Why the world should care about Israel's social justice movement

Demands for internal reform could also accelerate the peace process.

A year ago today the Israeli social justice movement started, seeing hundreds of thousands of Israelis repeatedly marching throughout last summer in demand of socioeconomic reform and constituting the biggest wave of public demonstrations in Israel’s short history.

It began with campaigns over poor doctor and social worker wages and inflated prices of staple household products from diapers to cottage cheese. Then "J14" (14 July) erupted when ordinary Tel Avivian Daphni Leef - struggling to find affordable housing despite working a six-day week, and flipping out from friends calling to say they’re leaving Israel because they "can’t make it there" - wound up pitching her tent on the affluent Rothschild Boulevard. Hundreds more followed to protest against skyrocketing rent and house prices, with ‘tent cities’ springing up across the country.

J14 was far more than a leftist gathering of disgruntled anarchists, spoilt college students and minorities against a hawkish government. Throughout last summer Tel Aviv’s tent city was a powerful hub for ordinary, hardworking, intellectual people realising they’re all struggling with the cost of living in Israel regardless of political leanings, ethnic background, religion, class or profession. Doctors, bankers, Ethiopians, Arabs, politicians, singers, Ultra-Orthodox, writers, parents as well as students all gathered and talked late into the night about change.

J14 was so potent exactly because it united the middle and lower classes - the working majority who constitute Israel’s economic backbone as well as its national security through the army service. It quickly spread to all Israel’s cities, demonstrating socioeconomic grievance is far from limited to the "Tel Aviv bubble". And it remained a big deal for months, culminating in a final rally of 450,000 - ten percent of Israel’s adult population - marching throughout the country, until it fizzled out in the shadow of attacks from the Sinai border and Gaza, and the Palestinian UN statehood bid.

J14 very much caught the government off guard, with Netanyahu quickly forming a panel of economic experts to address welfare spending over the security budget. While some changes were made, the effects of reform can take years to kick in, leaving activists to point out the lack of improvement and Israelis in general wondering what will happen this summer, with whispers of a less polite J14 revival.

Sure enough, it’s back. As summer arrives so do the students who make up a major chunk of the discontent. Over the last fortnight thousands of Israelis have already marched in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Protesters attempted to reclaim Rothschild Boulevard with tents, but were met with police force, shocking more into returning, blocking a major Tel Aviv highway junction, smashing in bank windows, and resulting in 89 arrests. Israel’s former J14-loving media turned sour while social media exploded with images of police brutality. Detainees were reportedly interrogated and left in cells or the baking sun without medical treatment for hours before being released. And that’s only the beginning. Tonight tens of thousands are predicted to take part in nationwide demonstrations marking J14 one year on.

Surely Netanyahu knew J14 wouldn’t just disappear. Young Israelis in particular are struggling to find work, university places and housing after completing their compulsory military service. Israel is just as affected by the globalisation process as any other, having joined the free market in the late 1980s, rapidly privatizing, outsourcing and financially gaining overall but leaving the wealth unevenly distributed within. Hence J14ers make a point of uniting against the "eighteen families" said to control 60 per cent of the country’s equity, as well as the usual flirtation between media tycoons and politicians.

Stuck in a rut

What about ending the occupation of Palestinian territory? J14 was criticised last year for not appearing to make this a formal demand. But Israelis hardly need reminding of it when they experience backlash literally everywhere they go. The conflict already fuels Israelis' perception of their country being stuck in a rut. And plenty of Israelis are long out of patience from seeing the image of hatred between Arabs and Jews used for political gain - not only by their government but by others uninterested in a two-state solution. Even Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, the renowned economist hired by Netanyahu to address cuts to security, said he believes J14 would likely not have arisen had there been a real peace process. Meanwhile it remains easy for Bibi to distract Israelis and the world with an Iranian or Palestinian threat. And the more international media covers his rhetoric and the Palestinian conflict without also amplifying J14’s wealth of discontent civil voices alongside, the more we buy into his and others’ agendas in the region.

But while Netanyahu has since made himself stronger by pushing back on elections and forming one of Israel’s largest coalitions in history, I’m sure he’s not forgotten what was so extraordinary about last summer. J14 momentarily broke the siege mentality that normally unites Israelis behind their government in face of foreign threats, seeing the people significantly claim back their weight in power, and effectively prompting change at the core. As an Ethiopian Israeli said to me last year, “People are waking up and finding many around them feel the same way. We have a beautiful country and people. But we are normally made to feel afraid all the time because of external issues, hence making us fail to politically connect with each other.”


However, the revived J14 is already splitting, with protesters rallying behind the other hot debate this summer in which the secular majority calls for the Ultra-Orthodox and Arabs to be drafted into military service. The original side of J14 might warily see this as hijacking Israelis back to the status quo of uniting through defence rather than socioeconomic security, and try instead to reject the old militaristic social contract which has long favoured an elite Ashkenazi agenda.

Whichever way J14 now goes, they say improvement begins at home. Israel arguably cannot achieve peace with its neighbours until first achieving internal socioeconomic security independent of militarism and foreign exploitation of others. And only Israeli citizens have the real power to haul their government into doing this the right way round. But if J14 continues to split, the first major Israeli grassroots force with real potential to break the old social contract, remake an all-inclusive one, and henceforth more realistically work with their neighbours towards peace is lost, while Bibi and the hawks continue to win.

Camilla Schick is a British journalist corresponding between London and Tel Aviv. She tweets @CSchickova

A protest on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard in June 2012. Photograph: Getty

Camilla Schick is a  journalist based between London and Tel Aviv, writing on culture, religion and international politics.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.