For a few weeks during the summer of 2011, it seemed as if Israel was in sync with its immediate neighbors for the first time in its history. In Egypt, popular protests in January and February of that year had toppled Hosni Mubarak, the dictator who had ruled the country for thirty years. In Syria, people began protesting in March with a similar objective, namely, to unseat the Assad regime, which had ruled the country for forty years.
That summer, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Israel, fed up with the increasing inability to secure affordable housing and the government’s lack of effort in combating the problem. Occupying whole blocks of downtown Tel Aviv, massive crowds identified Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the person they held most responsible for their condition, chanting in unison: “Mubarak! Assad! Bibi Netanyahu!”
Nearly three years have passed since the uprisings of 2011. In Egypt, a civilian government was elected in July 2012 only to be overthrown by a popular coup in which the military re-took the reins of power. In Syria, urban areas have been bombed into rubble, millions of citizens have fled the country and become refugees, and Assad continues to rule. In Israel, Netanyahu coasted to another easy election victory in January 2013, cementing his prominent place in Israeli politics without granting a single tangible concession to protesters.
Clearly, effecting major change in Egypt and Syria will require serious struggle over the long term. But activists in those countries can at least find some, albeit cold, comfort in the knowledge they have forced their rulers to view them as a potent political force and serious threat to business as usual. The Israeli government, by contrast, can rest assured that its political challengers are incapable of mounting any major offensive against its policies.
The summer protests against the Israeli government did not end, however, because the economy improved. The most recent figures published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicate that Israel has the highest child poverty rate of any industrialized nation, twice as high as the OECD average. The reason protests really ended was because the country’s right-wing government inflamed racial fault lines while left-wing protestors failed to articulate a moral message.
A month after the start of the so-called “social protests,” a bus full of Israelis was attacked by a gang of armed men near the Egyptian border. The government responded by bombing the Gaza Strip. The attackers had no connection to Gaza, which the government eventually admitted. But the Israeli strike, which killed 14 people, achieved the government’s real motive: refocusing attention away from people’s economic woes.
Ramping up racism against non-Jewish groups, both inside and outside the country’s established borders, is a time-honored tradition in Israel. Painting bull’s eyes on ethnic out-groups has historically been a sure-fire way to drum up political support for the ruling regime. In addition to the usual suspects – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Israel itself – during the 2011 protests the government had a new non-Jewish group it could incite hatred toward: African asylum-seekers. Top officials accused the Africans of infecting Israelis with diseases and constituting an existential threat to the country, while the Knesset authored legislation to criminalize the asylum-seekers. Meanwhile, the only African that the Israeli government was willing to grant asylum to was Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The government could not have diffused the social justice movement if it were not for the failure of left-wing leaders to offer an alternative vision for a multi-cultural country with housing and other social and economic rights for everyone, including non-Jews. Instead, protest leaders intentionally left the rights of those groups off their list of demands, afraid that their inclusion would anger racist Israelis who they hoped to attract others to their camp in order to inflate their numbers and increase their influence.
Publicly insisting that housing was a universal right would have inspired progressives in Israel, though few in number, to fight for this noble cause. Instead, protest leaders ignored the needs of non-Jews whose housing rights were under attack by the state – both those in Israel and those in the West Bank. As religious officials on the state’s payroll forbade Israelis from renting apartments to non-Jewish Arabs, Asians, and Africans and the government prepared the Prawer Plan to remove tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens of Israel from their homes, social protest leaders remained spineless and silent.
Usually, an appeal to some higher ideal is necessary to induce people to put themselves on the line. But without a principled position to rally around, the only argument left to convince Israelis to join the front lines of the struggle was self-interest. Unless people have nothing to lose and are at the end of their rope, they are unlikely to risk a criminal record in order to improve their standard of living. And so, without even a single significant accomplishment to its credit, the social justice protests fizzled out of existence after three months.
On the one-year anniversary of Israel’s social protests, a man who had fallen into debt lit himself on fire in the middle of the street, leaving behind a note blaming his financial woes on the government. In the two years since, two other Israelis have followed suit and a dozen others across the country have attempted self-immolation, only to be stopped at the last minute by concerned passersby.
A small but steady stream of Israelis have clearly hit rock bottom and believe the future to be so bleak they prefer to die painfully and publicly in protest against the government’s indifference. However, the vast majority of Israelis who still have something to lose are unwilling to take action that involves any level of risk.
The Israelis who fought for social justice before it became a catchphrase will continue as they did before, expending their energies trying to create alternatives on the ground. Often, it is the exact same people contesting economic inequality who also wage war on racial inequality. But by strategically choosing one battle over the over, they stripped the mission of its moral imperative, and consequently, the resolve of its most dedicated soldiers. So until the day they are willing to denounce both disaster capitalism and state-sponsored racism in the same breath, they should refrain from challenging the throne, as any such attempt will be doomed to failure.