Mass protests and tent cities shake Israeli government


Incensed by low pay, soaring living costs, economic inequality and high poverty rates, people have taken to the streets, writes MATTHEW KALMANin Tel Aviv

DAPHNI LEEF is an unlikely revolutionary. The 25-year-old Israeli film school graduate comes from a comfortable, middle-class home and wants to direct movies.

But last month Leef pitched a tent in the middle of Tel Aviv’s smartest neighbourhood to protest rising living costs, sparking nationwide protests of more than 300,000 demonstrators, rattling the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and turning swathes of Israel’s cities into hippy-style tent communes.

Some Israeli politicians have dismissed Leef as a spoilt, drug-taking, middle-class fake, but she said the past month had changed her view of her country forever.“People seem driven,” said Leef in an interview near the leafy boulevard where she first pitched her tent. “It just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

“I think people feel it just has to work. We demand social justice. We don’t want to negotiate it. We just want it. I am very proud for the first time in 25 years, genuinely proud, to be a part of this Israeli public,” she said. “I am proud to be here. Proud to fight for the social rights that we deserve. And I am very proud to be a part of such a non-violent uprising. I think it’s unbelievable.

“We’re fighting for very basic things,” she said. “Being able to keep a roof over our heads, to have a decent education system, a healthcare system, employment and welfare.” Two months ago, Leef received an eviction order from her Tel Aviv apartment. During fruitless weeks searching for a home within reach of her film-editing job she discovered that rents had doubled in five years.

“I couldn’t find anything in my range. Everything was ridiculously expensive and in a horrible state,” she said.

“Then I started crunching the numbers. I’m supposed to be the best-case scenario. I’m 25 and I do not have a family to support. I have an occupation. And for some reason I can’t find a way to finish the month without going further into debt.” Leef had read about Hooverville, the tent city in New York’s Central Park during the Great Depression in the 1920s. On Bastille Day, July 14th, she invited her Facebook friends to pitch camp on the grassy, tree-shaded median of the elegant Rothschild Boulevard. Ten people turned up and went to sleep. They awoke to a social revolution.

“In less than four days we were 1,500 people. By the end of the week we were 5,000,” she said.

Tent cities sprang up across Israel, accompanied by large, peaceful demonstrations. The protests followed strikes by doctors, social workers and municipal workers over low pay and tough conditions.

Leef said people were incensed by low pay, the high cost of living and confusion about Israel’s supposed economic boom.

“If we’re not making money, but the country is, then where does the money go?” she asked.

At first, the campers were ridiculed by government ministers, but the tents multiplied, questions were raised in parliament and debates erupted on television. Finally, Netanyahu appointed a government committee to negotiate and draft new policies.

But Leef said she would not be negotiating. “This is not two governments, one against the other,” she said. “You have the people demanding to be treated with respect, for the priorities to change, for the system to change, and then you have the government, the people we elected, who we pay to do their job. Being a film student, I don’t think I should be in negotiation with them. I don’t have the knowledge. I can talk to you from the place where I’m aching from, but I don’t know what’s going on in the budget. I have no clue.”

Stav Shaffir (26), a graduate student in history and philosophy and one of the original campers, was clearer about possible demands.

“We feel like the government started a war on its people,” she said, suggesting a tax increase for top earners from 40 per cent to 55 per cent, and a cut in VAT.

“We want to change the economic system from neo-liberal to a welfare state,” she said.

This week there were more than 1,000 tents lining Rothschild Boulevard, symbol of Tel Aviv’s recent makeover from dusty backwater to hip vacation destination. Beneath the billboards offering million-dollar holiday homes, next to the sushi and espresso bars, washing lines hung across the cycle path and the grass verge was covered with mattresses and old sofas. There were communal kitchens, blow-up paddling pools and hundreds of posters demanding free education, cheaper housing, more jobs, better transport and social equality.

Volunteers offered haircuts, legal advice, first aid and childcare. There were tents of religious and secular, Arabs and Jews. People played guitars, smoked water pipes, watched TV on large screens and smooched.

As a tribute to the Egyptian revolutionaries, the meeting-point where the protesters gather each night to debate, listen and hear visiting lecturers is called “Tahrir Corner”. Leef said she admired the Arab Spring but insisted her aim was to change priorities, not the government.

“If you’re an elected public official and for a month it just gets bigger and bigger, people screaming out their pain, how can you ignore it?” she said.

Outside one tent, Dana Turgeman (32), an artist, designer and single parent from Hadera in northern Israel, watched as four-year-old Muoar worked on his colouring book.

“My rent has just been increased from €500 to €600 per month. By the time I’ve paid for rent and kindergarten and babysitters and food and electricity, my bills are more than twice what I can earn,” she said.

“I have debts of €20,000. I’ve borrowed from my parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles but I’ll never be able to pay them back. I used to think it was just me. Now I know I’m not alone. Something in this country has to change.”

Since the 1990s, Israel’s economy has been transformed. Rapid privatisation and a high- tech revolution remade Israel as a world leader in information and medical technology. The country sailed through the world economic crisis. Unemployment is below 7 per cent. Last year, the economy grew faster than the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany or France.

But the new wealth has failed to reach the Israeli middle class. The OECD says Israel’s poverty rate is twice the average of other developed countries, while its welfare and education spending is significantly lower. Thirty-nine per cent of Israelis find it “difficult” or “very difficult” to live on their current incomes.

Economic reform delivered wealth into a handful of pockets, replacing creaking socialism with cartel-based capitalism. A 2010 report revealed 10 large business groups controlled 30 per cent of the market value of public companies, while 16 control half the country’s money.

Shaffir said the tent cities were a new beginning.

“We have built a new society, with schools and kindergartens and lectures and kitchens that serve three meals a day and we’ve even developed a special sign language that allows us to hold discussions and vote with over 100 people at a time,” she said . “It has to work, it must work, and it will work, because this won’t happen for another 10 to 15 years.”