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What Caused the Current Wave of Economic Protests Across Israel?

Tel Aviv—Among the many signs and witty slogans in the improvised tent camp that has recently sprung up on Rothschild Boulevard, part of a larger economic protest movement happening nationwide, one says “ROTHSCHILD, CORNER OF TAHRIR.” To be sure, it is hard not to acknowledge that, while watching protests sweep the Middle East, Israelis have gotten a lesson in participatory democracy from the residents of some of the least democratic countries on the globe. But, while Tahrir Square may have served as an inspiration, the grievances in Israel are certainly not the same as they were in Egypt. So how, exactly, did Israel’s own grassroots demonstrations come about?

The Israeli wave of protests began with a group of students demanding affordable housing in Tel Aviv. In a manner more reminiscent of the American 1960s than of the Arab Spring, the students chose theatrical means: They brought tents to one of the most expensive residential areas in Tel Aviv and set up camp. (The added irony of the boulevard’s name was hard to miss.) The students were surprised, though, by what their spark ignited. Because, soon, tents began to spring up all over the country, and many Israelis—middle and lower-middle-class people—found ways to join in.

The problem spurring the protests, it soon became clear, exceeds young students and is broader than housing prices. It has to do with a structural problem in Israel’s economy. While the economy is healthy and growing, the middle class’s purchasing power keeps eroding. More and more families with two professional, university-educated bread-earners struggle to make ends meet. And what is difficult for the upper-middle class becomes acute with the lower-middle class (not to mention the poor). Police officers, nurses, teachers, civil servants, social workers—the people entrusted with the very backbone of social order—are earning insulting wages. The protests thus coalesce around the problem of a grossly unequal and unfair distribution of wealth.

Slogans against the tycoons of Israel’s economy have sprang up everywhere. But, more than anyone, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the target of the protests. Not only does Netanyahu bear general responsibility for Israel’s domestic policy, but his economic views are of the right-wing variety. Many very different economic grievances thus seem to have found their common source.

But there is also an undercurrent to the protests that is less readily visible, and it extends even beyond economy. It also helps explain why the protests, despite appearances, are not just the purview of the middle class; they are issuing from the larger, vital political center—the political, not just the economic “middle,” which increasingly feels that Netanyahu’s government is a coalition of narrow sectarian interests: the extreme nationalism of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the hawkish religious settlers, and the ultra-orthodox.

On Saturday night, when an unexpectedly huge swarm of people—some 100,000, the press reported—marched from Rothschild Boulevard to the Tel Aviv Museum, I passed by a lone counter-protester holding a sign that read, “THE SOLUTION IS IN JUDEA AND SAMARIA—CHEAP HOUSING.”  On the face of it, this is true: You can get cheap housing in the territories. But, in fact, cheap housing in the territories is exactly the problem, as are the mass exemption of the ultra-orthodox from mandatory military service and the wild privatization that has benefited a small class of millionaires. The very rich benefit from privatization, settlers get cheap housing from the state, ultra-orthodox are supported by a selective welfare state. Meanwhile, the largest sector of Israel’s society, non-orthodox Jews, who do their army service and go on to do reserve service for many years, who work hard and pay the bulk of Israel’s taxes, feel that their efforts and contributions are diverted to the benefit of small sectors. It is the majority who sows what those small sectors reap; Israel, as Ma’ariv journalist Ben-Dror Yemini has quipped, is becoming a “minoritocratia.”

So far, the protests have neglected at least one important root of this serious problem: Our system of government depends on a coalition that gives disproportionate power of political extortion to small parties. But the movement certainly is right in that Netanyahu has greatly aggravated this problem.

The gathering momentum of this upheaval may not, as many now hope, topple the government immediately. But no government can ignore it, because participatory democracy does apply effective pressure. Unlike in most of the Arab world, the protestors are also the voters, and, though they are not violent enough for a true revolution, they will vote in the next elections. Their sheer mass is a loud and clear message—and, in providing that message, they have already changed a great deal.

Gadi Taub is a senior lecturer at the Federman School of Public Policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.