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.

Hamzah al Zobi
Show Hide image

Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".