#OccupyTelAviv? The Fight for Social Justice in Israel

I want to discuss a different kind of ‘occupation’ in Israel in this post. Everyone who has been following Occupy Wall Street seems determined to compare the movement to another one. Is Occupy Wall Street the “American Autumn,” an allusion to the Arab Spring which has toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco? Is it the Tea Party of the left? The answer to both of those questions is certainly “no.” These comparisons make me sick, and I wish that people would just evaluate Occupy Wall Street based on what it is instead of trying to satisfy this innate human drive to organize novel information by connecting it to something we know well. However, I am still human, so I will offer my own comparison.

The other night, I and a few of the other volunteers here in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam heard that the village had some interesting guests. A group of Israelis, demonstrating for social justice, was going to spend the night camping out in the village. This movement has swept across Israel since the beginning of the summer, and is most easily associated with the image of young people pitching tents on Tel-Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.

I met a few of the protesters, who were walking from a city in Northern Israel all the way to Jerusalem to champion the cause of social justice. But what is social justice? “It means something different to everybody,” one of them, Ido, told us.

What most of them agreed on was that there was a fair amount of social, political and economic inequality in their country, and that all of these things were somehow connected. Prices were rising as wages stagnated; a small number of families were controlling an ever-growing slice of the pie.

I wrote about these protests in September, but this group I met in the village was different. In a way they were protesters of the protesters, rebels among the rebels, an offshoot of the phenomenon that brought half a million into the streets of Tel-Aviv.

"Most of the protesters, when they see something is expensive, they complain to the government," said Yonaton. "We just don’t buy it."

Yonaton, Ido, and group of about 20 other Israelis were living more simply. On their march for social justice to Jerusalem, they’ve already been on the road for a month. “We don’t take the most direct route,” said Yonaton. Not in their protests, and not in their route.

"For us, social justice is about yourself, about how you live. If we vote someone out of office, someone will just take their place and nothing will change. We all have to look within ourselves, change how we act and how we think." Yonaton was doing just that. He moved to Israel from Sweden seven months ago. "I was supposed to work on a Kibbutz for three months. I left after six days, and joined this group of hippies traveling around and exploring Eretz Yisrael," he said, chuckling. Him and his fellow travelers were pursuing nirvana more than an equitable tax code.

All of those we talked to were so completely disenchanted with the political system in the country, they wanted nothing to do with it. They said they didn’t understand politicians, and that once anyone has money or power, they are changed. Their outlet for activism was their walkabout, by meeting new people and talking to them along the way, and undergoing a period of personal re-evaluation, they were advancing their cause.

I was excited to hear what the Israelis thought about Occupy Wall Street. “What? There are protests in America? We’ve been on the road this whole time!” We talked about it in depth and saw many similarities. Both OWS and the fight for social justice in Israel are relatively leaderless movements. The both emphasized social ills, painted by Occupy Wall Street as the 99% against the concentration of wealth of the 1%. They are aimed not at individual politicians but at politics and the political system itself. Both movements detest corporations. Most of all, protesters in New York and in Israel loathe the relationship between the two. Both movements feature many young people with dreadlocks. The Israeli protests have been going on much longer, and have more specific demands now (lower housing costs, free daycare, and a more robust social safety net). But a month into the “tent protests,” the Israeli protests were being criticized for their ambiguity and amorphousness.

One of the volunteers who I was with asked a more difficult question of the revolutionaries: “where are the Palestinians? I look around and I see only Jews.”

"We welcome everyone to join us, but for some reason, they don’t want to join us," said Ido, who was just out of the army. 

"If you want to be inclusive, and want to meet and talk to new people, and feel that we should all be equal, why don’t you go talk to people in Ramallah or Bethlehem?"

"We cannot go there. We will get shot. We are ready for peace, but most are not, on both sides." The other volunteers and I wondered when that time would come, since Jews and Palestinians meet so infrequently, and certainly have conversations about social and political philosophy even less often. We had a lengthy talk about the role of the media, how people around the world get their information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the (almost entirely negative) coverage they see on TV. However, it seems to me that this group, and most Israelis, was just as far from Ramallah or Bethlehem as Berlin or New York are. They couldn’t understand why Palestinians wouldn’t be interested in integrating the fight for lower housing costs and free day care into their struggle to end the occupation.

I ended up talking to Yonaton for hours. I learned a great deal from him, and we had a seemingly endless and enlightened conversation about everything from human nature, a utopian political system and our own journeys to achieve self-improvement. The people I talked to were about as peace loving, compassionate and leftist as they come. But it seems that no one in Israeli society can completely detach from their national consciousness.

At this point, the other twenty members of their group, who had been on the road for so long, disconnected from their everyday lives, burst into a cheer a few feet away. “They freed Gilad Shalit,” Yonaton said.


  1. pragmaticmiddleeast posted this