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Yes We Tent

by on August 20, 2011

As frustrating as it is to be an informed person, it is perhaps much more difficult to be partially informed.  Thus, when I stopped reading news late last month to go camping, I missed the beginnings of important developments, which could not be understood without understanding the beginning. Tent cities in Israel began as a protest to a high cost of living compared to income, including protests over housing costs.  While I missed the beginning of the story, the protests are not over, although they have been heavily compromised and appear to need new direction.  Before we begin at the current point in the story, it is necessary to understand what created the climate for protests, who is involved, and why now.

When the housing market in America collapsed around 2006 to 2008 various tent cities sprang up in American cities.  There are “a dozen improvised communities across the country, from Olympia, Washington, to Camden, New Jersey. Our follow-up reporting showed, however, that the camps tend to predate the current foreclosure crisis. There’s nothing new about tent cities in the United States. There’s nothing new about poverty in America. Some folks will be living in improvised shelters in public space whether we’re in a recession or not.”  In Seattle, “since 2002 the city has worked with local nonprofits to maintain a rotating 100-person tent city sanctioned by the actual city.”

Israel has many uncoordinated responses to the tent cities.  An article by CBC (Canada) says “part of the protest is taking place on Tel Aviv’s expensive Rothschild Boulevard, where a tent city has sprung up among the hip cafés, restaurants and swirling traffic.” There are hundreds of tents just in that area with “tables, chairs, sofas, lights and a kindergarten area,” mostly as a result of students not being able to “find affordable apartments in a deregulated housing market.” A volunteer kitchen coordinator is donating his time, and says ‘people come here in the evening, sit in a circle, talk in a group. People get a spirit, a change of mind, this is the thing that will do the change for the long run.’ Others are donating food, fridges and electric power.

A senior Editor for HaAretz, Bradley Burston, writing in the Huffington Post article titled The Middle Class Anarchists of Israel’s Tent City Revolution describes who the ‘anarchists’ are that the title is referring to. “‘Part of the protest going on at the moment on Rothschild Boulevard is being driven by a gang of anarchists,'” the Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis, a former spokesman and adviser for Benjamin Netanyahu, said on radio, claiming the protesters came from “‘the adjacent Ahad Ha’am Street, where, as you know, the main branch of the Communist Party is located.'”  The “middle-class young adults that seemed the least likely to ever raise a cry” are the “anarchists” the government will have to deal with.

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of Australia written the same day as the CBC article the “main complaint is something Sydneysiders know about: the unaffordability of housing and the spiralling cost of living.  Property prices [in Israel] have risen about 50 per cent since 2008 as Israel’s burgeoning population – more than 7 million people squeezed into a sliver of land about a third the size of Tasmania – vastly outstrips construction.”  To put that in perspective for an American audience, Israel is about the size of New Jersey, and has a population about the same as Washington state.  Though unemployment is low and the economy strong, there’s a gaping chasm between rich and poor: one in four people in Israel, and one in three children, live below the poverty line.

This is how it always seems to work in the Middle East. Are the people rising up against you? Are they demanding greater rights, economic equality, social justice? Don’t worry. All you need to do is point the finger at an external enemy — some outside force that threatens your borders, your identity, your very way of life — and hope that the people will forget their troubles and rally around you instead. That’s how it works in Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine. Why shouldn’t it work that way in Israel, too?”

Luckily, for the Israeli government, although the “most dangerous part of this revolution is that its goal is not to topple the government, but to spur the government to do what it was put there to do” there just happens to be an “external threat” waiting to return the government to business as usual. “Right on cue, a group of as-yet unnamed Palestinian militants launched a series of coordinated attacks in Eilat on Thursday, killing eight and wounding dozens more. Israel immediately retaliated with a series of air strikes on targets in Gaza that have thus far killed at least a dozen Palestinians including a two-year-old boy. In retaliation for the Israeli retaliation, more than a dozen rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel, injuring six Jews near a religious school in Ashdod. And the cycle continues.”

I frequently condemn Israel for use of disproportionate force. I also answered a facebook question, ‘how should Israel respond to the rocket attacks?’ with ‘end the occupation.’ However, although I believe Israel is in the wrong to use force when not necessary – just as I think that of the United States – I think Reza Aslan says it best at the moment: “There is, of course, no justification for unprovoked attacks against civilians — either by Israel or the Palestinians. And certainly Israel has the right to strike back at those who attack its citizens.” Just as importantly, in a different way, what he says in the remainder of that paragraph is just as important. “But there can be no doubt that the attacks and counter-attacks of the last couple of days have given the Netanyahu government the perfect excuse to try to put an end to the J14 protests in the name of national unity.”

Aslan informs us that “already one of the main protest organizers, the National Union of Students, has issued a press release canceling the planned rallies for the weekend so as to show solidarity with the grieving country. While other groups say they still plan to demonstrate on Saturday, they’ve also promised that rally will be not target the government and its policies but will instead be a somber memorial procession meant to honor the victims of Thursday’s attacks.” While this is admirable, and may gain brownie points, it takes away from the cause of the J14 protesters. It would be like the protesters in Wisconsin, in recent months, stopping every time a soldier died in one of our wars. Or, as Aslan says, “this is a perfectly appropriate response on the part of the Israeli public. Solidarity in the face of a tragedy is to be expected. But make no mistake, the Netanyahu government will use the heightened security situation in Israel to pressure the protesters to put aside their demands for social reform and focus instead on the enemy next door.”

70% of Israeli Jewish teenagers think that national security is more important than democratic values (perhaps someone should inform an Israel-supporting US representative of that). Reza Aslan’s reading of the poll says the teenagers “are advocates of militant determinism against Palestinian resistance, and they overwhelmingly support the Likud government’s hard-line position in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Yet this is also the same generation that has been flooding the streets of cities across the country, demanding the reallocation of funds from the military budget to welfare and healthcare services for the lower classes.”

And yet, Amos Oz, writing for HaAretz, “embraces this new generation, which surpasses the previous ones, with love and wonderment.” One aspect of this rising generation in Israel will prevail. Will it be fairness, equality, and an end to conflict, or will it be the continuation of a security state and avoidance of maintaining a middle class?

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