World in View: Israel: ‘Egypt is here’

From the September-October 2011 issue of News & Letters:

World in View: Israel: ‘Egypt is here’

by Gerry Emmett

Israel has seen an unprecedented protest movement grow in the wake of the Arab Spring. Around 250,000 people marched through Tel Aviv, Israel, on Aug. 6 in the biggest protest rally the country has ever experienced. Another 50,000 participated in other cities and towns. It is being seen as a direct challenge to the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultra-reactionary allies.

The movement began in July when a young woman named Daphni Leef pitched a tent in Tel Aviv to protest against the unaffordable cost of housing. The protesters are also calling for a fairer tax system, free schooling, ending privatization of state-owned enterprises, and higher spending on public housing and transportation.

Besides the tent city on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, demonstrations have taken place in such locales as Beersheba and Haifa, with efforts to include all parts of Israeli society, especially Arabs. Leftist, labor and student groups are represented. Palestinian-Israelis have raised their own perspective in Tel Aviv by setting up Tent #1948.

It would be easy to be cynical about these protests, in that they have not directly raised the issues of Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine, the blockade of Gaza, or the illegal West Bank settlements. But some of this is implicit in the criticism of the government’s defense spending versus social spending.

However, what really opens up new possibilities is the Arab Spring. The depth of the freedom movement in the region, in Egypt, Syria and Palestine, is a challenge to all that is old and oppressive in life and thought. It is now finding a hopeful, if yet very fragile echo within Israel.

In the words of Israeli war resister Matan Kaminer, “…the articulation of the current movement with the Palestinian movement for liberation is certainly difficult to imagine. But it is unnecessary to point out how many of the events of the past year in the Middle East were completely unimaginable a year ago….the events in Israel are, at least at the level of discourse, deeply inspired by those of the Arab Spring. The very idea of borrowing any progressive concept from an Arab country was unimaginable here until quite recently….When, at the huge rally last Saturday, I saw a giant sign plastered with the Arabic irhal! (go!) and subtitled in Hebrew ‘Egypt is here’–I was hardly surprised. We should not overlook the profundity of this change because of its apparently rhetorical nature.”

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