Good intent of those in tents

By Rachel Liel, August 16, 2011

Around 300,000 of my fellow Israelis went on to the streets last Saturday night to demand a better, more just Israel. This demonstration grew out of a protest movement that began just over three weeks ago. Nothing like this has been seen in Israel before. It is a powerful and optimistic moment, a grassroots phenomenon with huge popular support.

The protests started about affordable housing but they are really about the make-up of Israeli society. Thus, although the protests were begun by the middle class, they are now bringing together citizens from across the country and from all parts of society - secular, Orthodox, Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, Arab, immigrant.

Israel has shown enviable economic growth over recent decades, leading it to be described as a "start-up" nation. This is still true for those at the top of society, but it is in reality becoming a "slide-down" nation for too many of the rest of us. Israel's middle class is shrinking. Ten years ago, it was one-third of the population. Now it's down to less than one-quarter. Nearly one in four residents in Israel lives below the poverty line - twice the average of Western countries. The groups with the highest percentage living below the poverty line are the ultra-Orthodox (57 per cent) and the Arab population (54 per cent). Working families make up half of the total population living below the poverty line.

The movement that spontaneously started in the tents on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard has been led by a younger generation. Students and others from mainstream society - many not previously politically active and who have wrongly been accused of being selfish - have taken control. This is a generation that cares about the future of Israel.

Attempts have been made to discredit the protests and the protest leaders, suggesting they are being manipulated or have a hidden agenda. This is not only wrong but a shame - the protesters are addressing real concerns and difficulties shared by millions of Israelis. The social safety net is disappearing. Fortunately, the vast majority of Israelis have seen through these attempts and recognise that the protesters' demands are genuine and in the national interest.

The protests are in the national interest

This explains the growing levels of support for the demonstrations and why the students and young professionals of Tel Aviv have been joined by pensioners concerned about health-care and other costs; parents of young children concerned about education and the costs of child-care; and communities from Israel's periphery highlighting the difficulties they face. A Haaretz poll found that 87 per cent of Israelis support the protests.

If you are in Israel over the summer it is worth visiting a protest site, not only on Rothschild Boulevard but as far afield as Kiryat Shmona and Beersheba. This will give you a feel of the diversity and the passion. For me, to hear my fellow citizens come together under slogans like "the people demand social justice" and "life with dignity" is inspiring.

Of course, the New Israel Fund and the organisations in Israel we support have been working on issues of social justice for decades. We have put the topic and even the phrase "affordable housing" on the agenda. In 2009, we helped set up the Coalition for Affordable Housing to find solutions for the growing housing crisis. Our work has also helped marginalised and low-income communities in all sections of society, not only on housing issues but education, access to medical services, employment opportunities and community development.

None of us knows for sure what this grassroots moment will achieve but those anticipating (or hoping) that the protests will just fizzle out are repeatedly being proven wrong. I am not surprised by the strength of this movement. It is the culmination of a series of popular social protests that began this year over the price of petrol, cheese and the government's take on Israel's newly discovered gas fields.

The concerns highlighted over the past few weeks are real and must be addressed for the future health of Israel. The desire of the hundreds of thousands joining these protests to ensure this change should not be underestimated. I am proud of my fellow Israelis' commitment to this cause.

Rachel Liel is executive director of NIF Israel

Last updated: 10:26am, August 16 2011