Finally, Israelis have their eyes on the ball

Despite bleak predictions by “well meaning” commentators following the summer of 2011, the social justice movement in Israel is alive and kicking. Last Saturday, 10,000 Israelis took to the streets, refusing to retreat to the familiar old security discourse.

Plenty of security-related events could have easily killed the social justice movement and restore the traditional primacy of the security discourse. Operation Pillar of Defense, the crisis in Syria and recent deployment of Iron Dome batteris in Northern Israel, the growing BDS campaign, including Stephen Hawking’s recent boycott could have pushed back “minor” issues like the government budget or natural gas exports to the back burner. But that did not happen. Instad, both activists and the general public managed to keep their eyes on the ball.

During Operation Pillar of Defense, which took place in Gaza two months before the general elections (11/12), residents of Tel Aviv got a taste of what residents of the South were experiencing almost daily for years.

Surprisingly, the operation did not steer public discourse away from social problems, which continued to form  the main issue of the elections. Instead of directing their anger at Hamas, many Israelis focused on the continued neglect of Israel’s poorer residents of the periphery, despite PM Netanyahu’s emphasis on the Hamas threat. In fact, Likud plummeted in the general elections.

"Yes to Natural Gas, No to Austerity Measures"
“Yes to Natural Gas, No to Austerity Measures”

Similarly, Israelis did not seem shaken by the government’s repeated warnings about the dangers posed by the crisis in Syria to Israel, the subsequent airstrikes or deployment of Iron Dome batteries in Northern Israeli cities.

So instead of preparing for a round of violence, Israelis chose to focus on something completely different: the prospect of Bank Leumi forgiving a major debt owed by Nochi Dankner, one of Israel’s tycoons private company. The severity of public reaction was enough for Bank Leumi to reverse its decision and back out of Dankner’s debt arrangement.

Similarly, the recent story about the specially-installed bed on plane requested by PM Netanyahu, estimated at 5 million NIS (roughly $127,000) while the government was making the argument for austerity measures, only added fuel to the fire.

Last Saturday, 10,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Rishon LeZion, Ramat Gan and Modiin to protest the export of Israel’s natural gas reserves and proposed budget. Unlike the 2011 rallies, one could spot signs about the cost of the settlements and other signs criticizing anti-democratic legislation.

The text of the Facebook event read: “Instead of an impossible budget which raises VAT and income tax, which robs regular and freelance workers, housewives and senior citizens – the people demand to stop free handouts to Israel’s tycoons, return Israel’s natural resources to the public and stop pouring money on isolated settlements. . . .“


May 2013: 10,000 protestors in Tel Aviv
May 2013: 10,000 protestors in Tel Aviv

Not limited to civil society alone, a shift in language and priorities can also be seen in the new government, as battles over the budget did not skip Israel’s sacred cow – the Ministry of Defense:

Nobody thinks there isn’t fat to cut from the Defense Department,” “I know the threats against Israel are real threats, but for 65 years Israel is under threat – first it was Nasser, then Saddam Hussein, then Nassrallah. . . “ No other than leader of HaBayit Hayehudi party (The Jewish Home) Naftali Bennett said these things during at a Finance Committee meeting.

One should not expect the cry for social justice to disappear anytime soon. Despite the approved defense cuts, the budget is still far from serving the interests of the middle and lower classes.

Unlike 2011, the current wave of protests may be smaller, but more focused. It will be characterized by greater cooperation between civil society and the Knesset and a more synchronized leadership. We are also likely to see more explicit language about the relationship between social justice and the cost of West Bank settlements, and new coalitions forming around mutual goals, including previously unengaged populations such as Arab-Israelis, immigrants from the former USSR and in some cases, right-wing settlers.

About the Author
Talia Gorodess is Director of Socio-Economic Development at the Reut Institute, a Tel-Aviv based NGO. Talia is an Israeli-American social activist currently residing in London as part of the Atkin Fellowship.