Tel Aviv has known many hot summers in its history. But 2011 will probably be remembered as an exceptionally burning summer, one in which the city was flooded by tents occupied by young middle class residents, protesting against the rise in the cost of living. As Or Rosenboim argues, these protests were characterised by the claim to “go beyond the political”, to ask for social justice, referring to the colloquial distinction between issues relating to security and defence, and particularly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, regarded as “the political”, and “the social”. I wish to argue that these protests are closely interlinked to questions of foreign policy even though they put in much time and effort to avoid them.
In a video made by young German artists who attended the latest mass rally in Be’er Sheva (13.8.2011) an Israeli woman explains:” it Is only about the social. Nothing about the Palestinians”. The photographer enquires: “it’s not political?” The woman agrees: “it’s not political”. From its very inception, the protest’s initiators and supporters have been arguing that this has nothing to do with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is a demand for social justice. Is it so?
Daphni Leef, who set her tent in the middle of Rothschild Boulevard on one hot summer day, has done nothing new. She has contributed to a long tradition of “grounding facts in the land” which starts with the first “Aaliyas” (immigrations to Israel) and the attempt to create territorial continuity of Israeli population in Palestine, to the modern practice of the settlements, in which lonely caravans are erected in the midst of the Palestinian territories, claiming Israeli jurisdiction. Although – as Rosenboim notes – many of the goals and visions manifested in the protest refer to social issues, it was carried out by means well known to the Israeli public and strongly associated with the Israeli-Arab conflict. Israel is a country characterized by politics of doing (a term also used by the woman in the youtube video: “we must do something”!) and seeing. It is about going out there and putting up your tent. Whether it is to bring into the public discourse matters of social justice or the borders of the polity, one always wants to erect some kind of a house in the public space.
One may also wonder about the timing of this protest and the impact that may have had on its success; as Israel is preparing for a UN resolution in September regarding the Palestinian state, anxiety levels are rising . Israeli people are famous (or infamous?) for being drawn to television sets and radios throughout their lives; it is impossible to pass any little corner shop in Tel Aviv at 20:00 or 21:00 without hearing the headlines of the local news. Once the first tent was up in Rothschild, even those who didn’t see it heard about it quickly enough, and were ready to act. It is quite plausible that the high level of involvement is not only due to the quest to help people improve their living conditions, but is intertwined with a general anxiety regarding the future. One of the protests’ slogans, “A whole generation demands a future”, may be viewed as a manifestation of this anxiety. This future, as every young Palestinian or Israeli knows, depends on what will happen in the Middle East after September, more than it does on Benyamin Netanyahu’s response to this protest.
Moreover, as journalist Amira Haas notes (Haaretz 6/8/2011), it is impossible to separate the timing of this protest from the Arab Spring that took over the Middle East by storm this year. For better or for worse, this protest has brought Israel up to speed with its neighbours, rethinking and deliberating about what democracy as a system or an ethos may entail for their everyday life.
The young people of Israel are tired. The writer of this post has experienced (and participated in) four election campaigns, lived through two wars and two intifadas, and witnessed the assassination of a Prime Minister, countless peace negotiations and their consequent collapse into yet more conflicts. This, one should add, in a mere 29 years. Israel is a highly politicized country, despite popular dissatisfaction with formal politics (manifested, among other indicators, in a continually decreasing electoral turnout, and a lack of confidence in politicians which may be seen in this protest as well). The discourse surrounding this protest avoids foriegn policy issues, while it is obvious to all parties involved that the solution to questions of welfare and social policy cannot be detached from whatever stand Israel chooses to take with regard to the upcoming UN resolution and its consequences. A redistribution of resources demands rethinking who is included and who is excluded by “Israel 2011” ; whether the young couples who cannot afford a flat in Rothschild Boulevard should move to Ariel instead; or rather, whether resources from the occupied territories should be redirected towards those who have been carrying the burden of the occupation on their backs for years.
Fragmentation and dissent regarding what is termed “the political” cannot be shun away for long. It is becoming impossible to ignore the elephant in the tent on Rothschild Boulevard: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whereas these protests mark a historical departure from the themes of political discourse in Israel, there is nothing new about their methods and, ultimately, goals. Israeli people want a future; but they will have to make it for themselves, while engaging, as Rosenboim argues, with the core issues which Israel faces today.
Dana Mills is a DPhil candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford.
This post was written in response to a previous contribution by Or Rosenboim, which can be viewed here. Dana and Or met each other during the 300,000 demonstration in Tel Aviv on 6 August 2011.