Monday, September 5, 2011

An ‘Israeli Spring’? Popular Protest and Political Resignation Converge on Tel-Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.

Daniel Bertrand Monk,
  Colgate University
  Daniel J. Levine,
  Colgate University
When young Israeli professionals erected a tent city on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in protest against the Netanyahu government’s indifference to an affordable housing crisis in Israel, they self-consciously modeled their efforts on the popular revolutions commonly referred to as “the Arab Spring.” Handmade signs reading “Rothschild, Corner of Tahrir” invite us to make comparisons between the style of this ‘Israeli Spring’ and the events in Cairo that brought down the Mubarak regime last April. Many commentators have done so as well
 “Among the many handmade signs in the Israeli protests is this one prominently stating: “Rothschild, Corner of Tahrir.”
On the face of it, the Netanyahu government’s response invites a similar comparison. Like Mubarak, Netanyahu seems to have been surprised by the extent and commitment of Israel’s “Facebook” revolution. In an echo of Egyptian officials’ efforts to discredit the Tahrir protesters as servants of foreign interests who were selling their loyalties for boxes of fried chicken, Netanyahu’s allies dismissed the Tel Aviv protesters as spoiled “nargileh-smoking, sushi-eating” children. Netanyahu’s cronies, it is true, stopped short of intimating a connection between the Rothschild protesters and al-Qaeda. But the Israeli political milieu provides its own vocabulary for delegitimizing comparisons, as when right-wing Knesset Member Miri Regev (Likud) called the protestors “leftists,” and compared them to Israel’s “Black Panther” movement of the 1970s. Only after 300,000 Israelis took to the streets on August 6 demanding a reordering of national priorities did Netanyahu make public statements indicating that the demands of the protesters were legitimate, even as he sought to buy them off with promises of reform and a blue ribbon commission.
"An Israeli matron reads about the previous night’s protests in a Tel-Aviv café. The newspaper’s headline: “Israel in the Streets. 300,000 protestors. A New Land.”
As with their counterparts in Egypt, none but the most naïve of Tel Aviv’s new “urban Bedouins” have considered the Prime Minister’s proposals to be anything but cynical. Most have vowed to stay the course in the tent city on Rothschild Boulevard even after the rains come to Israel in November. “This regime of capital will crumble,” stated Yossi Baruch, spokesman for the largest tent city in Haifa, in response to the PM’s promises to expedite the construction of 50,000 new low-income housing units as part of a new Housing Committees Law. Many of the protesters see this legislation as little more than an additional giveaway to developer-tycoons allied with the political establishment  
"3 years military, education, housing"
Though pleasing in their symmetry, these parallels between the Tel Aviv and Cairo demonstrations are misleading. Indeed, in one critical respect they are the reverse images of one another. Participants in the Arab Spring deflected the claims of tyrannical rulers in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt: threats to national security by Israel or fundamentalist extremists were no longer to be accepted as excuses for again deferring democratic/parliamentary reforms. In an already intensely ‘parliamentary’ Israel, the tent dwellers oft-stated demand for social justice is a deflection, but of a very different sort: an attempt to deny the very real place that the Israel/Palestine conflict holds on the conditions they seek to change. At “Rothschild, corner of Tahrir,” seemingly supra-political demands – the attempt to posit ‘social justice’ as somehow beyond politics as presently understood and practiced in Israel – constitutes an act of denial.
"Could we have a piece of the pie"
The Rothschild Commune provides its own best evidence of this denial. A walk down the tent city from north to south does, indeed, disclose a nerve center of committed geek-hacker-activists and university students who demonstrate remarkable discipline, organization, and clarity in their efforts to roll back Israel’s neo-liberal turn. These people are the ideological core of the movement. But prominent in the mix are also the remnants of Labor Zionism (like the youth group Hashomer Hatza’ir), activists for divorced fathers’ rights, organizations demanding the end of exemptions from military service for yeshiva students, religious ecstatics (“Na-Nach-Nachma” offshoots of Breslov Hasidism who dance on sound trucks when they are not sleeping off the bliss in their tents), and, most incongruously, members of the notorious ‘Youth of the Heights’: second or third-generation settler-hippies, the hash-smoking but also highly militant counterculture of the West Bank settlements. Tel Aviv’s tent city, then, is itself a “big tent” in which space is obtained by a tacit commitment to avoid party politics entirely. 
“The Tent City on Rothschild Boulevard functions as a commune, with free haircuts, seminars, music, religious services, and Arabic lessons”

Eretz Nehederet, Israel’s equivalent of The Daily Show, satirized this situation brilliantly. When its host asked a cast member playing Dafni Lif (the original organizer of the tent protests on Facebook) “what are your demands?” She replies: “Um…the People demand the things everyone agrees on…about…them”). Chiding the host for insisting that she specify the movement’s aims, Lis merely reverts to the most repeated of the protestors’ slogans: Ha’am Doresh Tzedek Chevrati (“the People Demand Social Justice”) 
"If you will it, it is no dream"
In its very construction, the slogan itself – the People Demand Social Justice – discloses the denial at work here. A reaction to the nation state’s political fragmentation appears as a demonstration against social stratification. In shouting ‘The People Demand Social Justice,’ everyone involved in the Rothschild ‘revolution’ agrees to act as if the social and economic consequences of placating settlers, ultranationalists, and the ultra-orthodox – all united by a shared material interest in perpetuating the occupation – has nothing to do with the government’s inability to provide for the needs of ‘the People’. To get 300,000 people onto the streets of Israel without causing a counter-demonstration on the following Saturday night, Israelis identifying with a bazaar of essentially incompatible political positions have tacitly agreed to pretend that Tel Aviv has joined the wave of popular protests in Madrid, London, and Athens against the ‘structural adjustment programs’ that western economies used to impose upon the global south and have now turned against their own citizens.
But the numbers belie this. Israel’s curious coalition of the disaffected has emerged in an economy that is enjoying higher growth in real GDP than Bahrain, Brunei, and Oman. In sharp contrast to Athens or Cairo, Israel has almost halved its unemployment rate since 2003, and 80% of its wage earners are employed in service industries. Many of the “urban Bedouins” of Rothschild Boulevard get up every morning, zip up their tent flaps, and go to work in the high tech sector. If nearly one quarter of Israel’s citizens are now falling below the poverty line (and if its middle class has “vanished,” as former Israel Manufacturers Board chair, Dov Lautman claims), it is because the government of Israel is forced to maintain the costly infrastructure of two para-states – one for the ultra-orthodox and another for the settlers – before it can even begin going about its own business. 
"Commenting on right-wing politicians’ dismissals of the protesters as bourgeois ‘sushi-eaters,’ the Rothschild protesters made a carnival feature in which the average Israelis can see how ‘they are themselves served up as the ‘shakshouka’ [a breakfast stew] to sate the appetites of politicians and oligarchs.”

As we have argued in a previous essay in this series, this ‘retreat of the state’ was largely ignored in a period when most still Israelis felt they had a stake in general economic expansion. For Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cronies, this amounted to a welcome ‘indifference dividend’ concerning the cost of purchasing enough political consensus to maintain a parliamentary majority. But the pie can only be cut so many ways. The issue now is that the maintenance of the para-states is rapidly becoming the government of Israel’s only business, as surrogates for market interests in the Netanyahu administration clamp down on all other spending. The result is a political double standard. Political transfer payments to settlers and ultra-orthodox are accepted as the cost of doing business. For everyone else – from the education and health care systems to the fire service, whose collapse due to sustained budgetary neglect left much of Israel to burn in forest fires last December– an ideology of austerity prevails. There is no addressing “the people’s” demand for social justice without facing this.
"School of the Revolution"
This is why there is something about the Rothschild Commune that fails to persuade. Despite the earnestness of its members, the movement sublimates the political causes of a contemporary crisis by protesting its social effects, and in so doing advances the same curious logic by which the Baron Munchhausen professed to have pulled himself out of the swamp by pulling at his own pigtail. At the same time, there is something important to be learned here. What the current wave of protest teaches us is that in Israel the stalemated politics of the occupation are no longer apprehended directly, but are, instead largely experienced in terms of the costs that come with a capitulation to the occupation’s advocates and beneficiaries. In the everyday life of Israeli civilians, the Israel/Palestine struggle has rapidly become an unacknowledged and at times unconscious resource war between those In Israel who have a stake in the conflict’s perpetuation and, as various protest posters put it: “everyone else.”
In itself, this attempt to wish away an increasingly zero-sum dispute between those whom we have elsewhere called Israel’s ‘statists’ and its ‘radicals’ is nothing new. It draws on a tradition in Israeli state building that is older, in fact, than the state itself. The earnest belief that what appear to be political divisions are in fact administrative or technical problems has a long legacy. From Herzl’s Altneuland (1902) to Shimon Peres’ Imaginary Voyage (1998), the fruits of rational economic and social administration are presumed to dissolve political disagreements – well-stocked hospitals, efficient rail lines, electric streetlights can displace zero-sum contests over the status of the land and the nature of the polities to emerge on it.
It is through such denial that the demonstrations can now somehow not be about ‘politics’ – the moral, economic and human costs of the radicals’ interest in the occupation, and its basic incompatibility with the liberal-parliamentary ideals of Israeli statists. A protest that called that other, deeper, division by name would differ as markedly from the present one as would a Berkeley ‘teach-in’ from a Sorellian general strike. That, we submit, is the true difference between the protests in Rothschild Boulevard and those in Tahrir Square.
Whether by intuitive or intentional cynicism, Netanyahu has been playing on this kind of denial, as when he reportedly cited Herzl’s ‘pragmatism’ to Manuel Trajtenberg (head of his new blue-ribbon commission on Israel’s socio-economic crisis) as a model for his willingness to take seriously the protesters’ demands. It will do Mr. Netanyahu little good. His brand of cynical reason can no more protect the political status quo from the consequences of the bourgeoning ‘resource war’ than the protestors’ enthusiasm for unstated alternatives to the same status quo can protect them from a nasty confrontation with Israel’s ‘radicals’. Given the prevailing level of denial and displacement, one is left to wonder if—when the confrontation between the radicals and ‘everyone else’ comes out into the open—any of the unfortunates caught in the melee will have any idea why.
“Fragile, reads a protest poster displaying the official emblem of the State of Israel.”


  1. An insightful analysis indeed. However the tent cities in Haifa and Jaffa and the new coalitions formed between Arabs and Jews (for instance the Jaffa Palestinians and Shkhunat Hatikva protesters) are unprecedented and instrumental in healing the protest of its denial.

  2. An insightful analysis indeed. However the tent cities in Haifa and Jaffa and the new coalitions formed between Arabs and Jews (for instance the Jaffa Palestinians and the Shkhunat Hatikva activists in South Tel-Aviv) are unprecedented and instrumental in healing the protest of its denial.

  3. An informative evaluation without a doubt. Nevertheless the tent urban centers throughout Haifa and also Jaffa along with the brand new coalitions shaped between Arabs and Jews (for example your Jaffa Palestinians and also Shkhunat Hatikva protesters) tend to be unheard of and crucial within recovery the demonstration of the company's denial.