For the past week, Israel has been covered in posters hypothetically asking, “Where were you on September 9th?” encouraging people to attend the “Million Man March”. I will be able to proudly respond that I was one of 50,000 demanding social and economic justice in Jerusalem in solidarity with around 450,000 people protesting across the nation. To put this in perspective, this is roughly 8% of the population, or equal to 17 million Americans protesting at once.
Instead of recapping the origins and the goals of the social justice protests, sometimes dubbed j14th in honor of their July 14th beginning, you can read my first post on the topic. It also links to more substantial articles.
Many who support and analyze the movement viewed yesterday as crucial: Due to the escalation in the south the much-anticipated Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN this month, and heightened tension with Turkey, security concerns are once again first page news. Many predicted that the movement would quickly prove unsustainable under these conditions.
However, yesterday proved these predictions inaccurate. Yesterday’s protests were not only massive, but demographically diverse, energized, and completely non-violent in the truest sense of the word. The social justice movement has sustained itself for two months thus far. It has proven relevant enough to appeal not only to the young left-leaners who mainly inhabit the tent cities, but also to the masses who have shown their support in polls and Saturday night protests. I have never seen such a large number of people unified and impassioned by a common cause. I knew I was witnessing and participating in something truly original and important. It’s a rare and empowering feeling.
In spite of my praise, some legitimate concerns have been raised about the protest movement. What started as protests about the cost of housing and cottage cheese has become a laundry list of middle class grievances. The protest still lacks concrete goals and a cohesive vision. With this massive of a protest, it’s tough not to spread itself too thin; especially given reports about lack of cohesive leadership and strategic differences between organizers.
In addition, many complain that the movement has made no efforts to address economic needs unique to Israel’s non-Jewish population, the blockade in Gaza, West Bank settlements, and other humanitarian concerns. I do think that the movement should properly address the economic concerns of all Israelis and that it has genuinely attempted to do so. This is evident at the Jaffa and Haifa tent cities. However, while the other issues are crucial, as I wrote in my first blog on the topic, I do not think the j14 protests are the correct forum. In fact I think the protests are momentous and represent a paradigm shift precisely because they are NOT about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Since Israel’s founding, the only public demonstrations and populist movements that have come close to this size and influence related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. These protests for the most part were politically divisive, and frequently pitted different sectors of Israeli society against each other. For this reason, j14 is unprecedented. The cause is widely supported, unifying, and intentionally avoiding controversial political policy at this stage. Although I do believe the protests will lead to some initiatives in the Knesset and lasting changes, even if they do not, they changed social and political discourse in Israel for the better. Until now, social and economic issues were always on the back burner to security and defense. Israelis tolerated growing disparities between the wealthy and the poor, increasing privatization, and government neglect due to external threats. As soon as new international issues would pop up- which was quite frequent, the government made them the only priority and the people sat idly by. Last night proved that this cycle is over. Israelis are no longer allowing issues from the territories and outside the border to completely divide society and serve as an excuse for the government; instead, they are unwavering in their demands for social and economic justice. The protests are historical if only for this reason.
After the initial energy wore off, I started thinking about the protest in relation to my own country. After the debt ceiling crisis, I became so aggravated and disenfranchised by U.S politics that I basically stopped paying attention for my own sanity’s sake. Last night both renewed my faith in democracy and simultaneously renewed my frustration with Americans. In Israel, the middle class and the students are singing. In America, we need to be listening. One of the primary reasons Israelis took to the streets is because of the deteriorating middle class and a lack of social mobility. Nineteen families control 54% of the wealth. According to an outdated, but still important, article by Nick Kristof, “The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976″. Israel’s wealth inequalities aren’t so different from ours, are they? Our unemployment rate more than doubles Israel’s. However, while Israelis are covering the streets with tents, we are eating fried butter on a stick with Michele Bachman. Israel woke up… when will we?