The social order shakes: Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf on the Israeli social justice movement

If there was one country thought not to be in danger of catching the contagion of uprisings in the Middle East, it was Israel. Nobody thought much of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement on March 30 that, at a time when “everything is shaking and rocking…the only stable place, the only stable country, is this democracy Israel.”

But a month and a half later, Netanyahu’s statement is laughable. A mass movement has now erupted in Israel, shaking the status quo. What first started as a tent-city protest in Tel Aviv over the high cost of housing has mushroomed into tent cities all over Israel, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators pouring into the streets and disruptions of business-as-usual in the Israeli Knesset. Angry over the high cost of living and the yawning gap between the rich and the poor in Israel, the protestors have called for “social justice” in the form of public housing, rent control and a raise in the minimum wage, among other demands. Stanford University professor Joel Beinin recently wrote that the Israeli protests were a revolt against neoliberalism.

The movement is said to represent the strongest challenge yet to Netanyahu’s government.

Criticism of the movement, though, has been voiced by Palestinians and activists involved in the Palestine solidarity movement. They have pointed to the fact that the social justice movement has stayed silent over the occupation of Palestine and has not connected the dots between Israel’s massive and illegal settlement project in the West Bank and the housing crisis within Israel proper.

To go beyond the headlines, I recently caught up with Noam Sheizaf, an independent Israeli journalist based in Tel Aviv. Sheizaf, whose work has appeared in the Nation, Haaretz, Yedioth Ahronoth and more, is an editor and founder of +972 Magazine, a blog-based web magazine. Sheizaf recently authored a piece titled, “It’s all about real-estate: Understanding the tent protests.”

Alex Kane: What is your general take on the tent cities and mass protests currently making headlines in Israel?

Noam Sheizaf: I think it’s one of the most significant events I have seen in Israeli politics, certainly in the 20 years I have been following it closely. In the events I can remember that I witnessed in my own lifetime, this is one of the most important ones, most unexpected, and most promising one, perhaps.

AK: What do you think the political significance of the protests are?

NS: If you’re talking the narrow political games of the Knesset and the government, I don’t think we’ll see a lot happening right away. I don’t think this protest right now is a serious threat to the government. It’s more a challenge than a threat.

I think the protest is challenging something very important in the Israeli social order. There’s an unwritten agreement between various groups in Israeli society—I’m talking about the Jewish society. This is something that enables the entire system that we see here. So by declaring that the current social order is not suitable for us anymore, I think that the middle-class, the upper-middle class, the people who are protesting, are making a serious challenge against the structure of Israeli society. It’s more of something that represents an undercurrent in society than what you see on the surface. Because, ultimately, this protest doesn’t touch the significant political questions that we always hear about from Israel: the occupation, the future of the West Bank, the relations between Arab and Jewish citizens. But it touches on the layer beneath it that holds everything together. So, I think this is a major, major thing.

AK: You talked about how the protests are threatening the “social order” in Israel. What is that social order? Can you explain that?

NS: People speak about what’s happening in Tel Aviv as part of this Arab Spring. But that would be a mistake. If something is part of the Arab Spring, it is the Palestinian youth movement, the Palestinian popular uprising, which is forming right now. Israeli society is very different. And in the context of our conversation, the important thing is that, unlike authoritarian regimes, like Syria or Libya or Egypt, it was never persecution that held the social structure together, but indoctrination in Israel, as far as Jews are concerned. For Palestinians, it was persecution and oppression. [There was a] convincing of 99 percent of the Jewish public that they benefit from the current social order—and this is the best social order for them.

So, right now what we see is a [lot of people] actually saying, “I don’t see any advantage for me in this social order.” This can go many ways: it can go into a form of nationalism, or it can go to a way that says that the interests of the poor Jew in Israel are more like the interests of the poor Palestinian than those of a Jewish billionaire in Israel. This is such a radical notion that it’s even hard to explain. But these are the kind of doors that open when you challenge the social structure.

Also, I’m a bit of a Marxist in the way that I believe that the economy drives the political debate, even if on the surface it looks like it’s religion or nationalism or whatever. Right now, we’re seeing a major rift inside the Jewish middle class over the economy. This is something we’ve never seen before.

If you read through the Hebrew media, you’ll notice that those attacking the protests, the most vicious attacks against the protests, are coming from the religious right—from the settlers, from their supporters, and those people are like the litmus test for society here, because if you look at the settlers, you can understand almost everything. They were awfully quiet when Netanyahu traveled to his meeting with President Abbas in Washington a year-and-a-half ago. During the so-called settlement freeze, they didn’t say a word. You’d expect the settlers to go wild about that, right? But they didn’t say a word, except for some really radical forces inside the settler movement, because ultimately they felt that this doesn’t threaten them. Right now, you can hear the entire Israeli right, the expansionist right, those who promote Jewish supremacy here, those who advocate for the colonization of land, you can see them mobilizing against these protests in a way that they didn’t mobilize before, because this [movement] is a major threat to their interests. So, that’s a good sign as well for where things are headed.

AK: What’s your take on how the state of Israel has responded, both in terms of the policing of the protests and the government’s response?

NS: The policing was fair. As you probably know, Israelis are very hospitable to nonviolent protests by Jews. So I wouldn’t say that the police were too tough on the protesters, especially when you consider what’s going on in the West Bank. So, talking about police repression would be a bit of an exaggeration.

But there is a very strong push against the protests in terms of the political debate. It’s not just the governments. It’s the entire elite that are pushing against these protests, and the more of a challenge they feel, the harder they’ll push. I’ll give you a few examples.

[Israel Defense Forces] Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said in a press conference recently that cutting funds from the army, which is another thing the protests aim for that is usually overlooked, would compromise national security. Israel Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu tabloid that is financed by Sheldon Adelson, has been printing very negative coverage of the protests almost on a daily basis. Union leader [Ofer] Eini, the Histadrut leader, which is the largest worker union in Israel, met with the organizers of the protest, and then went and spoke against them in the media. He’s been known to have very good relations with Netanyahu. Last week, the deputy Defense Minister, Matan Vilnai, who was until recently a member of the Labor Party, warned that the protests would lead to anarchy.

And there’s also explicit attempts to tie this protest to left-wing organizations, to the New Israel Fund, and the leaders of the protest have been deemed radical leftists, and anarchists. There’s an attempt to demonize them in the media. And it’s partly successful. The first poll about the protests a week and a half ago had 87 percent of the public supporting them. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next figure will be below 60 percent, perhaps even below 50 percent.

AK; Many Palestinians, as well as activists involved in the global Palestine solidarity movement, have criticized the movement for essentially being non-political and not taking on the conflict and the occupation. What is your take on that critique?

NS: If I were a Palestinian, I would say the same. If you were Palestinian under occupation, of if you were a Palestinian refugee and you were displaced and your family was not allowed to visit Israel, this would be my perspective. So I don’t blame the Palestinians, I actually think their position makes a lot of sense.

Having said that, as an Israeli I have a different take on things. If the protests would put the Palestinian issue on its agenda, or at the top of its agenda, you wouldn’t have 150,000 people. You wouldn’t even have 15,000. A couple of months ago, right after Netanyahu came back from Washington, the left mobilized protests against the attempt to bury the two-state solution and prolong the occupation. Almost every organization showed up to a rally and march in Tel Aviv and the most optimistic assumptions had 10,000 people there. I was there, and I can tell you I don’t think there were 5,000. So, if you want to change the social order in Israel, and you start with the old political questions, you would probably not get very far, not in the current political field. There’s a reason that Sheikh Jarrah rallies, which got wonderful coverage, never had more than 3,000. There was an Israeli-Palestinian march a month ago in Jerusalem, and a Haaretz editorial told people to come to the march. It was a Friday editorial, the most widely read editorial in the left, and it called everyone to come to the march. I guess there were 2,000 Jews there.

So, I don’t think there is much sense in judging this protest with the old questions. If you expect it to be a protest about the occupation, you have that every month and you can see where it goes. It goes nowhere. The only way to advance a change in the social order is to focus on economics. People go to the social justice protests and they’re disappointed to see ordinary Israelis talking about their problems and not the occupation. You gather 150,000 Israelis, what do you expect to have? They’re Israelis, not Palestinians.

Now, I believe in political activism, and I think that activism changes perception, and that once people take part in this movement and go to the protests, then they’re more likely to challenge the social order, including the settlements and the occupation and many other issues related to the conflict. But I don’t think it will work the other way. I don’t think you can simply expect, one day, to convince the entire Jewish public that it’s better to end the occupation and have the refugees come back. It’s just not going to happen. It’s never happened in our history.

AK: Where do you see the movement headed in the future?

NS: Today [August 1] was a bad day for the movement politically—probably the worse since it started, because there was suddenly very clear voices against the protest leaders, against the direction it takes, and many people distanced themselves from the movement. So, we may have seen the peak on Saturday evening, and right now what’s happening is the inevitable decline. The protests are bound to lose energy very soon, in a matter of days or weeks. It’s been going on for 3 weeks, although the international community just noticed it right now. I think we’ll see the issues raised by this protest discussed in the Israeli public back and forth from now on in the coming few months.

I think the protests itself will disappear, but I also think that Netanyahu is coming to his showdown in September with the Palestinian leadership much weaker than he wanted. The entire world saw that he doesn’t have a consensus of Israelis behind him—I think that’s a pretty important achievement. These are the short-term implications of the protests. As for the long term, I think we’ll just have to wait and see.

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