Monday, August 8, 2011

Waking to a New Reality in Israel (and perhaps for Palestine?)

During the last year I have spent in Turkey and Israel, I have happily watched from the side as the Arab countries one by one started to break away from their oppressive regimes. Where I was not able to join these demonstrations, during my year away from the classroom I was proud to take part in numerous demonstrations both in Israel and Turkey. While I am citizen of Israel and not one of Turkey, I felt as if my participation was just as crucial in Istanbul as it was in Tel Aviv.

This year it was clear that in Israel something was brewing; a marked increase in public dissent and the demonstrations by the left parties started to pick up momentum after years of falling in disarray. Yet, these demonstrations were a far cry from the massive ones Israel once knew where many demonstrations could easily attract 100,000 demonstrators; not to mention, the biggest demonstration in Israeli history, when 500,000 people came out in 1982 to protest against Israel’s active participation in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres (then about 1 out of 8/9 citizens). Then there was the massive demonstration where Prime Minister Rabin made his last speech only to be assassinated by a Jewish radical, which was followed by the solemn and massive demonstration to mark his murder. Following the second intifada, and the collapse of the Israeli left, the Second Lebanon War only managed to bring a few thousands brave souls out to the streets, followed by the embarrassing low turnout to protest Israel’s war on Gaza, in December 2008. If it had not been for Hadash, the Jewish-Arab left party, it seemed that the protest spirit would have almost completely dissipated. It was after the Gaza War that I decided to begin to write a blog out of pure frustration. Israel had changed radically since I had left for my PhD studies in 1995 and I needed a venue to express these views.

This leads us now to the recent protests in Israel which perhaps should be traced back to a facebook protest against the sudden increase of cottage cheese prices (yes!), which was well covered in the press a little over a month ago. This was followed by one woman who set up a tent on Rothschild Avenue (which is a sort of pedestrian park) to protest her being evicted after she could not afford to pay her rent. This one event set off a trend that has continued to grow ever since with people coming out one by one, setting up tents and calling for the government to deal with the rising property costs. With property prices so high, and rent skyrocketing, the reality young and middle age people go through in Israel to secure living arrangements is beyond belief. For many Israelis, living abroad even seems like a better and easier option compared to the reality of having three jobs just to rent a shabby apartment with landlords that just continue to raise prices year after year. Of course, while this protest first struck a chord with the middle class, it certainly has started to capture the imagination of so many poor people across Israel who live in a society where the gap between rich and poor is one of the highest in the world when put on the scale of western countries.

From the tent city on Rothschild which began almost three weeks ago, the momentum has grown and last Saturday night, after two consecutive demonstrations, the organizers of the tent city, together with a coalition of other groups making demands to the government, managed to bring out to the streets well over 300,000 protestors, with signs comparing the happenings in Israel to the Arab Spring such as “Egypt is here!” From doctors on strike to pensioners, from young professionals to the poor from the “neighborhoods,” from Bedouins living in unrecognized villages to academics who suffer on a daily basis due to the government’s neglect of higher education, the Israeli society has taken the initiative to at last take control of their destiny. Remarkably, when so many analysts were asking how the Arab Spring would influence the region, few could have imagined that Israel would be the one duplicating the Tahrir Square protests; like Egypt its citizenry too is tired of old rhetoric and corruption. The Israeli political establishment is being challenged and the people are voicing an overwhelming “no” to the dangerous American type of capitalism, which has been wholeheartedly adopted by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and previous governments. The current Israeli government is seeing that if they do not do something quickly the rug will could be pulled out from under their feet, with new elections on the horizon. Perhaps now, Netanyahu will see the true damage such divisive members of his parliament have caused; instead of focusing on the real issues, Netanyahu has been led astray by the anti-democratic Avigdor Lieberman who has set Israel on a dangerous track.

Now the major challenge of the growing campaign is to reach its goal of bringing a millions Israelis to the street on September 3. Until then they have to clarify their goals, unite the people, and make it clear that while questions of justice for Palestinians have remained on the back burner until now, true social justice for Israelis must include the recognition that the occupation needs to come to a screeching halt, and that a democratic Israel cannot exist as long as it continues to occupy Palestinian land and deny the Palestinian people their right to a nation. If the protestors in Israel reach this consensus, then the popular upheaval we are currently witnessing will force the Israeli politicians to work for a social state which keeps the welfare of its citizens at the top of the agenda, and to work with the Palestinians to usher in a new reality for all peoples of the Middle East.

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