For a month now, middle class Israelis have been leaving their homes and camping out in the streets to protest against obscene rent hikes and extortionate living costs. It started in Habima Square in central Tel Aviv, but people caught on quick, and the middle classes have been joined by jobless economic migrants, students and workers' unions.
Now you'll find tents crouched alongside 18m-shekel Bauhaus penthouses on Rothschild Boulevard, and the streets of every major Israeli town and city have been swollen by an influx of people sitting in tents and shouting at the soaring cost of everything like gangs of angry scouts.
The protests have caught the government off guard. Years spent focusing on American friends and Arabian enemies has left neglected social services in a mess, and privatised welfare and mental health set-ups have pushed many Israelis further than they seem prepared to go. The sight of hundreds of thousands of them marching across Israel was so unprecedented that this week the government was forced to consider scrapping its annual summer recess.
I spoke to Oren Ziv and Keren Manor, two members of a photography collective called Active Stills, to find out about the protests they've spent the last month documenting.
VICE: Hey guys. Why are so many Israelis choosing to live on the streets at the moment?
Oren Ziv: Basically, the social problems in the country have become unbearable for many Israelis. Many are protesting about housing, unemployment and the cost of living, especially in the centre of Israel. There are also many issues with workers' rights, taxes, fuel prices... Life for the middle and lower classes has now become very tough.
How long have these protests been going on for?
Oren: Well, we didn’t come from nowhere like the media are trying to portray. For example, doctors have been on strike and protesting daily for eight months now. More generally, smaller workers' unions have been trying to galvanise their members into action for the past year, holding small demonstrations and strikes. The issue only really became media-worthy when the middle classes in the nicer areas of Tel Aviv started protesting and tent cities started popping up. For a while the government didn’t quite understand what was going on and so didn’t really react.
Keren Manor: It’s been quite a surprise for everyone here, because people in Israel tend to be quite apathetic as to what’s going on around them. These big marches have inspired a lot of people to get involved themselves.
There was talk earlier this week of Benjamin Netanyahu cancelling the Knesset’s summer recess. Does this show how shocked the government is by these protests?
Oren: For decades in Israel, social issues have been at the bottom of the government's agenda – the occupation and ongoing conflicts with Palestine and others have always taken precedence. Since 1948 we’ve been under a state of emergency law which gets renewed every six months, and that makes it easy to scare Israelis into thinking social issues should be the least of their worries. People are joking now that the government will start bombing Iran so people will be put off from protesting! Obviously that'd never happen, but even if it did, it'd be a bit late; there are tent cities and protests going on all across Israel. After seeing the tent city on Rothschild Street, people were thinking ‘if they can do it there, then we can do it anywhere.'
So are the government trying to talk to the protesters and find a solution?
Oren: Well in the beginning the government were laughing and telling the protesters that they’re just spoilt middle class kids who should go and build settlements in the South and be all patriotic for once, but the problem with that is that there's no work for young people outside the big cities. So first they thought it was a joke or a fad, but today we heard that the President, Shimon Peres, invited the ‘leaders’ of the protests to a meeting to talk about the issues.
That sounds promising, I guess.
Oren: The problem for the government is that they didn’t do anything about it in the beginning, and they’ve let it get so bad that they’ll struggle to placate the movement. Now anyone with any social grievance has joined the movement and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Israel – and especially Tel Aviv – is one of the most expensive places to live in the world, because so many rich Jews come and buy summer houses here that they only spend a few months of the year living in. That drives up the rent prices and the housing costs. Israel may be a rich country, but the minimum wage here is only £4.75 an hour and the tax levels are higher than most European countries. So a family where both the parents work will still struggle to be able to buy a house. The middle class is failing.
So what can the government do to fix the problem?
Oren: At the weekend over 150,000 people were protesting all over Israel, and for a country of only seven million that’s a lot of people. I think that shocked the government even further and so now there is talk of negotiation. But people don’t just want living standards to improve, they also want the entire social justice system to become fairer for all.
Keren: People are now making the connections between the government and the rich elite of Israel. In Israel there are around 20 families that control all the media in the country, the newspapers, TV shows, radio stations, etc, and the people are getting tired of these monopolies and their ties to the ruling parties. People are asking that the tax system be made fairer, and the upper classes who avoid paying tax be brought to justice. They also want the end of privatised social services as people can no longer afford them.
A big a reason for this privatisation, and thus the high cost of living, is that so much of the state budget goes into maintaining the occupation and paying for the settlements. Logically this means that the state has little money left to spend on other things.
So is the Israeli government's preoccupation with Palestine to blame for this situation?
Oren: Of course it’s connected, although countries such as Spain and Greece don’t have such massive defence budgets and they still struggle to fund adequate social services. In Israel the situation is much more extreme because of the settlers. The reason you don’t see the settlers at the protests isn’t because they're not invited, but because they have subsidised housing in the West Bank, where the public transport is half-price. Taxes are lower for them, too, and this is why you don’t see them in the streets. You have to remember that Israel is maintaining an occupation and thus is focused on security – they have to pay the soldiers, replace the tanks that get blown up and the weapons they fire, and they have to build more walls.
Speaking realistically, could this movement bring down the government?
Oren: Well they're hampered by it. They know they can't attack the tent cities and their inhabitants because they will look bad. In Israel we don’t have massive squatting or street party cultures, and people don't have large gatherings without getting permission first, but now we’re seeing these tent cities springing up with community kitchens which is all very new for the country. There aren’t many strikes or large scale protests, so to see so many people coming out on the streets and having democratic discussions for change is a big thing.
I think the movement is already slowly bringing down the government – for instance, last week the ruling Likud party went to the poorer neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv where their strong support bases are to meet supporters, and instead they were met by huge crowds of local people blocking the roads and shouting “By blood and by fire, we will force you from power." Without that support, I really see Netanyahu losing power at the next election. Ideally, though, we’d rather it lead to a bigger social change rather than just a change in the regime.
Do you see this struggle as a part of the Arab Spring?
Oren: You can’t ignore the Arab Spring, it’s happening all around us and it’s constantly in the media. In the beginning, Israelis were worried that the revolution in Egypt would lead to the installation of an Islamist regime, but they can now that's not gonna happen. Now a lot of people are comparing the tent cities in Tel Aviv to the camps erected in Tahir Square in Cairo, it’s the same community atmosphere and the same thirst for change. The difference is that in Israel we have a lot more rights and we don’t see the same violent opposition by the government, so it’s a lot easier to protest without recriminations from the regime. So far we’ve not seen the need for violent protests.
In reality, the right comparison would be to the Real Democracy Now protests in Spain – a number of the Israeli protesters were in Spain at the time and brought back some of their ideas, hence why we have the same tent cities, the same community discussions and a real urge for peaceful protest. But there has definitely been some inspiration from the Arab Spring, we’ve seen banners saying “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu” or people shouting “Tahir is here."
How have the police reacted to the protests?
Oren: At first they were fine and let the tent cities spring up as technically it’s a municipal issue, not a police issue. Generally in places such as Rothschild Street they haven’t touched anyone, but in the lower class neighbourhoods they've been more aggressive. The police were especially aggressive near the central bus station where there is one camp mostly made up of illegal immigrants and the homeless, and where a lot of drug dealing takes place. It was taken down three times in one week by the municipality with help from the police.
Last week, on the first big demo, people were chanting “We love the police” because the police can’t form a union and they suffer from a lot of the same issues as the protesters. But when the police tried to clear the streets, a few protesters were arrested, so the crowd tried to block the police cars and the road. Normally, if these were Palestinians or left-wing activists they’d be beaten immediately, but the police let it go on for an hour before they waded in and started attacking people. Tel Aviv is not like Europe; people don’t throw stones or petrol bombs at police, we don’t have the same mentality. Although saying that, there have been a few instances of stone throwing. Who’s to say what will happen when the protests get bigger? Which they will.
What’s your opinion of the anti-boycott law passed by the Netanyahu regime last month, which prohibits Israelis from supporting international boycotts against their country?
Keren: It’s just another example of how this government's becoming less democratic. By passing this law, Israel is showing its real face to the world and the Israeli public. Unfortunately it’s just one of many of these anti-democratic laws being passed. Another example would be the law which dictates that if more than three people gather in the street, it's an ’illegal gathering’. Another is the 'Nabka Law,' which stops institutions from teaching or talking about the ‘Nabka’ or ‘The Catastrophe’ [Palestinian phrase describing the birth of the Israeli state]. These laws show the direction that Israel is headed.
Does that scare you?
Keren: I’ve become accustomed to living like this, but many people are still very apathetic to the oppression from the Israeli state and so don’t realise what sort of country they’re living in. The democracy here is very fragile, today it’s democracy but tomorrow, who knows?
PHOTOS: OREN ZIV AND KEREN MANOR FROM ACTIVE STILLS
INTERVIEW: HENRY LANGSTON