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The Israeli Spring in Kiryat Shemona

December 25, 2011

120 Protest Camps throughout the Land

by Rabbi Amy Klein

When I arrive at the protest camp in Kiryat Shemona, fifteen minutes down the road from Kibbutz Lehavot Habashan, my home since a year ago, something is awkwardly wrong. I am too old. I don’t smoke. My clothes aren’t torn in the right places. Each activist who smiles and says hello to me is more beautiful than the next. No bad backs or worn out knees here. I am definitely at the wrong protest.

The “Tent Revolution,” Israel’s social justice protest, began on July 14th, 2011, when Daphni Leef set up a tent on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv to protest the lack of affordable apartment rentals in the city. The news of her and her friends’ protest spread quickly on Facebook, and within weeks there were one hundred and twenty protest encampments in cities from the north to the south, including in Arab towns, to object to the high cost of everything. They had been primed by the “Cottage Cheese Protest” a month earlier, which ninety thousand Israelis joined directly, while many more boycotted the beloved dairy product. Now they were protesting cost-of-living issues including affordable housing, fair taxation, preschool fees, gas and food and diaper prices. Given the $8-per-gallon price of gas, I never did make it to Tel Aviv to see for myself their colorful and creative encampment, but in Kiryat Shemona, in the beautiful Upper Galilee close to the Lebanese border, the culture of the protest site is gentle and green, with recycling, composting and a vegetable garden.

In its early stages, the movement’s focus was on waking up the public from its apathy and sense of powerlessness. The protest slogan was simple: “Ha-am doresh tzedek hevrati,” “The nation demands social justice.” There were those who criticized the protest as representing a sushi-eating crowd that only cares about its comforts, but that image rapidly changed, not only because the cost-of-living in Israel is absurdly high, but also because the protest leaders made clear that everyone was welcome in their tents — Jews of all ethnic, religious and class backgrounds, as well as Palestinian Israelis.

Soon the protests became the darling of the media, with radio show hosts interviewing campaign strategists hopeful that the youthful protest leaders would follow their sage advice about how to achieve concrete goals. The protest leaders were not looking to check off a list of demands, however. Instead, they were creating a living democracy in the town square. Each protest camp began to hold public meetings up to three times a week. They became centers for cultural events and education, with open lectures about economics and the specifics of the complicated issues at stake. The public now speaks the language of rikuziot (economic concentration) and pyramidot (corporate pyramids), and not just monopolim and tycoonim. And the public has learned how to listen to one another. If you have spent time in Israel, you know that this achievement just might mean that moshiakh has come.

But would she recognize the hand signals? As in America’s “Occupy Wall Street” movement, Israel’s protesters adopted an inclusive mode of public discourse involving gestures, to avoid interruptions and expedite communication. There is even a signal for interrupting, if you really need to, and the speaker may yield the floor to you.

When the protest didn’t go away and more and more people began calling it a revolution, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided upon the usual Israeli government response to cries of inequity: establishing an investigating committee. Normally, such committees will bury a dispute indefinitely, but the Committee for Socioeconomic Change (popularly called the Trajtenberg Committee for its chair, Emanuel Trajtenberg, an economist at Tel Aviv University) was given a real deadline, lifnei ha-hagim (before the holidays) by which to make recommendations for 1) reducing the financial burden of Israeli citizens; 2) implementing a new tax system; 3) providing better access to social services; 4) increasing competition in the economy; and 5) reducing housing prices.

Protest leaders immediately set up shadow committees of economic experts, led by Professors Yossi Yonah and Avia Spivak, known for their socialist views. One committee was charged with finding a solution to the dangerous phenomenon of economic centralization. The majority of Israel’s manufacturers are today controlled by a small number of wealthy families, each owning a corporate pyramid of manufacturing companies and financial institutions, creating a situation that even Netanyahu admits is a threat to the economic stability of Israel. Monopolies are also widespread in the food and financial industries.

The protest leaders also decided it was time to threaten the big food producers, one at a time, with a boycott of their products in an effort to lower prices. The first target was Tnuva, the largest Israeli dairy monopoly, already under investigation for withholding documents about their profits from the government. Tnuva has come a long way from the pioneer days when it supplied milk in glass bottles to the hard-working builders of the country. I was thankful that my family’s favorite yogurt is produced by one of the other monopolies, Strauss, but then I read the fine print to discover that Tnuva imports our other favorite yogurt, Yoplait, and that my only source for eggs in our kibbutz market is Tnuva, unless I want to get up early and poach eggs from the kibbutz chicken coops.

Investigated by the government and targeted by demonstrators outside her home, Tnuva CEO
Zahavit Cohen resigned. One by one, the giants agreed to lower prices under threat of a massive boycott. In Kiryat Shemona, the local protest camp succeeded in getting Shufersol, a major supermarket chain, to lower its prices to match its larger stores in the center of the country. Their submission was due, in part, to media attention to the fact that residents in the periphery have been paying up to 30 percent more for food basics than Israelis living in the center of the country, despite the fact that our incomes are generally much lower.

Given the reality in Israel, it was bound to happen that a demonstration would coincide with a pigua (terrorist attack). This time it was the well-planned pigua along the Egyptian border, in which eight Israelis were killed. The protest movement proceeded with a silent march in order to make the point that the government cannot hide behind security crises to avoid dealing with economic injustice. Out of respect for the pigua victims, most cities’ pre-rally marches were accompanied only by drumbeats, with no slogans and no talking.

In Kiryat Shemona, one rally speaker was a man in his 50s who simply told his story of growing up in a large family with a working father. When their tiny house got too crowded, his father received government assistance to expand their house by two rooms. That kind of assistance does not exist today, the man explained, and it is scandalous that a man with an honest job cannot make ends meet and take care of his family. In closing, he added quietly that his son had been killed fighting in the second Lebanon war — and that there is no security without economic justice. It took courage for him to raise the issue of security in Kiryat Shemona, a Likud town that is vulnerable to missile fire from Hezbollah, and whose residents were still largely absent from the demonstrations.

In August, my boss at Yuvalim, Pluralistic Center for Jewish Identity and Culture at Tel Hai, asked the residents of the protest camp in Kiryat Shemona if they were would like to begin holding kabbalat shabbat observances. They agreed, and leaders from local kibbutzim and towns took turns facilitating, each according to the style of their home community. These kabbalat shabbat communities are part of a fairly recent phenomenon of secular Israelis coming together for a “service” with singing, a drasha on the Torah portion of the week, and blessings over wine and bread.

A good number of folks from the neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim attended, mostly middle-aged people who found that the services provided easier entry into the protest camp than some of its other activities. The residents of the camp, however, were mostly choosing to grab extra sleep after a long week of demonstrations and late-night meetings. We decided to begin later in the evening — which cost us the older participants, who wanted to be home with their families, but gained us the chance for some lovely experiences with the younger protestors. At one kabbalat shabbat that I led, after a woman activist recited kiddush in the feminine, we were about to move to the motzi when someone said, “Wait, Moshe is going to make kiddush.” My first thought was that “Moshe” didn’t feel, in accordance with traditional Jewish law, that the obligation of saying kiddush could be fulfilled by a woman — but it turned out that Moshe is mentally challenged, and our modest Kabbalat Shabbat provided him with a place where he could shine. We all happily waited for him to make kiddush, which he did, very beautifully.

On September 3rd, the day of the “Half-Million March” — which indeed brought out half a million people out of a total population of 7.6 million — some ten thousand participated in the Kiryat Shemona march, many of them local residents, alongside those from area kibbutzim and other communities. Ten thousand is a really impressive number, since there are only fifty thousand residents in the entire Hula Valley, including Rosh Pina, which had its own demonstration! Speakers included the Kiryat Shemona protest camp representative to the national networks of protest camps, a social work professor who spoke about the hopes and dreams of her students, and a Palestinian citizen of Israel from the Jezreel Valley whose speech, in Hebrew, was passionate and included, at the end, a few sentences in Arabic. He made real the fact that there really were protest tents in Palestinian Israeli towns, and that their leadership were meeting with the leadership of the tents in Jewish towns.

The Trajtenberg Committee submitted its report on schedule on September 26th. Recommendations included raising income tax rates for the rich, as well as corporate taxes and taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains; increasing employer contributions to social security; and decreasing the gasoline tax. There were proposals to decrease economic centralization and decrease the use of temporary workers in the public sector. On October 9th, the Cabinet adopted the report, 21-8.

Protest leaders immediately attacked it. Daphni Leef said, “We asked for a root canal and got a teeth cleaning.” A letter was sent to all Knesset members demanding deep changes in the 2012 budget, cancellation of chok ha-hesdarim (the law that enables fast-track passage of budgetary amendments without a full parliamentary process), and funding for the government’s plans for economic change, as well as a clear timetable for implementation. Among the signatories were Shelley Yachimovitch, chair of the Labor Party. Moshe Gafni, chair of the Knesset finance committee, agrees with the principles but never signs petitions. He called the Trajtenberg report a ploy by the government to gain time.

Trajtenberg himself complained that the national debt made it impossible to increase government spending as the protestors want without developing new sources of income — sources he believes don’t exist. It would be impossible to raise income taxes above the 50 percent that the report recommends for the upper echelons, as that would only encourage tax evasion — and raising the corporate tax from 24 to 25 percent is the most Israel can do, he said, without losing foreign investment.

According to Yaron Zelekha — former accountant general of the Finance Ministry, who has never been afraid to criticize government policy or confront business giants — the government needs to break up monopolies forcefully and raise money from the wealthiest. The problem is not the person who earns 40 thousand shekels per month (for whom Trajtenberg recommends raising income tax from 44 to 48 percent), it is the person who earns 40 million shekels per month and pays only 25 percent tax on stock options.

After reading the Trajtenberg Report, Zelekha said, “The powers-that-be are afraid to dismantle corporate pyramids that are robbing the public and sabotaging our pensions. Worst of all, we’re all getting poorer.” In fact, Israel is the poorest Western country by nearly all measurements, including GDP per capita and wealth inequality. Twenty-five percent of the population lives under the poverty line, with income under 5,000 shekels (about $1,300) per month, and the middle class is moving toward a socio-economic standard of Western poverty.

The tent revolution returned from a bit of well-earned rest at Rosh Hashone only to find that food prices had gone back up. Israelis continue to pay up to 30 percent more for their food than they did in 2008. The problem involves food producers, food suppliers, retail stores, import taxes and other factors that support monopoly control and result in a box of Osem Cornflakes costing $2.25 in Poland but $5 in Israel.

Almost immediately after the Half-Million March, media analysts were saying that the revolution was unsustainable. Leaders of the movement, however, have succeeded in shifting their rhetoric from “revolution” to “struggle” — struggle until real change in socio-economic policies happens. Dismantling their tents was a step in that shift that freed up energy for the struggle in the Knesset. They were criticized for abandoning the homeless who had come to live in the protest camps — but in many places, activists are, in fact, working to find them permanent housing.

As of this writing, the Kiryat Shemona protest camp is still standing — one of the few winterized encampments — as an energetic center for local change. “Three months of protest, eight protest rallies, a hundred and twenty protest camps, thousands of tents, hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets,” says Gaby Weinrot of the encampment. “The call before us is clear . . . deep, true and broad change of Israel’s socio-economic policies. . . . It is up to us! Only we will determine whether the largest social protest in the history of the country will continue or whether it was a passing summer episode.”

I don’t have a lot of patience, and often think that if only the demand for opening the budget would include a clear call for eliminating spending on settlements in the Occupied Territories, we would have some of the money we need. But this is a revolution of all the people, and we are not supposed to talk about “the situation.” Nevertheless, I wish that the same energy was being put into a protest for peace.

Israel, like Los Angeles where I grew up, has no spring. Instead, every year in the days before Pesakh there is a sharav (khamsin in Arabic): hot, dry weather brought on by desert winds that bring sandstorms and mud, dirtying everything you’ve cleaned for the holiday. Following the sharav are two weeks of spring-like weather that quickly fades into the reality of the hot summer. It will take tremendous effort to make sure that the “Israeli Spring” does not suffer the same melting fate. There are many, however, who believe it has already succeeded. A new ideology about how to live is being disseminated. It is part of a worldwide awakening, led by young people, and we all need to be patient to see its effects.

Amy Klein, a Reconstructionist rabbi, serves as coordinator of community programs at Yuvalim, Pluralistic Center for Jewish Identity and Culture at Tel Hai College in the Upper Galilee and is on the educational staff of Rabbis for Human Rights.