Something is Happening Here

26 July 2011
By: Rachel Bergstein

I have been living in Palestine/Israel as an activist and politically engaged citizen for nearly two years now, and I have never seen anything like this.

As many of you may have heard, over the past two weeks a group of Israeli twenty-somethings, fed up with the high (and getting increasingly higher) cost of living in Tel Aviv and throughout Israel, set up a tent city on Rothschild Boulevard, the symbol of middle-class Tel Aviv bourgeoisie (here is a brief overview from the NYTimes). The demonstration quickly blossomed, and within days hundreds more set up tents all the way up the boulevard, with thousands more visiting in solidarity. As of today, the tents reached all the way from Habima to beyond Rechov Mazeh (for those of you who know Tel Aviv).

Responding to the government’s retorts that these young people are “spoiled,” urban Tel Aviv elitists, solidarity tent cities sprung up overnight in Beer Sheva, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Kiryat Shemona (other cities around Israel, many in the periphery) and more, attesting to the fact that this crisis is in fact nationwide.

From there, the protests grew. An estimated thirty thousand people gathered Saturday night in the center of Tel Aviv. People are angry that the the cost of living is spiraling out of control, and that the neoliberal policies adopted by the Israeli establishment since the mid-1980s have decimated the welfare state into oblivion. I’ve been riding the left-wing protest circuit for nearly two years, but I’ve never seen anything like this – I’ve never seen this kind of energy, this kind of emotion. I’ve never seen this many people. Approximately thirty activists were arrested for blocking a major intersection in the middle of Tel Aviv, while they shouted “Assad, Mubarak, Bibi” (referring to Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister). I am so moved – this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Tel Aviv. It happens in Sheikh Jarrah, in Bil’in and in Nebi Salah (the sites of more radical demonstrations). But it does not happen in the middle of mainstream Tel Aviv, and certainly not in a way that publicly draws inspiration from the Arab Spring.

And it’s only getting bigger. Hundreds of people marched on the Knesset (Parliament) today, and breaking news just told me that 200 people blocked the road outside Prime Minister Nethanyahu’s home in Jerusalem. (Can you believe it?! Civil disobedience has gone mainstream in Israel!)

For me, this movement has come to represent – simultaneously – what I find ugliest and what I find most beautiful about the place I’ve chosen to make my home.

Walking down Rothschild Boulevard, it is impossible to tell if it’s a protest or a street festival. The cross-section of people here is incredible. I’ve seen a Breslover (a sect of Hassidic Jews) dance circle, the Anarchist drummers marching down the boulevard, and Im Tirzu (the fascists who everyone loves to hate) handing out flyers. There is a compost bin. And a sukkah. And a teepee. The place is packed with young people drinking beer, barbecuing, sitting around in circles singing as someone plays a guitar, doing contact improv in the middle of the street, and of course I’m certain there is going to be a tent-baby boom in Tel Aviv come April (for great visuals, see Activestills’ photosream). I am constantly awed by Israelis’ capacity to experience unbridled joy, despite the exceedingly difficult socio-political and material circumstances in which they live their lives.

Yet walking down Rothschild, I am also keenly aware who isn’t there. The protest is overwhelmingly white and middle-class. Conspicuously absent are the “other” residents of Tel Aviv – Palestinians from Yafo, whose severe housing crisis has gone unmentioned for years, exaggerated by municipal policies that favor gentrification and Jewish-only settlement over community development, and Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews, refugees and migrant workers from Tel Aviv’s poor, neglected southern neighborhoods. In fact, out of all of the tent cities that have been raised all over the country over these few weeks, the only one to be demolished was the one built in south Tel Aviv (see an excellent video here).

I am also keenly aware of what is not being said (at least not by the protesters. The left-wing op-ed media is of course having a field day!). What’s not being said is that for decades the government of Israel has been pouring money into settlement construction in the West Bank, instead of developing sustainable housing solutions for Jewish citizens of what the rest of the world considers to be Israel. What’s not being said is that there is been a dire housing crisis for years among Palestinian communities in Israel, because the government does not permit Palestinian citizens to build. What’s not being said is that Mizrachi Jews have been geographically marginalized in urban spaces and housing issues since the State of Israel’s founding. What’s not being said is that this popular uprising takes place against the backdrop of a brutal and repressive legislative assault on democratic freedoms.

The tent movement’s leaders insist that their struggle is not “political.” For young Israelis fed up with the corruption and ineffectiveness of their government, “politics” is a dirty word. But for me, it’s impossible to look at what’s happening in Tel Aviv and not see the bigger picture.

I am truly uplifted and inspired by the sound of thirty thousand people calling, “The nation demands social justice!” I am ecstatic that when they talk about social justice they are talking not only about housing, but they are making connections with other struggles here – the price of consumer goods (the “cottage cheese boycott”), the doctors’ and social workers’ strikes, etc. The popular discourse has finally – FINALLY – moved beyond the “peace process,” and started to look critically at what kind of society we are trying to build here.

But I am pained that these voices come wrapped in an Israeli flag, which to me represents a nation built on the backs of many for the political and economic benefit of an elite few (for more on this, see the post-colonialist discussion of Zionism – Oren Yiftachel, Ella Shohat, Aziza Khazzoum, Yehuda Shenhav). When we say that “the nation” is demanding social justice, what kind of social justice are we talking about, and are we defining “the nation” in a way that is truly inclusive?

In his infamous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I am full of hope that this movement will be the doorway to a broader movement for change. I hope that the middle class in Tel Aviv has opened its eyes and will connect the dots to see that their struggle is the same as that of Palestinians being evicted from their homes in Lod, Ramle and Sheikh Jarrah; of the Bedouins in Al Arakib, an “unrecognized” village in the Negev that has been destroyed 27 times over the past year alone; and of Mizrahi Jews in Kfar Shalem who have been in a tug-of-war for decades with the municipality, who is trying to demolish their homes and build luxury high rises. I am heartened by the fact that throughout history it has been the middle class who has lead the most successful revolutions, so even if the tent city strikes me as overly yuppy and white, maybe in the end that’s not a bad thing.

There is talk of revolution. There is talk of an awakening. My sincerest prayer is that this is the beginning of a movement for true democracy in this country, and the dawning of new era marked by the social, political, and economic inclusion of all of us living in this crazy, crazy place.

May it come speedily, and in our days.

For further reading: Great ongoing analysis of the “Tentifada” at +972 magazine:

Rachel Bergstein - NIF’s Rabbi Richard J. Israel Social Justice Fellow 2009-2010

Rachel Bergstein

Rachel Bergstein was NIF’s Rabbi Richard J. Israel Social Justice Fellow in 2009-2010. She currently resides in Tel Aviv. The views expressed here are hers entirely, and do not indicate an endorsement of all NIF policies and stances, nor an NIF endorsement of all Rachel’s statements.