One hot and muggy night in the summer of 2011 my wife, four children and I traveled to Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv to see and support the Social Justice protests that had been prompted by the high costs of housing. “This is history in the making. Something like this happens only once in a generation, so it’s important that we feel the power of protest and society.”
Sweating, we strode the entire Boulevard peeking into colorful tents that ran down its center and chatted with some of their denizens, while reading leaflets declaring: “THE PEOPLE DEMAND SOCIAL JUSTICE!” The atmosphere on Rothschild Boulevard was charged with a pioneering spirit, with revolutionary fervor, with new hope.
This spirit of the social revolution was spreading around the world with different names and themes – among them, Israel Housing Protests, Occupy Wall Street and The Arab Spring – but the same spirit animated them all.
The effects of the 2011 protests on the State of Israel were not insignificant: Committees were established, priorities were tweaked, benefits were provided, “tycoon” became a bad word, and so on. Yet ultimately, the protests failed to make a permanent change for the better in the way Israel operates – largely due to the significant pressure brought to bear by political and business interests.
The limited results of the protests are represented by what happened afterwards to its leaders. Daphni Leef, the initiator of the protest, resisted the temptation to pursue political power and influence and returned to anonymity. Stav Shaffir, who shone briefly in the political firmament, impatiently tried her hand in various political arenas and today is no longer a player. And what of Itzik Shmuli? Today Shmuli is poised, as a member of the eviscerated Labor Party, to become a minister in the government of Netanyahu – Netanyahu, the same man who was Prime Minister in 2011 and who still holds the post, the man whom Shmuli had until very recently been working zealously to remove from office.
We are now in the spring of 2020. Given the severe economic crisis triggered by the Novel Coronavirus, one might think that the natural reaction of the millions of unemployed and self-employed who are left without income, would storm the streets to express their rage against the elected leadership. Yet, it appears that Israelis will not rise up in the millions to protest. Why not? Because 2011 tore the heart out of 2020.
This week, a Member of Knesset took to Facebook to display the form by which he refused to accept a pay raise. I was stunned. After all, if an employee of any other organization were to dare to ask for a raise today, he or she would be unceremoniously kicked out of the boss’s office with the words, “You should be grateful you have a paycheck at all!” Yet here was an Israeli MK patting himself on the back for refusing a pay raise. It would have been more appropriate for those MKs who receive a generous state pension (for example, the alternate Prime Minister Gantz, former Chief of Staff of the IDF) to lead by example and waive a significant portion of their (double) salary for a fixed period.
And that very same MK Gantz, on that very same day, signed a bill to modify the Basic Laws of the government to allow, among other things, expanding the government to 36 ministers, the largest in Israeli history. One of the positive results of the 2011 protests had been to limit the number of government ministers to no more than 18. And now, during a time of unprecedented economic crisis, that achievement of 2011 was rolled back and the number of ministers has doubled. But Israelis will not take to the streets in mass demonstrations.
Why not? Because 2011 tore the heart out of 2020.
Precisely at this time, when the economic crisis intersects with the political crisis and both are exacerbated by the health crisis, when the passion, belief, and commitment to a just, egalitarian, caring Israel that belongs to its citizens – the same passion, belief, and commitment that fueled the social justice movement of summer 2011 and that are so desperately needed for us to emerge strengthened from the COVID-19 crisis – in the summer of 2020 we will not see tens of thousands of citizens taking to the streets.
Why not? Because it is the same generation who did so in 2011.
So a majority of Israelis will curse the current situation and not gather as they once did to claim the future they deserve.
And why not? Because they feel powerless, because 2011 tore the heart out of 2020.