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Israeli Tent Protests Ignore Link Between Neoliberalism, Occupation

A child amidst a makeshift tent camp during a demonstration in Jerusalem, July 31, 2011. (Photo: Rina Castelnuovo / The New York Times) It started in mid-July, when Dafni Leef, a Tel Aviv filmmaker, was met with a hike in her rent that she couldn't afford to pay. Instead of moving to a new apartment, she moved to a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, the city's sleekest thoroughfare, and set up a Facebook event calling for her compatriots to join her. And they did: first, scattered hundreds – then, on Saturday, July 30, over 300,000 people in Tel Aviv alone, with tents mushrooming across the country, in self-conscious defiance of state-peddled neoliberalism.

It started in mid-July, when Dafni Leef, a Tel Aviv filmmaker, was met with a hike in her rent that she couldn't afford to pay. Instead of moving to a new apartment, she moved to a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, the city's sleekest thoroughfare, and set up a Facebook event calling for her compatriots to join her. And they did: first, scattered hundreds – then, on Saturday, July 30, over 300,000 people in Tel Aviv alone, with tents mushrooming across the country, in self-conscious defiance of state-peddled neoliberalism.

And the “tent protests,” dubbed the J14 (or, on Twitter, #J14) protests in honor of their start date on July 14, did not begin in the sectors most affected by economic dysfunction. They did not begin in the ramshackle population centers of the Negev, like Sderot, nor in destitute and immigrant-rich south Tel Aviv, but in the city's affluent north, by those who had gone to Hebrew University and Ben-Gurion University, the seminaries of the country's elite, those who had done the requisite military service, the children of the bourgeoisie or the declining bourgeoisie, who had expected a smooth ride into an affluent future and are now colliding with the debris of the shattered Israeli social compact.

Complaints started in response to rapid increases in the price of cottage cheese, moved on to the housing crisis and have spread to the general crisis: a country peppered with billionaires but without a functioning public transportation system, a country that produces high-tech drones which it markets to militaries worldwide, but in which one-third of the workforce earns the minimum wage, a country whose name still connotes “socialism” in some corners and which is the second-most-unequal industrialized democracy on the planet. At the protests, demands, complaints, cat-calls and concerns have centered on messages such as:

“Danger, construction – for the rich”
“Bibi, wake up – women are more valuable.” (This rhymes in Hebrew.)
“The people want public housing.”
“Welfare state now.”
“The people are calling for social justice.”
“The answer to privatization? Revolution!”

The demographics of the demonstrations run the gamut: they began with the university-educated, newly graduated middle class, but their spread to development towns indicates that they are touching a broader socioeconomic base, including the Arab Jewish underclass, which can compose as much as 90 percent of the population of perilous border towns like the municipalities in northern Israel, where the white European elite, eager to fill out the territorial envelope of the new Israeli state and thereby safeguard its borders, deliberately placed them.

Polls suggest that 87 percent of Israelis support the protests. Among them are 98 percent of Kadima voters and 95 percent of Labor voters, the bastions of the middle class and the upper-middle class. But 85 percent of Bibi Netanyahu's Likud, which tends to draw support from poorer Mizrahi sectors, also supports the protests, indicating the breadth – if not the depth – of popular support for those out in the streets.

What have thus far been mostly absent are calls to end the occupation, a silence that speaks eloquently to the composition of Israeli society, in which a call to end the occupation or dismantle the racist juridical structure is perceived as an attack on the state religion: militarist nationalism. Such a call would be “political,” as opposed to the current protests, which are merely “social” in nature.

It is yet early, but two things seem clear. One, this movement will not break the Israeli structure of power. Two, this is an early fracture – a foretaste of later ruptures – within Zionism.

It would be wonderful to be wrong about the first point. One could not predict the fall of the Iranian shah from the Peacock Throne in 1977 before months-long street melees sent him into flight. The rise of Hugo Chavez was not prefigured in the caracazo, the countrywide riots against Venezuelan neoliberal austerity measures, of 1989. Revolutions are inherently unpredictable, as people move out of the gentle ebbs and flows, the quotidian cycles, of their lives, and move to messianic time. At such moments, belief in their own power, a kind of “collective effervescence,” can create opportunities that no one would have predicted or believed possible just weeks before, and radical change becomes a kind of a mirage that one suddenly wills into being real. Such sparks of human creativity and the instinct for freedom kindle flames within structures designed to douse them.

Still, the fractures within those structures are real. The average apartment is unaffordable for 90 percent of the population, what academic and housing researcher Danny Ben Shahar calls a “social time-bomb,” in part the result of housing inflation as a jet-setting Jewish transnational elite flits into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the summer, stays at their “ghost apartment,” then returns to Paris and Los Angeles. Inflation is not restricted to the housing market. As Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman Ofer Eini said, “If once I was able to go to the supermarket and make a NIS 700 purchase, today I pay double. And that is not linked to the CPI. If the CPI rises 3 percent, the supermarket prices rise 30 percent. The one benefiting from these rising prices is the government.”

The question of the “government” benefiting from rising prices is dubious. Inflation might be partially pushed by the government, but historically, Israeli inflation has led to a redistribution of economic clout from the bottom and middle of Israeli society to its upper echelons. The upper class, welded solidly into transnational capital circuits, is the real beneficiary, behind the veneer of the state and the politicians it pushes into office. And it frequently does not bother with the veneer: amidst a cartelized economy, prices are pushed higher and higher by the corporations that set prices, while wages do not come close to keeping pace with price increases.

And, of course, the Histadrut is only nominally a “labor federation”: in reality, it assists an accumulation process tightly tied into the state apparatus, regulating wages and – notoriously – offloading state enterprises onto politically connected figures in the private sector in the looting of the commons euphemistically called “privatization.” As ever, the state is not looking out for the interests of the dispossessed. It is looking out for the interests of the possessed, and looking out for them with great care and skill: ten large business groups now control 30 percent of the market value of public companies, while 16 control half of the money in the whole country.

What Eini is doing is reminding state managers that Israeli social cohesion is fraying, with taxes among the highest in the Western world relative to state welfare spending, and telling it to respond.

One can see the current protests as the outcome of a process in which the relative egalitarianism – never “socialism” – of the early years of Israeli statehood has been replaced by increasing centralization and privatization of social wealth. Through the mid-1970's, the Israeli elite was able to both increase its own power and pay off the lower ranks of the Israeli social hierarchy through a deft combination of redistribution and dispossession. Israeli social discontent has been defused and diffused through colonization, militarism and alternative social welfare measures, both material and symbolic, with the common thread of resolving internal Israeli social problems on the backs of the native population: the Palestinians.

One sees such a tendency in the decision to militarize starting in the post-founding period, welding the new immigrants to the state-linked Israeli “new class” inhabiting the upper posts of the Histadrut and other state institutions with jingoism and state worship.

Later, the Israeli elite responded to the economic malaise afflicting North African immigrants by going to war in 1967, spurring the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And still later, the settlement project began to gather a social base from the Arab Jewish Mizrahi, with the tacit and explicit assent of both politicians and social elites. The lifestyle settlers living just over the Green Line, or in the settlements ringing East Jerusalem, are also mostly Mizrahi, as are the rank-and-file of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). It is the Israeli lower classes that support the settlement project most strongly, and it is their socioeconomic grievances that have been addressed by it in the cheapest way possible – the reason why the settlements are built on Palestinian land is that the cheapest land is freshly stolen land.

Another motivation is that insofar as social pressure mounts for affordable housing or welfare disbursements from the state, releasing that pressure is only partially a question of current distributions from the state. A second aspect of the same question is future distributions, promised by Labor and Likud governments alike. People can look forward to low-cost land or housing on the settlements that they cannot look forward to in unaffordable urban centers. Polls show overwhelming Israeli popular support for maintaining the settlements and the occupation of the territories. Their respondents are, perhaps, dimly aware of the role that settlement expansion plays in cementing Israeli social cohesion by letting off lower-class social pressure.

Another motivation for maintaining the occupation is that the army and the settlers are deeply invested in the settlement project, with people from the settlements increasingly occupying the front line and elite units that would be tasked with the kind of population withdrawal contemplated in two-state settlements. The settlements are a problem, but they are also a symptom of deeper problems, and what they are certainly not is the delusional descriptor applied to them by Israeli liberals and American realists alike: the “begetters” of all sins. The Israeli right wing routinely points out that the same logic that impels an end to the occupation could as well be applied to the entire process of Israeli state formation – that if the takeover of Lydda, Acre and Ashdod was justified in 1948, then the occupation of Judea and Samaria in 1967 was likewise justified. There is truth to their argument: if Israeli colonization was condonable in 1948, why is it suddenly condemnable in 1967?

And then there is a deeper truth: the role the belief that the rightness of Israeli actions plays within Israeli society. Amidst the odd jumble of social blocs – ultra-orthodox Haredi; Central and Eastern European Jewish; immigrants from ultrareligious neighborhoods in Brooklyn; Ethiopian, Iraqi, Kurdish and Algerian Jews; the recent Russian immigration, 15 to 20, perhaps 50 percent of which is not even Jewish – Zionism is an integument holding together a fissiparous society in which over 25 percent of the population was not even born in Israel. A society united by nationalism is one that is unlikely to notice the division that matters most: the constantly widening one between the rich and the poor. Settlement withdrawal could become a solvent to the nationalist binding of Israeli society, and it is for that reason that the elite stalls constantly on the issue of a final settlement, preferring the stasis of a peace process that is long on process and short on peace to a rending withdrawal of 250,000 – or 500,000 – settlers, a withdrawal that might tear Israeli society apart on economic and ethnic fault lines.

There are other reasons the occupation continues, too. Those at the top ranks of the military, as well as those with investments in construction or who benefit from cheap Palestinian labor, are invested in the settlement enterprise, and if there's one thing the Israeli elite does not want, it's an intra-elite feud. Between the fraction of the elite invested in the settlement project and the widespread popular support for it, it's no wonder that it continues. Despite the fact that most of the Israeli elite receives little direct economic benefit from the settlement project, it is cheaper to maintain the occupation than to end it – at least for Israel's elite, and at least for the time being.

It is that cost-benefit matrix that the J14 protests can indirectly affect, highlighting the fact that the occupation, and, more importantly, the militarism which produced it and which it reproduces, both rely on and reproduce ethnic cleavages so as to divert popular attention from the deepest fissure of all: that between the haves and the have-nots. And it is along precisely that fissure that the J14 protests are taking place.

So, on the one hand, despite the idiosyncratic Israeli insistence that the protests are “social,” not “political,” these protests are clearly open political confrontation. Gathering, talking, joking, making street-theater and confronting the police, the protesters are in the midst of an open battle between poor- and middle-class Israelis and the state-elite nexus, which is amazing not merely because it is bridging the historical rift between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi – one of a series of intra-Israeli social cleavages that the elite uses to maintain power – but also in that demonstrators are not merely emulating the Egyptian protesters, but articulating that thinking on mainstream media, publicly and unabashedly echoing the Arab example and claiming that the Arab Spring has blossomed into an Israeli summer. As one middle-class Israeli suggested, “We have to do what they did in Egypt. Yalla, tahrir, jihad.” To exalt the Egyptian example shatters Israeli social taboos, and that is one of the more striking and undernoticed aspects of the protests. In Gaza City, a friend once asked me if the Israelis considered themselves tourists in the region or were here to stay. In a painfully partial manner, these tent protests are, perhaps, beginning to hint at the glimmer of an answer to that question.

Yet without a call for ending the occupation, the demonstrations cannot encompass the most structurally disadvantaged stratum within Israeli society – the '48 Palestinians. Nor can they attract the passive support of Palestinians in the occupied territories or in the diaspora. Without such a call, there is something odd and unreal about the social justice protests, like a photograph in which all the red tone has leached out, leaving it cold and lifeless.

Meanwhile, for the Palestinians under a decades-long occupation, the intricacies of internal Israeli social discontent and the nuances of Israeli social mobilization have understandably elicited sneers and jeers. The cost of bread to a Jewish family in Ashkelon is a real problem, but in the hierarchy of suffering, it cannot rank next to the experience of the oppression of a family in a Gaza City refugee camp who used to live in Ashkelon when it was called Majdal, who were “cleansed” from there in 1948 and who lost their bakery to destruction in the 2008-2009 attack, which most of the Israelis now complaining about high bread prices openly supported.

Looked at from the outside, the lacuna when it comes to the Palestinians is a sociologically jarring absence, like poor American antebellum field hands clamoring for the minimum wage without blinking an eye at the dark men in chains working in the fields next to theirs. But that a racist society produces a racist protest movement is almost unavoidable. Resistance movements must start with the human material they possess, not with the human material they wished they possessed. As historian Staughton Lynd asks, “Who were the workers who made the Russian Revolution? Sexists, nationalists, half of them illiterate. Who were the workers in Polish Solidarity? Anti-Semitic, whatever. That kind of struggle begins to transform people,” a transformation one sees in embryonic form in the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi solidarity within the protests themselves. Furthermore, people articulate their resistance to oppression – at first – in the terms in which that oppression appears to them. To the average Israeli, the ones at these protests, the occupation is not tied into their experience of oppression. Indeed, that occupation is part of stoking the Zionist sentiment and soldering the intra-Jewish communal bonds such that Israel's Jewish citizens either do not notice intracommunal oppression or do not act upon it.

But there is no force growing a radical consciousness, and there is no reason to believe that the conditions are ripe for such a consciousness' development in the first place. Thus far, the leadership has been inchoate, but the Tel Aviv Students' Union has taken on a central role, and has been active in quashing talk of the occupation, and has been chary about raising the core triad of injustices at the heart and inception of Israeli society: the occupation, the denial of equal rights to Israel's Palestinian minority, and the refugee issue.

Yet the past week has seen some meager developments with respect to Palestinian grievances. A tent baptized “1948” was set up on Rothschild Boulevard, in which Palestinian and Israel-Jewish activists have been housed, discussing Palestinian rights and Palestinian issues. Among the protesters' demands are two issues central to the 1948 Palestinians: recognition of the unrecognized villages of the Bedouin in the Sinai, and expansion of the municipal borders of Palestinian villages and towns so as to allow for their natural development. But such calls are just sparks in the broader “nonpolitical” landscape of Israeli protest.

The feeling seems to be that to introduce the subject of the occupation would be to politicize the protests, which would lead to their fracturing, because the government would be able to dismiss them as so much leftist seditious rabble-rousing. And the whole country would line up behind the government, because the country despises the left.

Even if the tent protest organizers are willing to hazard a gambit on total change – something they are unlikely to do (indeed, despite their current mobilization, something they have been raised to oppose) – that call will have unpredictable effects on the Israeli lower class, which benefits from the occupation, both materially and in the realm of symbolic capital, measured in the degree of racism and hatred towards the Palestinians, which is their main arena of competition for social prestige within Israel. Indeed, it is the tragedy of the Israeli left that it is precisely amongst those lower classes that one finds the strongest support for occupation and anti-Arab racism. It is those social sectors which compose the social base of the rightist Likud and Shas parties.

Some are suggesting that if the protests mount, the defense budget – the core of Israeli militarism and a crucial part of the more bellicose fragment of the elite's power – will be reduced. A transfer of state resources from militarism to social infrastructure may not be intended to help Palestinians, but it will help them nonetheless, by weakening the technomachinery of oppression and occupation that grinds relentlessly into Palestinian society. According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figures, 16 percent of Israeli gross domestic product (GDP) is devoted to military spending, much of which gets funneled to those who own the increasingly privately owned Israeli military-industrial complex. The occupation is not, strictly speaking, needed to sustain that military spending, yet peace and peace dividends would hardly suit a society that was built on and is sustained by warfare and a constant flow of weapons and military-oriented investment from the United States.

The protests could go in any number of directions: they could peter out as the disaffected lower- and middle-class organizers and participants return home, chastened, bored and tired. They could extract some victories from the government in the form of a redirection of spending from warfare to welfare. The protesters could try to braid in the occupation, and then disappear in the roar of a resurgent rightism. Or, they could draw the connections between Israel's stratospheric subsidies for high-tech investment, the privatization of the state-owned industrial plant, the gutting of the social compact, the nonstop militarization, the constant wars, the rockets falling on southern and northern Israel from the Palestinians the Israeli military complex profits from persecuting, oppressing, murdering and immiserating. Faced with such a choice, the Israeli lower classes are as likely to opt for xenophobic reaction, to descend into a right-wing riotous rabble, as to move to revolution.

The quandary of the upper class, which is somewhat ambivalent about the occupation yet wholly committed to neoliberalism, is more convoluted. What they will fight, at all costs, is an end to Israeli economic inequities, because they get fat off of those inequities. For that reason, any structural victory in terms of state spending, any reorientation of spending from militarism to housing, will lay a foundation for further victories. Perhaps more important than the structural victories themselves will be their effect on the Israeli consciousness. That is why the Israeli government will pay any price to divert, disrupt or defuse these protests if the pressure they create becomes too great to ignore.

It would pay this price because such a victory would offer a dangerous lesson to the human beings who make up the gears and pulleys and levers, all the whirring machinery of the apartheid system: that occupation and racism are not just a means of social control over a reeling and shattered Palestinian society, but over the Israeli lower classes themselves.

In September, Palestinians will mobilize en masse in the West Bank and Gaza in support of the resolution calling for Palestinian statehood, and the state will call up reservists to repress them – the reservists currently sitting in tents on Rothschild. And the men sitting in tents in Rothschild will either stay in those tents and demand justice or head to the West Bank with guns in their hands to deny justice to the Palestinians. The occupation will arise as a determining cleavage, whether the tent organizers like it or not.

And there is little reason to expect that those in the tents will choose economic justice over the siren song of loyalty to the state and the occupation. In their ability to ignore that siren song and combine opposition to the occupation with opposition to neoliberalism lies Israel's ability to transform itself from a self-conscious irritant into a part of the region. And in their inability to resist that siren song lies the path to repression of Palestinian resistance, the next war and regional disaster.

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