Israelis nor Palestinians anywhere.
The power of J14 stemmed from having introduced a fresh language – of solidarity, fairness and economic equality – to replace the wearisome one of national identity and existential threats. The new light this shed on the political and social landscape even illuminated issues most Israelis prefer to ignore, such as the systemic discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens (see Z for Zoabi, Haneen), many of whom joined the protests. As violence flared in southern Israel during the summer of 2011, the demonstrations veered sharply to the centre, abandoning Palestinian protesters and their demands, yet the fact of their participation and its prominence cannot be undone.
Now, the movement is in disarray. An attempt to revive mass participation in 2012 faltered, even though a number of protesters set themselves alight in the manner of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 27-year-old Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation lit the flames of the Arab spring.
Unlike its sister movement in Spain, J14 has allowed the media to appoint “leaders” for it –mostly from among the activists who started the initial tent vigil, plus a bland, centrist chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students, which provided most of the infrastructure and logistics for the protests. Although horizontal organising and its popular assemblies played a significant part in the movement’s reach, this select group came to dominate. Several leading members of the group are about to enter parliament for the same stale and unpopular centrist parties to which they tried to posit an alternative; but those who stayed out of the race wield little political influence at this point.
The protests may have altered the terms of debate, but tangible political change is still a long way ahead.
Dimi Reider is a founder of +972 Magazine (972mag.com) and an associate fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations