In Israel, for over three weeks, there have been demonstrations initiated by young people. They were first directed against the high cost of living, but they seem to be developing into something much larger, a movement for a systematic social change, addressing the growing disparities between rich and poor and the difficulty of living well, concerned about issues of social security and the deterioration in the provision of education and health care. What had begun with a consumer uprising against the high prices of cottage cheese over a month ago, leading to a boycott on dairy products (since in Israel they operate as a cartel, not open for competition), appears to be the beginning of what Rosa Luxemburg describes as ”an exercise in democratic action.” I observe the exercise as an Israeli living in Berlin, basing my commentary on newspapers, blog posts and conversations with friends at home.
The “cottage cheese revolt” is no trivial or accidental thing. Israeli dinner tables usually contain this staple, together with a salad. The most popular cottage cheese, Tnuva, has an illustrated home on its package and a well known advertising trope: “the cheese with the home.” Fighting for home is not only for affordable housing or the cost of living. The protesters also talk about the quick decline in the freedom of speech and of the Israeli democratic system under the current government. However, the demonstrators delay, for the time being, what they see as “political demands” for possible negotiation with the government. They fear this would compromise the call for “social justice,” and more immediately, could scare off some of the right-of-center demonstrators. According to Ha’Aretz today (August 2), “a document setting out the demands of the tent protesters in the areas of housing, welfare, education, health and economic policy is being drawn up by the movement’s leaders.”
The tent city in Tel Aviv was started by a twenty five year old, Daphne Leef, who demonstrated against the cost of housing and living on Rothschild Boulevard, calling on her Facebook friends to join her. These demonstrations spread and have been non-violent (she compared them to Woodstock), the first massively successful demonstrations in Israel not connected to the military, wars or specific laws. I would be happy to hear more connections made between the decline in democracy and respect for human needs and the occupation, but that, apparently and unfortunately, cannot be addressed now by a generation that must declare itself “not political” in order to be listened to. Yet, ironically, the demonstrations are of profound political import.
A few of the commentators pointed to the fact that the young leading this uprising is nihilist and self-centered. For example, Eva Illouz in Ha’Aretz sees calls for social change to improve their own hedonistic consumer power, and not in solidarity with the weak and silenced groups, certainly not comparable to the social commitment seen in historical revolts in the fifties and sixties. That might have been true of the first round of the cottage cheese revolt, but it’s no longer the case. The periphery and the poor parts of Tel Aviv are as central and strong to the movement as the wealthy Tel Aviv quarter. The major labor unions, the municipal employees’ union, and the student union have all joined in the protests. The difference between the first protests,predominantly transpiring on Facebook and “at home,” in the form of an economic boycott by private individuals of a mass produced consumer good,and the later actions, in which hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets, remaining for hours of the day and night, in some cases sleeping in spaces coded as “public,” is precisely the one that Arendt illuminated in The Human Condition. In her terms ,the movement has turned from the social to the political, from concerns over “political economy” to a movement of the spontaneous action of human beings in their plurality addressing issues of common concern, Israelis not as settlers or pioneers but as citizens of a state with problems. As David Grossman said in the demonstration on Saturday, the chief problem is: “people are loyal to the state but the state is not loyal to them”. Daphne Leef stated that it is not the government but the “rules of the game” that they wish to change.
In looking at the “tent cities” protest as it has developed, one certainly does not just see the Ashkenazi leftist elite living in Tel Aviv, bragging about how expensive it is to sustain the good life they got used to. Not that that should be so damning a critique: why not live well, consume culture and have individual opportunities for growth? Avigdor Lieberman and other conservatives called the protesters “spoiled,” perhaps meaning that it is better to not live well, that one should fight for the basics, as the settler do in the territories, or the way that their predecessors did as young people realizing the Zionist dream.
The Zionist dream was questioned long ago first by intellectuals and minorities, including Palestinians. Now fundamental questions are being raised by a majority that needs to carry the burden for groups (the ultra orthodox) that do not work or serve in the military, in a concentrated market economy that is stable due to high taxes on the hard-working middle class, who feel crunched by the privatization of public services in the past twenty years. This “consumerist occupation” of the public space, in cities large and small all across Israel, calls all that into question in a manner that already appears irreversible.