Has the Arab Spring arrived in Israel? Are we seeing a Jewish Summer? That’s the popular perception of the surprisingly large and robust protests that have taken over nearly every major city in Israel, peaking with a march of 30,000 in the streets of Tel Aviv on July 23. The issue at stake is the need for more affordable housing, and the protesters are mainly students and young middle class people. The sheer size and level of engagement is, on its own, worth noting. It seems like it’s been a long time since this particular cohort — the nonreligious, cosmopolitan Israelis — got out into the streets for anything.
Those on the dwindling left who have been desperately trying to increase their numbers for years are looking on with jealousy. Only a few weeks earlier, a gathering in Rabin Square to protest a newly passed law making it illegal to call for a boycott of the occupation mustered just 50 lonely souls.
If you ask the young Israelis in the tent cities why they are willing to rally around this issue but not demonstrate their anger with a law that would degrade free speech and erode their democracy, they will tell you that it’s because the problem of housing is not “political.” They will say it’s economic and about their standard of living. The arguments on the left and right have become so calcified, so predictable and at the same time so fraught, that no one wants to be seen as “political.”
But isn’t it political to demand accountability from your government, to push them to be more responsive to their citizen’s needs? This might be the very definition of the word.
The issue of affordable housing can not be elevated above all the bigger, “political” issues bedeviling Israel. Part of the reason successive Israeli governments have not paid enough attention to these economic issues was because their attention was turned elsewhere. In a recent Haaretz column, Dror Etkes pointed out that while the government built 48.4% of all housing units in the settlements between 1994 and 2009, it constructed only 20% during that same period within Israel proper. In Tel Aviv, the hottest market in the country, there was not one unit of public housing built between 2006 and 2009. What were the priorities of these governments?
This is most certainly political, whether the protesters want to call it by that name or not. They are demanding a government that doesn’t just engage in fights to shore up its ideological base or appease vocal communities like the settlers’ lobby. They want a government that fights for them, that is responsive to their needs, that deals not in advancing a set of intractable positions, but bends over backward to foster a better life and future for Israelis — and this means also working in good faith to end the conflict with the Palestinians.
This is probably not a revolution. But it should be a wake-up call.