Monday, August 01, 2011

Arab Spring meets Jewish Summer

The rhythmic Hebrew slogans used at many of the protests are strikingly similar to punchy Arabic lines that have reverberated throughout the Middle East since January: "Ha'am doresh / tzedek chevrati" ["The people demand social justice"], one observer noted.

On Saturday night, more than 150,000 people – out of a population of seven million – gathered in 12 cities across Israel as part of the biggest social movement the country has witnessed.

Small-scale actions that started with tents being pitched in Tel Aviv and other cities over soaring housing costs have grown into a mass movement against the right-wing Netanyahu government, unemployment, the ruling families who own most of the economy and deep inequality.

Recent demonstrations have included marches against the prices of petrol, boycotts of expensive cottage cheese that forced manufacturers to lower prices and lengthy strikes by social workers and doctors over pay and working conditions.

Middle-class Jews and Israeli Palestinians have come together in local encampments in a way that seemed unimaginable only a few weeks ago. And they have shaken the country’s ruling economic and political elites to their core. There were reports that Bedouin tribesmen had joined the marchers in outlying towns. A poll by showed that 87% of Israelis support the tent city protests.

In echoes of the movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Spain, many on the march demanded fundamental change. It was a moment when the Arab Spring met the Jewish Summer. One of the placards read: “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu!”

Activist Daphni Leef, who initiated the first tent village protest in Tel Aviv against housing prices two weeks ago, told a crowd of 70,000-100,000 Israelis gathered outside the city's main art museum that "we don't want to replace the government, but to do more than that. We want to change the rules of the game".

A steady influx of wealthy diaspora Jews from New York, Miami and Paris who bought up flats in Israel's big cities has driven up prices in many affluent neighbourhoods along the Mediterranean coast in cities such as Tel Aviv and Netanya, in addition to Jerusalem.

Since 2008, the price of an average apartment has gone up by 55% rent by 27%, far in excess of wage increases.

Many protesters say they do not want to live in the distant suburbs, where rent is cheap but amenities are far. Public transport is notoriously bad in Tel Aviv, where people joke that "the Messiah will arrive before the new light rail is built".

Efraim Davidi, a political scientist at Ben Gurion University, says there is a simple reason why the vast majority of Israelis support the protesters against the government. "The situation of working families is getting worse and worse. It's very difficult to buy an apartment, car, food," says Davidi. "Prices here are like in Europe, but salaries are like those in the Third World."

The Arab Spring is making itself felt in this unlikely context. The regimes being challenged are quite different, but the impulses are similar – corruption, inflation, unemployment, inequality and a failure of the existing political system.

In Israel, the Zionists who dominate a nationalist state founded on a single ethnic group have used the threat of an external “enemy” in the shape of Arab regimes to hold sway over a seemingly pliant population.

The shattering of the Mubarak regime and the heroic uprising by the Syrian people in the face of a murderous assault by the Assad dictatorship has served to loosen the Zionist grip. As The celebrated author David Grossman told the crowd: "The people are loyal to the state, but the state isn't loyal to them."

The idea that the Jewish state represents all Jews equally is being exposed and blown apart and with it will go the raison d’être of the Zionist regime itself. Class rather than ethnic and religious questions are now coming to the fore in Israel, with the nature of capitalist rule on the agenda. A real unity of Jewish and Arab workers in the region, leading to self-determination for the Palestinians, is a greater possibility now than it was before the Arab Spring.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

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