When I left in 1977, Israel provided many public services. Education was free, the national health system was excellent, basic foods were subsidized, the government owned most of heavy industry, and most workers were unionized.
Since then, the government has privatized almost all public institutions and industries. The cost of living has skyrocketed. Fifteen families control 80 percent of the Israeli economy. Fifty-two percent of Israelis are poor — or about to be.
This miserable state of affairs has ignited an unprecedented protest movement, undoubtedly affected by the revolts of Arab neighbors also fed up with poverty and privilege. Many of the unstoppable protests are led by women, with single mothers on the front line.
It began with something very simple. In June a Facebook call went out for a boycott of cottage cheese, a basic ingredient in Israelis’ diet. Its price had nearly doubled in two years. The boycott was successful — the prices dropped!
This Internet-powered food protest augmented a labor strike. Physicians in the public hospital system, the majority of them women, had been on strike for better working conditions and pay for over five months. By early August the doctors were on hunger strikes and demonstrating across the country, strengthened by support from the nurses union.
Militancy must be contagious. On July 14, a young woman who is a film editor set up a tent on a major boulevard in Tel Aviv to denounce housing costs — as high as New York City’s. Others quickly pitched tents beside her. Soon, over 40 cities and towns had tent encampments. Some named them “Tahrir Square” in honor of the historic Egyptian uprising.
The camps and protests have been quite democratic and well organized, and evolved very quickly from one issue to many. Every Thursday, for example, thousands of activists and their children in baby carriages, each with a yellow balloon, take to the streets throughout Israel to demand free education, equal rights and better support for new mothers.
It didn’t take long for people to start calling for Prime Minister Netanyahu to leave office, because the government is widely recognized as the source of the economic crises. It pours huge resources into exclusively Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, and into its military to enforce the occupation. Its neo-liberal policies are making life intolerable for Israeli workers.
Palestinians in Israel have joined protests, set up several tent encampments in their towns, and participated in large rallies that demonstrated Arab-Jewish solidarity. Naturally, they call on Jewish protesters to demand an end to the military occupation — the heart and soul of Zionist Israel.
But the major protest organizers reject this, saying the dissent must be purely “social and apolitical,” that demanding justice for Palestinians would “divide and weaken the movement.” Palestinian American journalist and activist Ali Abunimah correctly compares this to “whites protesting for better incomes in 1985 South Africa, but leaving out apartheid because it’s too divisive.”
The situation is very dynamic, actions are planned daily, and political debate rages. A general strike called on Aug. 1 was not successful, exposing the limits of organizing solely through Facebook. But unions support the protests and militants in their ranks are organizing. After several massive, weekly demonstrations, over 450,000 took to the streets on Sep. 3 — 300,000 in Tel Aviv alone.
What might happen?
• Netanyahu could provoke missiles or launch a new war in the Middle East to defuse the movement. This is a familiar strategy of Israeli capitalism to derail dissent at home.
• A committee Netanyahu hastily put together to snuff out wider social upheaval may seduce some protest leaders into accepting crumbs for a small chair at the negotiating table.
• Or, the movement will recognize that it is political and push the warmongering, neoliberal, rightwing Netanyahu government to resign. This would open the door to making the rights of Palestinian, Jewish and other workers the centerpiece of upcoming elections and political struggle in Israel.
However long the sun shines now, this advance is an historic turn. Israelis are challenging fear-induced “security” and their own ruling class to demand social justice.
Anti-Zionist supporters of justice for Palestinians and workers’ revolutions in the Arab world must raise our voices against any government attempts to provoke war or suppress resistance.
Raya Fidel, a recently retired professor of information sciences, was born and raised in Israel. She is a lifelong advocate of Palestinian rights, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.