Occupy Israel

Early last July, Daphni Leef was about to be evicted from her apartment in Tel Aviv. She posted an item on Facebook, saying that she was considering some kind of protest and did people want to come join her. Some young people did meet with Daphni and they decided to set up some tents on Rothschild Boulevard as a symbolic action protesting the lack of housing in Israel. On July 14, the tents were erected and, very quickly, people came to join the protest. Daphni had thought that her protest might attract a little attention for a few days, instead it grew into one of the largest anti-government demonstrations in Israel’s history.

Tents on Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv’s tent city grew and the idea spread to other towns. By the beginning of August at least six cities in Israel saw tents erected in their centres. This was not part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but an independent local protest. Even so, the same arguments used against OWS were heard in Israel: “‘…this isn’t a real protest, it’s people eating sushi and smoking nargilahs,’ complained David Amar, the mayor of Nesher, a town in northern Israel.” But after working class areas were occupied, the accusations that this was just a bunch of spoiled rich kids showing off were stifled.

On August 6, a demonstration in Tel Aviv drew 300,000 people — one of the largest ever in Israel. The protestors saw some kinship with the Arab Spring and unfurled a huge banner proclaiming “Egypt is here!”. But the real affinity was with the riots in Athens where youth was revolting against an impoverished future. “We want a welfare state!” chanted the Tel Aviv crowd.

Tel Aviv demonstration, August 6.

The Netanyahu government, heading into an election, nervously considered its options. When a retaliatory raid resulted in the deaths of eight Israelis and seriously strained relations with Egypt, the government suggested that it was time for the protestors to strike their tents and pay attention to national security. For a little while the protests quieted, then they erupted again on September 3 with a demonstration even larger than that of August 6.

Meanwhile, little was reported outside Israel. In late September, the Forward used Israeli protests as a club to beat OWS. A man who claimed to be an organizer of Israeli tent cities was at Zuccotti Park. He called the New Yorkers “wimps” and said that they seemed to be afraid of the police — this was the day after Anthony Bologna was recorded pepper-spraying people under restraint. The Israeli then said that, in his country, the protestors felt a sense of solidarity with the police. Maybe so — there has been remarkably little violence shown by Israeli police towards demonstrators. Even so, the tent city in Tel Aviv was torn down in early October.

One thing generally missing from the Israeli protests was any mention of Palestinean issues. Palestineans, who have been losing their homes to illegal settlers, shake their heads over housing complaints by the relatively well-off Israelis.  Israeli apologists claim that, once the Rightward direction of the country is halted, then they can look at the problem of Palestine. But the fact is, the tent city demonstrators do not want to raise the question for fear of dividing their group. After all, the illegal settlements are one answer to the question of housing. The government subsidizes the settlements and exacts the huge costs of policing them from the general public.

The tent cities have been dismantled and the demonstrations have turned into political protests against Netanyahu. Whether they will have any effect on the current election remains to be seen.

Ha’aretz has noted the similarities between the tent city movement and Occupy Wall Street:

In both countries, the über-free market – dubbed in Israel “swinish capitalism” – appears to many people to have run amok. In both countries, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle classes are getting crushed in between. In Israel, four or five tycoons along with ten or twenty rich and powerful families control the entire economy, while in America, so the protestors claim, the rich get bailed out while the majority gets sold out.

The Occupy movement is made up of people who often have specific grievances, thus each Occupation will have its own local issues and coloring  — a good reason to continue avoiding blanket declarations of aims and purpose and to eschew the naming of leaders. But protestors everywhere can see similar events around the globe and feel a certain kinship and solidarity. Although the New York and Tel Aviv actions were independent of one another, yet they chose the same action — seizing a physical space and living in it — symbolic of a generation who feel that they are being squeezed out and who demand a place in the world.

Note: Of the links above, this one deserves to be singled out as the best single account of the Tel Aviv protest movement.

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