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Demonstrators at largest rally on socio-economic issues in Tel-aviv since the 1970's.
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Protestor carrying a sign reading "My Back is Broken"
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Protestor with a sign Xing out Netanyahu' face
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Another sign mocking Netanyahu who is shown with a container of cottage cheese over his head. protests in Israel began in June over the high price of cottage cheese.
photo by Rhonda Spivak

 
FIRST HAND ACCOUNT FROM TEL-AVIV; “A LAND OF MILK, HONEY AND TAXES- MASSIVE DEMONSTRATIONS OVER COST OF LIVING -COULD NETANYAHU BE TOPPLED?

by Rhonda Spivak, Israel, August 3, 2011

[Editor's note: August 8,  2011- Subsequent to the writing of this article there were 300,000 Israelis who protested in Tel-Aviv against the cost of liivng-and Ruby Rivlin, the Speaker of the Knesset has sais it is likely that the next elections will occur befroe  Nov 12 when they are scheduled.  The organizers of the protests have called for a million people to come to the streets on September 3. The report I wrote a week ago is still current]

August 3, 2011-I went to last Saturday night’s mass demonstration in Tel-Aviv on July 31, 2011 where 60,000-100,000 people protested over the high cost of living, inability to afford apartments, a deteriorating education and health system, and the growing inequality between rich and poor. This was the largest rally Israel has had over socio-economic issues since the 1970's and was joined by simultaneous demonstrations around the country in which about a total of approximately 150,000  Israelis participated. 

It is revolutionary. And yet it is unclear as to whether and to what extent  the protestors  have the same agenda, and whether this growing movement will ultimately  threaten the stability of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government,or even force him to call early elections. The potential is there.

I spent three hours interviewing as many people as I could  trying to find  the answers  to these questions--emerging without clarity. 

The protests which began more than two weeks ago  by students and young people that slept in tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel-Aviv demanding  more affordable housing have served to light a match here and it is difficult to predict where the enduing flames  will ultimately lead—but it is a very serious fire that is for sure. I witnessed thousands of  people booing Bibi Netanyahu ( when his name was mentioned  sort  of like  when we boo the name Haman during the reading of  the Purim Megillah ). As I left the protest I walked with an Israeli photographer,  who described himself as “left on social issues,” but “not sure how left” he was on “political issues” with the Palestinians. He said we had just witnessed a “very historic event” which would begin a fundamental change in Israeli society. And while it may still be too early to say this for sure, I tend to agree with him. [ Editor's note: A week later, I fully agree with him]. 

One thing, I think, is very certain—politicians such as Bibi, who live in Ceasarea and wealthier area of the counrty will have to be very careful from now on to appear to live more modestly, more frugally  not be seen in expensive restaurants, or luxury locations, or else they could well receive the the wrath of the Israeli voter next time around . [As an aside, the message of this movement could be exceedingly problematic for politicians such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who live in the Yakirov towers, a luxury location where demonstrating students recently threw stink bombs].The nature of the game will change--fewer will want photo ops with business tycoons.

A statistic that is repeatedly referred to here is that Israel aside form the United States has the highest gap between rich and poor of any OECD country. 

There were many signs at the protests that captured the spirit of the event, and its different messages. They read: "Enough of Netanyahu the Liar's Policy of Capitalism," "Privatization" ( with a face of Netanyahu with an X over it),  "Land of Milk and Honey and Taxes, "The Nation Wants Social Justice."  Others I saw said "When We Unite We Succeeed",  "The Right to Housing Applies to All", "Sarah, Bibi is Screwing  Me Too,"  "Bibi is Zero", "The Nation is One', "Bibi Gives Everything to  The Haredim, Settlers, and Tycoons,and Nothing For Anyone Else", "Sarah Tell Him', " My Back is  Broken" (Nishbar Li Hagav), "The Nation Demands Social Justice", "Return Our Country To Us- For the Majority Everything Has Been Destroyed", "Privatization is Bad For  US' All. The sign that I stared at the most was one that said "Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu." Even though this protest was entirely different than the Arab Spring, the mere fact that such a sign was carried must surely be disturbing to  Netanyahu's government.

The sheer number and variety of the home made signs reflects the spontaneous nature of the movement, and its lack of cohesion.

Up until recently, many in the Israeli government have tried to paint the mushrooming protests as being driven by the Israeli left, and while there is for sure some truth to that, it is not the full story— the movement has definitely  succeeded in attracting voters who voted  for Bibi last election,( which must be all the more worrisome to him). Ma'ariv reported that  the son of Ruby Rivlin, the Likud speaker of the  Knesset, attended the rally in Tel-Aviv--a sign that  the movement is affecting ardent Likud voters, although the majority of the peopel I personally encountered at the rally were Centre-Left voters. Additionally, there are others who  would not turn out for the protests, but are very sympathetic to its messages. “I am not coming to any protest. I don’t want Netanyahu to fall, I voted for him, “ a taxi driver told me, notwithstanding he identified with the protest’s desire for a more just society. [Several days later taxi drivers were  clogging up streets in Tel-Aviv protesting the price of gas].

A  thirty something year old women who works as an educator for special needs children who brought her children to the protest told me  “I voted for Bibi. I don’t want him to fall.  I want him to make changes and do what is needed to reduce taxes. We are taxed on everything. Even more so because I voted for him, he needs to take action to reduce the cost of living for the average Israeli. The students in the tents on Rothschild Boulevard began giving voice to something we have all felt in our gut for some time."

She continued “So let them- the politicians- take fewer trips and spend more modestly, so the people can live better. Once they become politicians, they don’t care at all about spending less and leaving more for us-the people.”

Karen, a young women in her thirties who works as a  human resources officer , and spent all of last week sleeping in a tent on Rothschild Boulevard was very clear that she comes from ‘the right, not the left” of the political spectrum. But she said, “There is a very big social gap between rich and poor and “Bibi serves the interests of all of his wealthy friends.”

When I asked  Karen if she hoped these demonstration would lead to the fall of the government, she said “I am afraid that Bibi’s government  might fall from this. I don’t want it to happen. I don’t support Livni,” but she  added something must change. She spoke of having thought of going to Australia, “where atleast there I could buy an apartment”, but “I don’t want to leave-Israel is my home.” Karen stressed “that there are many of us in the tents who are from the right[ of the political spectrum]."

 ”After I left her Karen found me about a half an hour later to ask me to please include in my report that “I trust Bibi on matters of security.”

Another demonstrator, Gili, a 38 year old single who practices ‘alternative medicine’ and voted Kadima last time also said he didn’t want the government to fall. He was there with his two friends  because “We struggle to make ends meat" and “finish the month”. “Another election will just cost us more,” he said. This government isn’t the one responsible for this mess. It’s been  the result of governments for the last 30 years. But it will have to be fixed. We're fed up that all of the money goes into the pockets of 20% of the citizens of this State, [ Jewish settlers and haredim] and the rest of us can't scrape by.” 

Gili's  single friend in his thirties who last election voted for  Labour, and "has to work at several jobs to  make ends meet" said as far as he was concerned the rally was a political, "This government will have to provide for us, and if they can't we'll kick them out--The main thing is to slice the pie more fairly."

There were other left wingers in the protest I met  who told me outright that their agenda was ultimately to topple the Netanyahu government and go to new elections. I heard this from people who had voted for  the Meretz, Labour  and Hadash parties. Their position is that money is being allocated to the West Bank Jewish settlers, unemployed or underemployed Haredim, and the select few wealthy business tycoons. Not enough is going to the working middle class who serve in the army, and who can't afford the high rents and will never be able to by a home.

"There is no such thing as a free market here. Privatization has meant that everything is in the hands of ten [ to twenty] business tycoon families, and no one else gets anything," a middle aged women from Hod Hasharon, who voted for Kasdima last elections said. Her twenty something year old son, added that "Products produced here in Israel are sold in Europe for less money than I can buy them here. A few Israeli companies owned by tycoons have monopolies over everything. We want to have the same prices for  things as they have in Europe. Our cost of living doesn't need to be so much higher than theirs."

Yet another man, who was a manager in high-tech said "I am out of the box" here--I am a capitalist, in favour of privatization but its just that the privatization wasn't done correctly here. There's no competition,with a few people having monopolies." But he added, he was left-wing politically. "There will be a Palestinain state and there's no point fighting it. We need to stop  pouring money into the settlers and haredim. He said he voted "for Kadima, by default" last election, and would have preferred to have seen a Kadima/Likud unity government.

The cost of day care is way to high, given the average salary of a woman who works," a parent at the protest complained to me.

Another couple now grandparents who " have always voted left" told me that their two children both immigrated to London becasue of  "poltics"-- they felt that Israel's democracy was eroding,  and it was  becoming a "fascist state" The grandfather, a retired medical internist, who said he wanted "Two states for two people" said that "all the money has been going to the territories."

There are of course others rebut this posiiton--saying that if anything, this government has been difficult on those who live over the green line since settlement construction was actaully frozen by Netanyahu for ten months, and even now, while there is technically no freeze, very little has been built over the green line. Some argue that if there was more housing being built in the settlement blocs Israel intends to keep, then there would be less of a demand for  housing in the center of the country, and prices there would go down.(although it is not an argument that I personally agree with).   

A middle aged gay man told me he had come to the rally because he had a  "puncher"(a flat tire) in his life as he won't ever be able to afford housing.

While I was speaking to him a group of protestors behind him started shouting "Bib Go Home" or  "Bibi  Hitpater" "Bib Resign"but  not everyone around them joined in.

"The truth is we have some things in common that we all want, like lowering the cost of living, but in addition people have different agendas--many wanting to topple the government , others not," one student said.

The protestors all said they don't want "quick fixes" or  promises that are "written in snow" (i.e. temporary), which is what they have felt  Netanyahu has been delivering them up until now.

A number of protestors were doctors, who have been on strike for  much of the summer, without any apparent end to the situation. "Bibi is the Minsiter of Health. He hasn't bothered to find the time to even meet with the doctors and get involved," a young women said.

Two medical residents, in their twenties, said their proposed wages will amount to  about 8 dollars an hour.

What is important is that it seems that the leadership of the protest  movement do want to topple the government. On the stage at the protest outside  the  Israel Museum in Tel-Aviv an organizer said-- "We do not want to replace the government, we want much more than that – to change the rules of the game- Social services are rights, not commodities.”

To me, that appears to be saying that  for sure they want to replace the government, but  they want much more than that.

The organizers of the protests issued a list of demands that included government price controls; standards for education in the periphery that are the same as those for the center of the country; free education from birth; free university tuition; and quality healthcare for everyone. They also demanded better salaries and benefits for social workers, police, doctors, teachers  and other public servants

They ended with the  slogan "The Revolution is Here"--"Hamahepach Higiyah"---- where this revolution will lead to is too soon to say. But it is enough to make Netanyahu's life very difficult, especially if it continues throughout the summer into September.

In what would be a nightmare scenario for Netanyahu, he could potentially face  100's of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank demonstrating for statehood  (that may or may not be peaceful) while 100's of thousands of Israelis are still in the streets demanding  socio-economic changes.

When I put that scenario to  several demonstrators--they said that a UN vote for a Palestinian state would not stop them from putting forth their demands.

Another said, "Bibi may be hoping and thinking  that these demonstrations will stop once the  PA UN bid comes up in September. That may be his plan." 

A secular Israeli living near Ma'ale Adumin over the green line surprised me by saying that he thought Bibi might be quick to respond to Palestinian protestors in September in order to heat things up and divert attention from his problems at home.(I haver heard this before but never from someone living over the green line). 

Others [myself included] think that the issues raised by the protesters will be eclipsed in September when the Palestinian issue comes to centre stage.

Whatever scenario turns out to be reality, Netanyahu is going to have his work cut out for him over the next two months--and if he fails, a complicated situation might  becone chaotic and  rather dangerous.

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.