The mass protests sweeping Israel in recent weeks are encouraging and heartening. They are marked by great enthusiasm and a message of solidarity and unity of struggle, promising to break down the sectarian walls that divide Israel’s politics. Many of the demonstrators are veteran leftists who have carried a clear message against discrimination, militarism and repression against the Palestinians for years. The majority, however, would not have considered themselves leftist a year ago, and yet today find themselves marching in demonstrations in which red flags and even Palestinian flags are waved alongside the Israeli flag.
Clearly, there is much to protest about. Israel used to be a strong welfare-state (at least for its Jewish citizens), with extremely low levels of income inequality in the 1960s (compared to the West), low unemployment and poverty levels, and a rapid growth rate which created wealth for the majority of the population. But the country underwent drastic economic changes, and today Israeli citizens suffer the highest level of inequality in the West (the U.S. excepted). When one includes everyone under de facto Israeli control, including those, such as Palestinians living under occupation, who don’t have citizenship, Israel turns out to be the world’s most unequal economy.
Neo-liberal reforms, massive expenditures on militarization, large-scale privatization of government companies and services, and drastic cuts in welfare coupled with heavy subsidies to the colonies in the West Bank have re-allocated wealth in Israel. The subsidies and security costs of the colonies have increased to encompass 9% of the total government budget, leaving less and less each year for basic public services.
The middle class has been shrinking for many years, with a handful of Israelis getting very rich, and many former middle-class people joining the ranks of the poor. The housing market, currently in the midst of an overheated bubble which, unlike those in the U.S, UK and large parts of Europe, has yet to burst, created an impossible situation in which job opportunities and a good education are available only in the central part of Israel, where housing prices are far beyond the reach of the vast majority of the population. Young people in particular must choose either to live in the periphery with little chance of employment, live in a subsidised colony in the West Bank (and become part of a right-wing political project), or live in the centre and give up the majority of their income for rent (even in crowded accommodations).
The present political crisis was thus inevitable. People will not simply ignore the sustained deterioration of their living standards. While many Israelis (especially educated ones) have been leaving Israel in search of a better life, hundreds of thousands chose to join the protest. Taking heart from the revolution in Egypt and its popularity worldwide, the protestors hope to make Israel a better place.
Unfortunately, good reasons to protest do not ensure victory for the demonstrations. There is no shortage of conservative and reactionary forces trying to take the wind out of the protest, by blaming the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel for the economic crisis, by suggesting that the housing shortage could be solved by taking over Palestinian land (in the West Bank and in the mixed cities in Israel), or by simply treating the protestors as unruly children venting steam, and offering them the wisdom of compromising in their demands and accepting minor reform as a victory.
But the greatest vulnerability of the protest movement comes from the tried and tested tradition in Israel that security trumps social needs. The protestors, after all, did not come from another planet. They were raised in a segregated society, built on ethnic politics and in a Zionist education system. As the recent Israeli bombings of Gaza and the mysterious visit by Ehud Barak, Israel’s Minister of Defense, to the U.S demonstrate, Netanyahu and Barak know that nothing can sow divisions between the demonstrators faster than a war. With the upcoming Palestinian bid for statehood in the UN in September, the Israeli army is gearing for action.
Although protestors have already made it clear that a war would be a transparent and cynical move to silence them, the real test is yet to come – will the protestors give preference to their class identity or to their national identity? Will soldiers refuse orders and lay down their weapons?
Israel is a colonial state, and every Israeli knows (though rarely admits) that Israel was built on the ruins of Palestinian communities. Ideals of justice and equality carry an explosive potential in Israeli society – they can undermine the entire edifice of the “Jewish State,” which is, after all, a starkly unjust and unequal concept. It is doubtful that the protests will take that extra step anytime soon. Even well-known leftists within the movement are attempting to suppress the issue of Palestinian repression, to avoid scaring off the majority of the demonstrators.
These limitations are serious, but even so, one cannot ignore the immense value of the protests in bringing to light the social crisis in Israel. More Israelis realize that welfare, equality and a just social contract are needed not merely to protect minorities (i.e. Palestinians) but to protect everyone.
The long-term success of the protests will hinge on one thing – solidarity. Whether sufficient people will overcome the barriers between them remains to be seen, but one is allowed to hope.
Shir Hever is an Israeli economist at the Alternative Information Center. He is the author of The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation.