August 2011, Week 3


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Wed, 17 Aug 2011 23:01:59 -0400
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'We Are All United'

Israel Protests Could Boost Peace Process

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt in Tel Aviv 
Spiegel (Germany)
August 17, 2011


Hundreds of thousands of people have been demonstrating
for social justice in Israel. The protests are uniting
a divided nation, and have brought Jews and Israeli
Arabs together. Could the movement also help bring
about a reconciliation with the Palestinians?

It is the 26th day of the protests when Avraham
Berkovici enters the tent city on Tel Aviv's Rothschild
Boulevard. He is walking with a cane and carrying a
backpack in his hand. His shirt is soaked with
perspiration. "What's happening in this country is
unbelievable!" he shouts. Berkovici is a goldsmith,
archeologist and Holocaust survivor, and now he too has
joined the protests. "I want to show that this doesn't
just affect the young people, but all of us."

As a child, Berkovici fled across the Alps to Italy,
where he took a ship to the port of Haifa. Since then,
he has participated in every war Israel has waged. "But
this country," he says, "has forgotten us." Pension
benefits are low, the hospitals are overcrowded and
rents and food are expensive. Those who survived the
Holocaust often live in poverty in Israel today.

It began with a few tents on the boulevard in downtown
Tel Aviv. Three weeks later, hundreds of thousands were
demonstrating for more social justice. Some 87 percent
of Israelis agree with their demands. There has never
been as much consensus in this country, whose society
is more divided than most.

Now doctors, medical students, white-collar workers and
taxi drivers are protesting together. Single mothers,
farmers and students have taken to the streets. But the
angriest people are those regular citizens who perform
mandatory military service, pay taxes and try to pay
down their debts, only to be left with nothing at the
end of every month.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established an expert
commission and postponed a gasoline price hike. The
defense budget will probably also be frozen. Reuven
Rivlin, the speaker of the Knesset, Israel's
parliament, has said that new elections are not
unthinkable. A new social party could conceivably win
15 percent of the seats in the Knesset.

Cheerful Anarchy

Ironically, the site of this transformation is the most
expensive boulevard in Tel Aviv where, framed by
Bauhaus villas and the glass towers of banks, a
kilometer-long strip of tents now winds its way down
the street. Artists, boy scouts and lesbians sit
alongside soldiers, settlers and devout Jews, next to
the shopping carts of the homeless. A creative
explosion of posters, photos, works of art and
installations completes the scene.

Stav Shafir stands in the midst of this cheerful
anarchy and still can hardly believe her eyes. Until
four weeks ago, she was a writer for a lifestyle
website and was studying at the same time. She had
little free time and too many debts. Now Shafir, a 26-
year-old with red curls and a green dress, is one of
the leaders of the protests.

She smiles sheepishly when an older man taps her on the
shoulder and says: "I've been waiting my entire life
for people like you." It's the sort of remark she has
heard a lot of lately.

Shafir nods, explains, laughs and remains consistently
friendly, even though she has hardly slept since July
14, when she was one of the first to pitch her tent on
the boulevard. "Our politicians have talked us into
believing that the conflict with the Palestinians is
the only problem. They want to scare us when they talk
about how Iran will attack us and that we could face a
second Holocaust," she says. "That was their way of
trying to keep us from demanding our rights."

For years, Israeli politics has revolved primarily
around terrorism and protecting the country against
attacks. The left retreated when the peace process
failed, the Labor Party fell apart and social policy
was marginalized. All of that is now reversing itself,
and many hope that this silent majority that yearns for
a different Israel will now gain a voice of its own.

Saving Israel from Extremists

"It's no coincidence that the protests began in the
same week in which the boycott law was passed. The
people have realized that Israel is becoming less and
less democratic," says Assaf Levi, an entrepreneur and
one of the leaders of the protesters. He is referring
to a new law that limits freedom of expression by
prohibiting calls to boycott Israeli products, a tactic
that activists use in campaigns to stop the occupation
of the West Bank. "We want to stop this process," says
Levi. "We don't want to turn Israel over to the

His generation had withdrawn from politics in
frustration, but many are now rediscovering it, says
Levi. They talk about solidarity, grassroots democracy
and community, concepts that many had considered old-
fashioned until now. Their long list of demands
includes a reduction in the value-added tax, rent
control, free childcare, an increase in the minimum
wage and an end to privatization.

Stav Shafir, the protest organizer, now meets with
politicians and economists, is invited to appear on
talk shows and gets up at 6 a.m. for the morning news
shows. Four days after the tent protests began, she was
invited to appear before the Economic Affairs Committee
of the Knesset. She spoke clearly and maturely, giving
a speech that made the helpless politicians seem
ridiculous by comparison. They included the foreign
minister, who insists that there is no crisis, because
the restaurants are full of young people; the defense
minister, who warns that Israel is not Switzerland, and
that Israelis should not forget the security situation;
and the Likud Knesset member who filed a complaint
because she was sprayed with water in the tent city.

The right-wing camp is making every effort to vilify
the leaders of the protests as anarchists, communists
and radical leftists, and as "sushi eaters and water
pipe smokers." But this time their divisive tactics
aren't working.

"How many tent cities are there now?" asks Shafir.
Seventy-eight, says one of the organizers. "Seventy-
eight?" She smiles, still finding it hard to believe.
New cities are springing up every day, already
encompassing 3,383 tents throughout the country. And on
Saturday, over 70,000 people took part in protests in
the centers of a dozen towns and cities across Israel,
following deliberate calls by activists for protests
outside Tel Aviv.

"They accuse us of living in a bubble here, and that
it's just a protest by people from Tel Aviv. But that's
not true," Shafir says. "Everyone is suffering."

Dismal Outlook

Dan Ben-David is an expert on growth economics and the
head of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in
Jerusalem. He can express the frustration in numbers.
Poverty affects almost 20 percent of all families, he
explains, and the labor force participation rate is
barely 57 percent. Social expenditures are consistently
declining, while defense expenditures per capita are
among the highest worldwide. The average number of
schoolchildren per class is 39. "We are at risk of
becoming a third-world country," says Ben-David.

He has been warning against decline for decades. Every
year, Ben-David's report on the state of the nation is
more dismal. Israel is a nation of startup companies
and a leader when it comes to patent applications and
software development, but this is merely the gleaming
facade. Just beneath the surface lies a strained
country undermined by conflicts of interest.

"Our government gives preference to all those who wield
power: Orthodox Jews, settlers, business leaders,
unions," says Ben-David. Unions and tycoons, as they
are called in Israel, are allowed to build monopolies,
he adds. The settlers have been given new roads and
low-interest loans, and the Orthodox Jews are granted
scholarships so that they can devote more time to
studying the Torah. Meanwhile, the cutbacks affect the
middle class.

At the end of the days, says Ben-David, the protests
are also partly about the occupation of the West Bank,
the settlers, the Orthodox Jews and the question of how
Israel defines itself. In his view, social justice also
means that religious Jews should have to work and that
Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians should have the
same rights.

But the protest leaders, anxious to include everyone,
have not addressed these issues so far. "We cannot
resolve the conflict with the Palestinians without
fixing our internal problems, between religious and
secular Jews, and between Jews and Arabs," says Shafir,
the protest organizer. "We don't talk to each other; we
just demonstrate against each other. But that's
changing now."

Bringing Jews and Israeli Arabs Together

In the northern Israeli city of Safed, where rabbis
normally call upon citizens not to rent to Arabs, they
now sit together in one tent. And during large-scale
protests on Saturday, Aug. 6, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi
and an Israeli Arab poet stood together on a stage in
front of hundreds of thousands of people for the first
time. "We are all united in this struggle for social
justice, equality, peace and fraternity," the poet
said, and the crowd applauded.

This new community spirit is also breaking down
barriers within society. "The very dynamic of the
protests is already gnawing at the foundation on which
the occupation rests -- the separation axiom," writes
the blogger Dimi Reider. And if hundreds of thousands
of people can take to the streets for social justice,
then why not for peace?

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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