Rising Up in Israel

Oded Balilty/AP Images
An Israeli family in a camp set up as part of a protest against the high cost of housing, Tel Aviv, Israel, July 23, 2011


Early in July, a group of young Israelis gathered in a small apartment in Tel Aviv to talk about the difficulties of finding affordable places to live in the city. They had come at the invitation of Daphni Leef, a video editor who was about to be evicted from the apartment and who had recently posted an “event” on Facebook summoning people fed up with the housing situation to pitch tents on the streets in protest. Inside Leef’s living room, there was enthusiasm for the idea, but no one expected a big turnout. “We didn’t expect it to last longer than a weekend,” Stav Shafir, a student who was there, told me recently. “I wrote an e-mail to my friends asking them to come, just so that we wouldn’t feel lonely.”

Daphni and her fellow protesters did not feel lonely for long. The first night the tents were pitched—July 14—about 150 people showed up. Within a few days, a sea of tents had spread across the pedestrian walkway bisecting Rothschild Boulevard, a busy street lined with art galleries and cafés. The squatters inside the growing encampment were dismissed at first as spoiled kids from Tel Aviv—“this isn’t a real protest, it’s people eating sushi and smoking nargilahs,” complained David Amar, the mayor of Nesher, a town in northern Israel. Yet similar encampments soon sprang up in places such as Be’er Sheva, a working-class city in the Negev, and Holon, a poorer town south of Tel Aviv.

On July 25, after tens of thousands of Israelis rallied to demand cheaper housing, the newspaper Haaretz announced that the demonstrations had “reached a peak.” Two weeks later, the peak was eclipsed, as an estimated 300,000 people demonstrated in cities across the country, blocking traffic and unfurling a giant banner in Tel Aviv that proclaimed “Egypt is here!”

What some termed the “Israeli summer” bore less resemblance to the so-called Arab Spring than to the economic unrest that has convulsed cities such as Athens and Barcelona recently. “We want a welfare state!” chanted members of a movement that soon had the backing of unions, women’s groups, parents upset about the exorbitant cost of day care, and medical workers on strike over low wages in public hospitals short of resources. The eruption of popular disenchantment and call for a “more just, humane Israel” spelled out in a manifesto released by some of the protesters made the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly look a lot less stable, not least since the man at its helm has long been a staunch advocate of the laissez-faire economic policies the demonstrators angrily assailed.

By the third week of August, when I met Stav Shafir, the social…

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