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

Demands for internal reform could also accelerate the peace process.

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

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