On these boiling August days, Tel Aviv’s major boulevards are covered with tents, mattresses, carpets, makeshift living rooms, and strollers, with groups of young people huddled around them. The mood in these compounds is spirited, creative; it almost seems as if the city’s inhabitants, weary of the heat, have simply decided to pack up their things and park them outside their houses. Only it’s much hotter outside.
I flew to Tel Aviv from New York fourteen days ago and landed on the second-largest demonstration in Israeli history, approximately 300,000 people. I remember well the largest demonstration in Israeli history—the Peace Now rally against the (first) Lebanon war, which I attended in my teens. I remember well the somber, depressive mood at Kikar Malchei Yisrael (Kings of Israel Square), now named Rabin Square after the prime-minister who would be murdered there thirteen years later. But the demonstration on August 6th was markedly not in Rabin Square but in the heart of Tel Aviv’s financial center. It was a jubilant protest rally, a kind of Israeli Woodstock minus the heavy drugs but with the love.
It all started with the most popular dairy product in Israel, Tnuva cottage cheese. For some mysterious reason, Tnuva cottage cheese happens to be the best cottage cheese in the world, with perfect consistency and saltiness (I have tasted many). Not only is it delicious and healthy (5 percent fat), but because it has been around for decades it holds nostalgic value for many Israelist—including those, like me, who live abroad. Just as importantly, Tnuva cottage cheese is (or was) cheap, and therefore accessible to almost every Israeli household, every day.
Today’s twenty-somethings have grown up in a new, much more Americanized country, and they are suddenly realizing what they have traded in for their supposedly higher “lifestyle.”
Now cottage cheese, along with a list of fifteen or so other food products (bread, oil, eggs, etc.) was on the list of government-subsidized “basic products,” until it was deregulated in 2008. Since then its price had risen from 4.82 NIS ($1.38) to 7.90 NIS ($2.26). In America, where we can only dream of a nutritional, tasty cheese for $2.26, this may not seem like a cause for revolt. But in Israel the picture is different; people have lots of kids, and they depend on their cheap cottage cheese to feed them.
By international standards, today’s Israel is viewed as more economically viable than many other countries. But on an individual level, unless you are working for an international conglomerate or have your own technology start-up, your average salary is about a third of that in America, sometimes a lot less. Young physicians in the public healthcare system make $7.50 an hour, as do social workers, teachers, and their ilk. The cost of living, on the other hand, has risen dramatically in the past ten years, particularly under Benjamin Netanyahu’s current neo-liberal leadership.
So when in mid-June a man named Itzik Elrov created a Facebook page calling for a group boycott on cottage cheese, 100,000 people joined and stopped buying it. Tnuva and the government quickly took note, and by early July they agreed to reduce cottage price to 5.90 NIS in order to end the boycott. It was the first consumer victory in Israeli history.
Next came the housing protests. In mid-July, a sweet-faced, tough-minded woman in her twenties by the name of Dafni Lief was evicted from her apartment after refusing to pay another rent increase. She and her friends decided to camp out in a tent in the middle of Tel Aviv’s prestigious Rothschild Boulevard, home to priceless Bauhaus and International Style architecture. (In the past ten years, Rothschild Boulevard and other streets like it have been bought up by a hungry global real-estate market, causing housing prices in Tel Aviv to shoot up by 300 percent. Locals, who today must pay rental prices comparable to Manhattan, have largely been left outside the game.) They started yet another Facebook protest group, which sees thousands of people join each day.
The media soon caught on, and on August 6th 300,000 people stepped out to the rally that I attended right off the plane. In the background of the protests, even in the foreground, is Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The Arab Spring stirred a measure of panic in Israel, but it also stirred something else: social courage, the mobilization of youth, utilization of digital media networks, and a wave of unrest that has now become contagious.
I was born into that country, where you never asked your parents to buy you anything in the street but brought fruit and snacks from home, where a new pair of shoes was a huge deal.
A day after the rally I walked down Rothschild Boulevard, which is now covered with a couple hundred tents. There are tents for every cause and every group: tents for equitable and affordable housing, for higher wages for doctors, for social workers, for psychologists in the public sector, for teachers, a tent area for retiree-rights and also for every youth movement, from the leftist Hashomer Hatsair to the religious rightist Mizrahi. There is a “revolution school” run by teachers, where children can make art and learn about the aim of the protests. There are signs in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, calling for social equality between Jews and Arabs; there are signs calling for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, for divorced fathers’ right to their children, and for gay rights. There are Israeli flags and Palestinian flags and rainbow-colored gay movement flags. There are lots of clever slogans, lots of pamphlets, and lots of art. Along the boulevard there are teach-ins and performances. Popular authors and musicians pop-up spontaneously and give ad-hoc shows. When I was there, two women were singing unidentified American pop at the corner of Rothschild and Allenby Street; at Rothschild and Balfour, yarmulke-clad men were jumping up and down with their guitars singing Hassidic tunes; and on the corner of Rothschild and Shenkin, which these days is dubbed Rothschild-Tahrir, a pretty Palestinian-Israeli woman was talking to a small crowd about the merits of a bi-national state. There were currents of tension in the audience and one man argued with her passionately, but people listened and no fighting ensued.
On my way home I heard a khaki-clad young American lecturing to an Israeli woman on why these protests will never succeed (the organizers are not political enough, their numbers are not large enough, socialism has failed everywhere, especially in Israel’s Kibbutz movement…). He had, of course, a point; until the political shift of 1977, socialist Israel was a poor little country. I was born into that country, where you never asked your parents to buy you anything in the street but brought fruit and snacks from home, where a new pair of shoes was a huge deal, where you never ever ate in a restaurant or stayed at hotels, where there was scant variety in the grocery store. But it also never occurred to me back then that I wouldn’t receive proper medical treatment if I got really sick, or that my parents would not have enough money to retire, or that I would not be able to go to university for lack of funds. Israel was a much poorer yet much more equitable country. Today’s twenty-somethings have grown up in a new, much more Americanized country, and they are suddenly realizing what they have traded in for their supposedly higher “lifestyle.”
Undoubtedly there are many things that work against these protesters: their aims are disparate and sometimes contradictory; they largely avoid the Palestinian question; they are perhaps too middle class, too refined to enter the coarse Israeli political arena and not quite angry and hungry enough to start a revolution. But what I saw on Rothschild Boulevard was entirely new, and I came out of there feeling elated. The protest has already created a new reality with its very existence: so much brainpower, social commitment, and solidarity will not melt into thin air anytime soon.