Social Protests in Israel: Scenes from a Middle Eastern Democracy

On September 3, more than 400,000 Israelis—seven percent of Israel’s total population—took to the streets to demand social change. Reflecting the climax of a two-month-long protest movement, rallies stretching from Karmiel in the north to Eilat at Israel’s southern tip called for reforms in economic and social policies. In stark contrast to the violence meted out against ongoing protests in the Arab world, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been listening and responding to the peaceful movement’s grievances. An independent committee has already been set up to deal with these grievances, and Netanyahu has promised to “act quickly to bring about the correct balance between social concern and fiscal responsibility.”

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25-year-old Daphne Leef initiated the massive social protests across Israel this summer.
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On September 3, some 300,000 protestors marched in Tel Aviv to demand economic and social reforms.

The Rent is Too High

When 25-year-old Daphne Leef discovered in mid-July that she could not afford a rental apartment in Tel Aviv, she pitched a tent in protest and opened a Facebook page calling on people to join her. Leef soon found herself surrounded by an entire “tent city” lining Rothschild Boulevard in the heart of Tel Aviv. Similar encampments quickly sprung up around the country, attracting people from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

Protestors’ grievances extended beyond the lack of affordable housing to general dissatisfaction with current economic and social priorities affecting the lower and middle classes. On the one hand, Israel has seen significant growth in its per-capita GDP over the past decade, rising from $18,000 in 2006 to about $30,000 in 2010, and the country enjoys a low unemployment rate of 5.5 percent. The Jewish state weathered the global recession relatively well, and in September of last year joined the prestigious club of the OECD (the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development).

On the other hand, much of the prosperity has been concentrated among a small group of business magnates. The tax burden on the middle class remains high and the prices of basic goods, as well as education and medical costs, have significantly increased in the past few years. Housing prices in particular have skyrocketed, rising between 2005 and 2011 by 34 percent nationwide and by 49 percent in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, Israel’s commercial and financial center. Thus, the average family has found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Rallying for Reform

A first demonstration of the social protest movement was held in Tel Aviv on July 23, when more than 20,000 people rallied under the banner of “social justice.” Momentum for the movement quickly grew, with opinion polls finding 83 percent to over 90 percent of the population in support.

Thousands of parents participated in a “strollers’ march” on July 28, pushing baby strollers to protest the high cost of raising a child in Israel. Mass rallies followed in cities throughout Israel on July 30 and August 6, peaking with the September 3 demonstrations, which were unparalleled in the history of the Jewish state.

Some 300,000 protestors in Tel Aviv alone marched to Hamedina Square, one of the largest plazas in the city. As many commentators noted, despite this being the site of many luxury stores and international designer shops, no looting took place and the demonstration remained entirely non-violent. Tens of thousands simultaneously rallied in dozens of cities and towns, representing a broad cross-section of Israeli society.

Daphne Leef told the crowd in Tel Aviv that the fact that her generation had stood up and raised its voice was “nothing short of a miracle — the miracle of the summer of 2011.” “Mr. Prime Minister, take a good look at us: we’re the new Israelis. We want only one thing: to live in this country. We want not only to love the State of Israel, but also to exist here respectfully, and to live with dignity,” said Itzik Shmuli, chairman of the National Student Union.

In the city of Haifa, Jews and Arabs marched together to express shared grievances and demand socioeconomic reform. Addressing the mixed crowd, Shahin Nasser, an Israeli Arab, said: “Today we are changing the rules of the game. No more coexistence based on hummus and fava beans. What is happening here is true coexistence, when Arabs and Jews march together shoulder to shoulder calling for social justice and peace.”

Following the September 3 demonstrations, organizers announced that many of the tent encampments would be dismantled. Others, however, would be transformed into communal meeting places, allowing the movement to continue to hold public debates and strategy sessions.

The Government Takes Action

Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed a committee on August 8 to engage with the protest movement and propose solutions to Israel’s socioeconomic problems. “Israel has never had a committee that has begun such an open and serious dialogue with thousands of citizens … I intend to act quickly, pursuant to its recommendations, and maintain the correct balance between social sensitivity and responsible economics,” said Netanyahu.

Headed by Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the Higher Education Planning and Budget Committee and a respected professor of economics at Tel Aviv University, the committee has held discussions with representatives of the protestors, civil society organizations and various sectors of the public. It has heard demands to implement a new taxation system in order to lighten the tax burden on the middle class, provide free schooling from an early age and increase investments in public housing and public transportation. The Trajtenberg Committee is scheduled to make its recommendations to the government’s socioeconomic cabinet later this month.

Amidst the protests, prices have already begun to fall. Apartment costs in Tel Aviv dropped by an average of 6.5 percent in the second quarter of 2011, while the consumer price index declined in July for the first time in more than a year. Whatever the long-term economic consequences of the social protests of summer 2011, the fact that such a grassroots movement is at all possible attests to the unique democratic nature of the Jewish state.

“It’s wonderful that in the democracy here, people have the right to go out and express their opinion. I do not know if I agree with the protest or not, because I’m not familiar with the economic and social situation in Israel, but the very fact that freedom of speech and discourse are free in Israel is remarkable,” said Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, after visiting the tent cities in Tel Aviv. BACK TO TOP