Thursday, August 11, 2011

Summer of Tents

On a Friday night two weeks ago my family and I strolled along Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv. This is usually one of the most beautiful streets in the city, with its Bauhaus buildings, tree-lined sidewalks, and ample space for bike riders and child play. But this summer Rothschild is different; it is the center of a nation-wide social protest which has resulted in the boulevard’s being renamed by some as “If I Were Rothschild”, referring to the European Jewish banking family that helped finance many institutions in pre-state Israel.

The first tent was set up on Rothschild exactly one month ago and its placement there, in protest of the high cost of living, led to additional encampments up and down the street, and in other cities all over Israel. Last Saturday night the growing social protest movement held a march in central Tel Aviv attracting some 280,000 people and staging a rally that included a performance by Shlomo Artzi.

So, what is the rallying call of the protesters? They shout: “The nation demands social justice!” Well, no one could object to that, but what does it mean? The organizers are finalizing their lists of demands, which reportedly include lower rental costs and more housing opportunities for young couples and students, as well as the setting of new priorities for social causes.

The tent protesters have been joined in their highly publicized rallies by a wide range of other causes, including everyone from striking doctors working in government hospitals to dairy farmers to policemen seeking higher salaries.

The government, for its part, initially downplayed the growing protest movement, and there were statements from politicians suggesting this was merely the protest of sushi-eating Tel Avivians. Now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set up a committee to handle negotiations with the young social activists.
Is this summer protest political? Its leaders state that it is a social protest and have welcomed visits from the head of the Judea and Samaria settlements to their tents in a sign of solidarity.

However, many in the media are suggesting that the protests are indeed political. If the government is expected to readjust its priorities, where is it going to get additional funds to lower taxes and increase social benefits? Many say that this can only come by diverting funds that are today being given to the settlements.
Political or not, it is hard to see a happy ending to this summer protest. Social justice is a vague concept and cannot be fully realized no matter what the government does. The world’s economic markets are currently in turmoil, so the government will be cautious and take responsible actions, making sure not to rock Israel’s financial stability no matter how loud the activists protest.

I just hope that something good will come out of this. As a member of Israel’s middle class, I hope that the Summer of Tents will succeed in lowering Israel’s expensive cost of living.

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