Israel’s social movement: Background
The Israeli counterpart of the worldwide Occupy movement was set off last summer when a Facebook campaign called on Israelis to boycott cottage cheese, of all things. The price for a container of 250 grams of cottage cheese had risen to almost 7-8 NIS (currently equal to $1.75-$2.00) and the price was practically identical, regardless of the producer. For nearly a month, Israelis across the country managed without cottage cheese and cottage cheese spoiled on the supermarket shelves. The dairy companies lowered the price of cottage cheese and the first Israeli consumer strike was a great success (although since then the prices of cottage cheese have returned to almost the same price as before).
At that point in time, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who disagreed with the protest (except the dairy producers, of course). However, what happened next became a lot more controversial. The newly emerging protest movement set a new target: housing prices.
Housing prices in Israel have been rising sharply over the past years. Bureaucratic obstacles, along with dwindling land reserves have slowed down building so that demand has been growing faster than supply.
Groups of students on their summer semester break set up tent camps in the center of Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities, demanding that the government help them obtain cheaper housing. The summer break in schools, universities as well as the Knesset as well as the fact that many journalists were personally involved in the movement all contributed to the unprecedented complete and total support of the Israeli media for the movement. But at this point it was no longer a matter of consumer strikes and cottage cheese. The movement, which has become known as the “Tent Protest” or the “Social Protest” was no longer part of the consensus: it had become another classic battle of Socialism vs. Capitalism, and people began to realize this, despite the media’s attempts to mask it.
Various organizations, including the student bodies, organizations advocating on behalf of foreign workers, socialist organizations, doctors’ organizations and many others lent their support, but were hard pressed to hide the underlying common denominator: they were all leftwing organizations.
What do they really want?!
Being made up of many diverse organizations, the Israeli Social Protest movement had no formal leadership, but many demands. They included such demands as free healthcare, free education, more welfare payments, less taxes, less money invested in the Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria, less money invested in the Ultra Orthodox community (which happens to be one of the poorest communities in the country), more investment in public housing and many other demands. The recommendations set forth by the Trachtenberg committee that was formed by Prime Minister Netanyahu in order to appease the demands of the movement and headed by Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg did little to appease the movement.
A new format for decision making
During my many wanderings through the Internet, I came across this article in one of the many sites belonging to one of the worldwide Occupy movement’s offshoots. The Occupy movement is the “spiritual guide” for the Israeli Social Protest. It seems that like their Israeli counterparts, Occupy have also realized the difficulty of presenting so many messages to the public. The Israeli movement has come under fire for this. Occupy have attempted to focus their demands.
The Occupy movement and similarly its Israeli counterpart, is not built as a protest movement headed by one umbrella organization. It intentionally and declaratively has no organized leadership, and is, in fact, made up of a large collection of smaller movements who banded to act together. The basic principle is something like “I have demands; you have demands; let’s yell them together so that we’ll be better heard”. The result, on the one hand, is a movement that cannot be ignored: it makes a lot of noise, is made up of many sectors of the population and it is difficult to find anyone who cannot find at least one demand being promoted by the movement that is not relevant to him: the reserve soldiers, the handicapped, the middle class, the lower class, women, minorities, foreigners, secular Jews, new immigrants, teachers, doctors, students and more. However, on the other hand, this is also a disadvantage. When everyone shouts together, it is very hard to hear what they are shouting.
In the abovementioned article, there is a description of a process that was attempted in one of the American organizations. 200 participants in the American protest movement banded together, and by splitting up into small groups that were gradually merged into larger groups, put forth by a process of brainstorming, a list of all their demands. The groups were merged gradually in order to synchronize identical demands that were put forth in the different groups, but were phrased differently. Identical demands were gradually merged in order to avoid doubles. In the next stage, every one of the participants voted for every demand that he or she identified with. The result is the list in the attached article.
As you can see, the list includes only three demands that received a clear majority (over 3/4 of the participants supported them), five more demands received a narrow majority (slightly more than half of the participants supported them), another 24 demands received the support of between a quarter and half of the participants, 163 demands received support of between 10 and 50 participants and a few hundred more demands received less than 10 supporters, meaning less than 5% of the participants.
A few more peculiar-sounding demands found their way among the obvious demands, such as free education for all (the 2nd most popular demand, with 186 supporters), and free universal healthcare (105 supporters): ten people supported “end to the earth-moon boundary as limit of human scope; redirect resources from wars to terra-forming mars”, ten people supported “No cops”, nine supported “Pleasure”, seven supported “curved buildings”, seven supported “more sex” and six supported “non-zionist”.
Moving towards a new model of governance
The protest movements that sprouted up across the globe since last summer have integrated a level of direct democracy as an important characteristic of their behavior. It seems that if there is one clear insight that can be extracted about the demands of the movement, it is that the citizens of the world are thirsty for a greater level of participation in the decision-making process when it comes to decisions that will affect their lives.
When I was a Political Science student, not that long ago, one of our first written assignments was to write a position paper on the idea of direct democracy. The idea, at first glance, is a good one. What is democracy, if not the possibility that is given to every citizen to be a part of the governmental process, to express views and for those views to have an affect on decision making? In ancient Athens, as we have all learnt, there was a direct democracy in which all the citizens took part. This is not accurate, however, because women and slaves were not considered citizens. The number of people that gathered in the Athenian forum and sentenced Socrates to death, for instance, as we learn from the writings of Plato, was nowhere near the numbers living in modern-day states.
The main claims against instating a regime of direct democracy are related to the inability of citizens to be well-informed on all matters, to be exposed to all the relevant information (on security matters, for instance) and to making the parliamentary process redundant. However, the logistic problems entailing from hearing and weighing the views of millions of citizens are slowly dissipating in the age of social networks and it seems that the inability to gather the people in the forum and hear all their opinions can no longer serve as an excuse for not instating a regime of direct democracy.
Does this mean that we should allow all citizens to take part in votes in the Knesset? Have we reached the stage in which we are ready to replace our elected representatives in discussions in the Finance Committee, the Economic Affairs Committee and the Security and Foreign Affairs Committee? I seriously doubt that, but it appears that the Social Protest with its many affiliated organizations, offshoots and branches around the world are helping to bring the world one step closer with new models of citizen participation and decision making.
The Rise and fall of the Social Protest
Well, we’re back from the world of direct democracy to my thoughts on the Israeli Social Protest: Many have claimed over the past year that the Israeli Social Protest’s sole purpose is to replace the current government. To be more precise, to get rid of Netanyahu, the evil capitalist, who has been hated by the Left since his first tenure as Prime Minister in 1996. Those claiming this do have a point: if the movement is made up of hundreds and even thousands of demands, made by a large collection of organizations and branches, and the movement will not rest until all its demands are met, then of course the movement is attempting to replace the government, which will never fulfill their demands. They cannot possibly expect all their demands to be met. Many of these demands are at odds with the basic principles of the ruling right-wing parties (economically, that is). Many of the demands contradict one another. It is inconceivable that the movement expects all its demands to be met. Therefore, the obvious conclusion is that it wants the government replaced.
On the one hand, this is the Movement’s biggest strength. It will not rest until the rightwing government is replaced, and even then it will continue – until taxes are abolished and welfare services are awarded to every citizen for free. And not only to citizens; welfare services must be given to non-citizens who wish to be citizens as well. It will not rest until housing prices go down and 342 thousand Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria are evicted from their homes and add to the growing demand for housing.
On the other hand, this is also the movement’s Achilles’ heel: if its demands will never be fulfilled, then what’s the point? Its insistence on displaying the whole spectrum of demands included in its scope is, in fact, leading the movement to impotency. A movement that wishes to achieve concrete results must focus on the most important issues and push for their implementation. The stubborn insistence on dealing with all issues, large and small, pushes away those people who support only some of the issues and disperses the movement’s power to succeed in making any real changes in the issues that are most important to it.
After posting a mostly-identical article in my Hebrew blog last week, I asked a few people who identify with the movement what the three most important goals of the movement are. I received a different list from each person I asked. If the Israeli Social Protest Movement were to undergo a process similar to the one undergone by its American counterpart it would lose some of its power, because its demands would suddenly be a lot clearer. The Israeli government would know that in order to escape the pressure, it only has to comply with three or four of the most central demands and ignore the rest, thus disarming the time bomb that is the social protest. On the other hand, without undergoing such a process, the Movement will not achieve any of its goals.
In closing, the protest movements around the world have succeeded in developing important new models of citizen participation and decision making. However, the lack of any central leadership allows the movement to persevere for the long term, on the one hand, but on the other hand renders it impotent in regard to its ability to achieve any significant change.
A friend of mine who is active in the protest movement told me last week that I am slowly “repenting” and coming over to “their side”. I am far from that and I do not support most of the movement’s demands, as far as I have been able to understand them so far. However there is one demand that should be clear to our leaders, no matter what: the people want to be included in the decision making process. The democratic world is ready for the next revolution and the next stage in the development of regime types.
Until that happens, I suggest joining a political party, in order to have the privilege of voting in primary elections, which in Israel, is only available to party members.
Cross-posted in my Hebrew-Langauge blog
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