Housing Protests: The Israeli Summer

Reading time: 12 minutes

August 3, 2011
Noah Efron

After Daphne Leef, a twenty-five-year-old video editor, got word from her landlord that her lease wouldn't be renewed, she discovered she'd been priced out of Tel Aviv. Housing prices in the city have increased by 65% in the past five years, with rents rising in tow. A thousand-foot apartment in the city rents these days for two to three thousand dollars a month, which is more than most Israelis make altogether. Financial planners advise to keep rent costs to 30% of income, but to stay in Tel Aviv, young professionals need to sign over their salary checks in full, taking second jobs, loading up on roommates or counting on monthly supplements from parents. For Leef, who since finishing film school has made clips for some of Israel's biggest pop stars, none of these options made sense. When she considered her situation, something snapped. So she posted on Facebook that when her lease was up, she would pitch a tent in the city center, inviting to join her all those fed up at finding their salaries fall short of their rent.

Twenty-odd Facebook friends decided to join Leef, and just over two weeks ago, they built camp at the end of Rothschild Boulevard, just opposite Israel's National Theater -- Ha-Bimah -- and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. By the next day, there were fifty tents, and by week's end a hundred. By then, tent cities rose in a dozen cities and towns around the country. Day after day, the story led the evening news, and made banner headlines in the morning papers. Leef convened a press conference to announce that the protesters would stage a march through Tel Aviv followed by a demonstration, and 30,000 supporters showed up, clogging the streets of Tel Aviv and overflowing the square in front of the Art Museum where the rally took place. A few days later, a group of mothers organized a "stroller march" through the city, protesting the high cost of child-care. On that day, Ofer Ini, the head of the Histadrut 600,000 member umbrella labor union, announced that his organization was joining the protest. A few days after that, last night, demonstrations took place in fourteen cities -- from Kiryat Shmoneh in the north to Dimona in the south -- and 150,000 showed. One hundred thousand of these were in Tel Aviv, where we clogged a dozen city blocks; fewer than half managed to squeeze into the large public square bounded by the art museum and the courthouse to hear the speakers. Biking home, my wife and I registered that new tent encampments had sprung up overnight on boulevards throughout the city, including our own street. Protesters, press and politicians took to calling the main Tel Aviv tent site "Tahrir Square," and owing to the breathless expansion of the protests, the disgust with a generation of neo-liberal reforms at the heart of protests, the broad support they won, and the fact that no one seemed able to think or talk about anything else, made the analogy to the protests that toppled Mubarak seem as apt as it was exaggerated.

As the agenda of the protestors broadened, it became clear that they were reacting to more than just the cost of real estate. Over the past quarter century, Israel's economy has changed fundamentally. In these years, the gap in income between rich and poor has gone from being among the lowest in developed nations to being, in 2011, the fifth highest among the 34 OECD nations. One in four Israelis now lives under the poverty line (the second to worst record in the OECD, which averages 11%); one in three kids live in poverty. During this time, funding has been cut for a quarter million classroom hours annually in Israeli schools. Hospital and university budgets have been slashed. Social services have been defunded.

And all the while, by conventional econometric measures, Israel's economy has thrived; though the country is tiny, it now maintains the 24th largest economy in the world. More Israeli companies trade on Wall Street than any other country, save one. The number of Israeli millionaires here has grown briskly. The rich have gotten richer (and more numerous), and the poor have gotten poorer (and far more numerous).

One result of all this is that the average size of a newly-built apartment is now almost 2000 square feet. Apartments are built for those who can afford them; and as the market has reoriented itself towards the wealthy, there are fewer and fewer apartments available for anyone else, including solidly middle-class video editors like Daphne Leef. But that is only one result. Another is that young parents find it hard to pay for day care and baby clothes. Another is that fewer people can afford college. Another is that public schools have shifted more and more of what was once their responsibility -- from remedial tutoring to art education -- to parents, who are now expected to pay tens to hundreds of dollars a month to ensure their kids get the education that everyone used to get for free. Another is that as the hospitals struggle to provide decent care to most of the population (all insured under a comprehensive national health care system), expensive private care for those with the cash to pay for it is one of the country's quickest growing industries. And so on.

As the tent city has grown, these other issues -- inseparable as they are from the high cost of rent -- have come into ever clearer focus. The call to somehow counterbalance the impact of the free market in housing has, as the days have passed, expanded into a call to counterbalance, or at least to supplement and soften, the impact of the free market in other realms of life as well. Protesters have demanded an end to wholesale privatization. They have demanded that the country provide everyone with a good, fair start to life -- with guaranteed food and shelter, and good, free early education. They have demanded that the government see that there are enough doctors, teachers, social workers, police officers, etc., and that they're paid fairly.

All of which seems to have made Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nervous. Although the dismantling of Israel's social welfare system has been carried out vigor by a generation of both Labor Party and Likud governments, no one is more highly associated with it than Netanyahu himself. Both as Prime Minister and as Finance Minister, Netayahu took pride in his part in privatizing government services, and shifting the orientation of the country from that of a European-style social democracy to a Reagan-Thatcher style market economy. Now, what he took to be his greatest political success was seemingly under broad attack.

Last Tuesday, a week and a half after the first tent was pitched, a drawn Netanyahu called a press conference, to announce new policies aimed at creating affordable housing. He began by insisting that, left to reach their logical conclusions, his policy of transferring government-owned lands to private developers would in time produce a supply of apartments great enough to depress prices. He continued that streamlining government bureaucracy, too, would spark housing starts, and this too would increase supply and lower prices. These things were of a piece with Netanyahu's overall neo-liberal philosophy, and represented nothing new.

As Netanyahu continued, though, he set out proposals that went beyond anything the government had offered in the past. He suggested selling government land at below market rates to developers willing to build rental units, a quarter of which would in turn be let at below market rates. He suggested linking the issuance of building permits to a requirement that new projects include a certain percentage of affordable housing. And he suggested using public funds to build thousands of dormitory rooms which college kids could rent at far below the market. Faced with growing numbers of demonstrators across the country, protesting over a growing number of issues, Netanyahu blinked, and offered to edge away from a generation of neo-liberal policy. It was a modest step, and one firmly rejected by the protesters who saw it as too little too late, but it was a precedent of sorts. The next day, he fast-tracked the work of a committee aiming to reverse the increasing concentration of wealth and industry in the hands a small cadre of super-wealthy Israelis (A Bank of Israel official determined last year that ten families control 30% of the country's assets, making it the most oligarchic economy in the West). And then two days later, Netanyahu publicly instructed his finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, to study the tax burden on the middle-class, as a first step towards reducing it. The day after that, he agreed to raise starting police salaries from minimum wage to $25,000 a year, an increase of 50%.

There matters stand, but no doubt not for long. Each day of the past two weeks has brought new protesters to the established encampments, and most of seen the establishment of new tent cities in new places. Everyone is surprised by events: politicians, pundits, professors, and not least the protesters themselves. In cafés around the country, in conference rooms and in the encampments themselves, people idly predict what tomorrow will bring, and next week and next month. Some expect the protests to be squelched by the intrusion of international politics: rockets from Lebanon, bombing reactors in Iran, or sweeping sanction of the country after the Palestinians declare independence in the UN in September. Some forecast that Netanyahu will be forced to resign, and the protests will dissolve into new elections that may or may not produce a government more in line with the protesters wishes. Some expect the protests to continue for long weeks and months, pressuring Netanyahu into a series of small concessions that together add up to a change in two and a half decades of government policy. And some expect the government to out-wait the protesters who, one figures, will want to go home and watch TV sometime. All these outcomes are possible, though pressed tight into the massive scrum of protesters last night, it is hard to believe that they'll be packing up anytime soon.

While it's impossible to know how the protests will conclude, it is possible to draw some conclusions from the protests. One concerns the nature of Israel itself. There is a notion, popular abroad and also here, that no real Left remains in Israel, only varying camps of the Right. Very nearly the opposite is true. If, say, universal healthcare is an issue that in the United States divides between Left and Right, or collective bargaining, in Israel they find no opposition whatsoever. Even among Netanyahu's own cabinet, most of those who have agreed to speak about the protests have expressed support. The two most promising politicians in the Likud -- Moshe Kachlon, the Minister of Welfare, and Gilad Ardan, the Minister of the Environment -- have endorsed the protests, although the sincerity of their rejection of neo-liberal reforms is a matter of some speculation and much skepticism. Only Avigdor Leiberman, Israel's embattled Foreign Minister, has criticized the protests, saying that -- like poor little rich kids -- they failed to appreciate how well off they really are.

Perhaps most interesting of all has been the ambivalent response of the religious right and settlers. Their politicians have, mostly, stayed mum. But the newspaper they read and write, Makor Rishon, has covered the protests obsessively, reaching the same conclusion in dozens of articles written from dozens of angles: the protesters are right, but they're also a dangerous beachhead of Leftist politics. This weekend's edition carried profiles of protest leaders tracing years of leftist activism, including opposition to the occupation of the West Bank. It carried several photographs of Dov Khenin, a member of Knesset representing the non-Zionist, joint Arab Jewish, communist Hadash party (and -- full-disclosure -- a friend and colleague of mine and a politician I admire), sitting in the tent encampment, in an effort to imply guilt by association. The angst of the religious right is immediate and powerful. Like almost everyone else in the country, they agree with most of what the protesters are saying. But they somehow suspect that, in time, the message of the protesters will not stop at the Green Line. They suspect that the call for government concerned, first and foremost, with allowing citizens to live decent lives, with dignity, will in time expand to a call for government willing to give the Palestinians too what they need to live decent lives.

The protesters have themselves insisted that they have no truck with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that their concern is solely for the welfare of Israeli citizens. They insist that they are -- in that sense, anyway -- apolitical, appealing equally to Israel's traditional left and right. About domestic issues of social and economic justice, they say, there is broad consensus, and about this I think they are right. But still the country's religious right is haunted by the feeling that all this talk about social and economic justice, about decency and dignity, will find its way into the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too. About this, they too may well be right. When the dust has settled, this may be among the most important, if unexpected, outcomes of a protest that began with an eviction notice slipped under the door of a young video editor who'd just had enough.

Noah Efron is a City Council Member for "Ir LeKulanu"-List (A City for all) and a Board Member of The Green Movement, a new Green Party in Israel. This article was first published on The Huffington Post in the United States.