Israeli politics since 1967 have largely revolved around foreign policy and security. But the gap between incomes and costs as well as the left’s attempt to find some winning issues and the deadlock in the “peace process” have produced a new protest movement complaining about high housing prices that is sweeping Israel.
What is the cause and meaning of this movement?
The protests’ key organizers have clearly political motives, despite the fact that the New York Times claims, “So far, the protesters have managed to remain apolitical.” In fact, the individuals and organizations animating this protest are committed to a left-wing political agenda intended to weaken, embarrass, and, if possible, topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Nevertheless, it is equally true that an authentic cross section of Israelis protest in response to genuinely urgent issues. The first fact should not become an excuse to ignore that reality.
That demonstration leaders and organizers indeed have a political agenda is easy to spot. Many have clear affiliations indicating their hostility both to the current government and to mainstream Israeli positions. Funding is coming from the New Israel Fund and its operational group, Shatil.
Yehudit Ilani, for example, a leader of the protests in Jaffa, is an Israeli-Jewish member of the hardline, Arab nationalist party Balad, which openly supports dismantling Jewish statehood and the ‘”right of return” of Palestinian refugees, that is, Israel’s destruction. The party’s original leader, Azmi Bishara, fled Israel after coming under suspicion of spying for Hizballah and is now openly backing that group from exile. One of its elected members, Haneen Zoabi, supports a nuclear Iran.
Dafni Leef, another protest leader, is an employee of the New Israel Fund. Alon Lee Green, another of the most prominent organizers, is a member of Hadash, the Israeli Communist Party. And so on.
Their motive in promoting social protest is highly political. The Israeli public long ago rejected their positions on the key national issues facing the country, thus consigning them to political irrelevance. They hope social issues will gain them re-admission to the debate. As Dimi Reider, a far-left activist and journalist, explained it:
We have been protesting against the occupation for decades and the number of our support keeps dropping. If we want to reach out to a broad section of the population, we need, at least temporarily, to put the occupation aside.
And yet these manipulators are able to gain an audience only because a large section of Israel’s population, with much justification, feels the burden being placed on them is impossible. Skilled and educated professionals are expected to work for salaries a mere fraction of those earned by their contemporaries in other developed countries. At the same time, food and consumer goods prices in Israel are among the highest in the West. Apartment prices, too, have reached a point where purchasing a property has become a distant dream for many young couples.
This population is not a crowd of freeloaders. Rather, they are the patriotic and responsible young individuals and families on whose commitment the survival and flourishing of Israel depends.
They are the young medical resident who works unimaginable hours for a tiny salary, week after week, interspersed by long stretches of army reserve duty. They are the clinical psychologist, who spends her weekends volunteering at a special project to help children in the north still traumatized by missile attacks in the Second Lebanon War. These are two examples of people I know. And there are many thousands more like them.
There is no danger that this public will follow the likes of Ilani and Green for very long or accept their radical stances on other issues. But the need to address these subjects remains vital. Israel’s educated, socially responsible middle class is the country’s backbone. They must be able to raise families, pursue their professions with dignity, and have a decent standard of living.
Dismissing the issue, or ignoring it, is an option for which the country will pay dearly some way down the line. Israel’s past successes were ultimately based on the existence of a mobilized, committed public, with a feeling of belonging to a national community. This sense did not derive from sentiment alone, but also from socio-economic facts: a relatively narrow social gap, fair compensation, a sense of burdens shared with at least some modicum of fairness.
Many Israelis have concluded, based on experience, that these conditions have considerably weakened them. Israelis don’t like being taken for suckers and the country’s leaders should remember this.