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Jewish Journal

Salon nation: Israel’s struggle for renewal

by David Suissa

August 24, 2011 | 3:49 pm

Protesters discuss Israel’s social problems in a tent city along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, part of a protest movement in Israel this summer. Photo by Glenn Yago

Protesters discuss Israel’s social problems in a tent city along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, part of a protest movement in Israel this summer. Photo by Glenn Yago

The big question in Israel right now is: Will the terror bombs of Gaza destroy the protest tents of Rothschild? Normally, you would think they would — this is a place where the drama of security has a way of trumping everything. But things in Israel this summer have been anything but normal. The protests over the country’s endemic social problems have unleashed deep emotions within Israeli society. So far, the movement seems to be holding, although in a more sober fashion out of respect for the victims of the latest terrorist attacks.

These recent attacks from Gaza are, in fact, the first big test for the movement. Will the protesters be able to overcome the suffocating pathology of their violent neighborhood, where the hysteria of fear conquers all other forces? Here is the reality: The problems revealed by the tent revolution are independent of terror, and they will fester with or without the Gaza bombs.

This is why it would be a mistake to allow the bombs to distract us from the tent revolution. The bombs are evil and must be dealt with forcefully, but the tents of 2011 are the bigger story. They’re about building homes, not just defending them.

In that spirit, allow me to share some impressions about this new Israeli social phenomenon, which I witnessed firsthand over the past couple of weeks.

One of the first things that struck me when I visited the Tel Aviv protest tents was that no one was selling T-shirts. How can you have thousands of people hanging out on a promenade with no one hawking T-shirts or tchotchkes? There were, however, hundreds of signs pushing one social cause or another. Occasionally, you’d come across something a little lighter, as in: “Bibi: Prepare the Wasabi — 300,000 People Want Sushi” (a reference to a government minister who denounced the protesters as “sushi eaters”).

What really got to me, though, as I strolled down “Tent City” on these hot August nights, were the conversational salons.

These salons, which can ambush you at any moment with an existential debate on the future of Zionism, are the quiet heroes of Israel’s summer of protest. You won’t see them much on the evening news because they’re not as photogenic as 300,000 protesters marching down city streets.

But they represent the difference between a revolt and a revolution; between protesting and transforming. They are the intimate arenas where people come to air their grievances, argue about ideas and brainstorm possible solutions. 

The salons are essentially outdoor living rooms nestled among the tents, where, at any time, a lively conversation will break out or an expert of some sort will make a presentation. Random groups of people coalesce around any number of salons. Where in Los Angeles, people might gather on the Venice boardwalk to watch a comedian or an acrobat, here people gather to listen to or join a conversation.

In one of these salons, an elderly woman was getting a little agitated: “What will happen when all these tents go down?” she asked a middle-aged man sitting on a chair, who seemed to be leading the conversation. “I’m from a kibbutz. We deal with reality. How will all this lead to anything real? All these tents are beautiful, but we need solutions!”

The man, dressed in black, responded quietly. “Remember when the Second Temple got destroyed?” he asked. “It didn’t destroy us. We had leaders who picked up the pieces and kept our people growing. These tents are like little temples. After they go down, it’s up to us to make sure we keep their spirit growing.”

A younger man tried to interject. After a few failed attempts, he finally got his turn. Addressing the woman from the kibbutz, he said, “I live in a hole up the street. OK, I can’t make ends meet, but I want to know something: What am I living and fighting for? In your generation, you had a cause — you were building a country. What am I building?”

Yes, what are the new Israelis building? What is their cause?

Don’t believe anyone who claims to have this protest movement figured out. The movement is a body with many heads. It’s being shaped and developed in the moment. The anxiety over whether it will lead to anything is part of its electricity.

Nevertheless, despite these uncertainties, there’s a sense here that Israel has crossed a threshold — that after so many years of worrying about external factors, the country has decided to look inward and take better care of itself.

As I see it, three great forces animate Israeli society: love of life (peace), fear of extinction (security) and an impulse for social justice. Until this extraordinary protest movement this summer, Israeli consciousness was largely dominated by the first two — peace and security.

It has always been an uneasy dance between the craving for peace and the reality of violence.

That’s why the two-decade “peace process” has had a certain schizophrenic quality: heady moments, when people could almost taste peace, and despairing moments when fear set in.

This summer, in the aftermath of the Arab spring, the three forces converged in a prescient way: Worries over security and peace were somehow neutralized, allowing the impulse for social justice to be unleashed. People felt physically safer (notwithstanding last week’s attacks, there has been a drastic reduction in terrorism here, compared to the dark days of the Second Intifada), and most people were pretty much exhausted by the comatose peace process (the Palestinian end-run to the United Nations perhaps being the tipping point).

This new dynamic freed Israelis to refocus their energies on social issues — and they have done so with a vengeance.

What started with a couple of Charedis from Bnei Brak protesting the exorbitant price of cottage cheese gradually evolved into a nationwide social movement. Just about every social cause — from housing to education to animal rights to the environment — has gathered at the tent cities. Polls show that 87 percent of the nation supports the movement.

According to experts with whom I spoke, it was only a matter of time before the people woke up. Naturally, economic and housing issues led the way. Israel has had a severe housing shortage for years. Salaries are stagnant, while the cost of living is soaring. A friend told me that most of his wife’s salary goes to child care. Many items cost double or triple their price in the United States — gas alone is $8 a gallon.

But this is what is so unusual about this movement: It’s being led by the Aroma Café generation. These are not desperate people recklessly lashing out; this is an educated middle class that is having trouble making ends meet and expects more from their country. They understand that the macro benefits of their “start-up nation” have not trickled down to them, let alone to the less privileged.

And their cause is not peace with other countries, but peace within their own country; not about a hopeless two-state solution but about some hopeful my-state solutions.

Putting aside the anarchists and opportunists, there is a surprising level of unity and amity within the movement. The focus on social issues has brought together people from all walks of life and ignited a renewed sense of solidarity in a society used to being torn apart by ideologies.

Of course, all this solidarity won’t mean much if it doesn’t lead to some results. This is where the salons come in. They are the vehicles for the forging of ideas and the shaping of plans. Slowly, organically, these salons are translating the emotions of a frustrated people into concrete strategies to engage the government.

Late one night in Yaffo, I attended a salon where a group of artists and architects were laying out a vision for a more diverse Tel Aviv. They had invited my friend Glenn Yago, head of the Milken Institute’s Israel Center (MIIC), who has been spending many nights giving on-the-spot seminars to protesters, for advice on moving their vision forward. After several hours of discussion, the evening ended with a plan of action: A goal of 100,000 new affordable housing units in the Tel Aviv area by the year 2020. Budgets, maps and petitions to follow.

(It’s actually quite a sight to see Yago walking around Tel Aviv at night with his large wooden easel and presentation boards, talking to eager young activists about the democratization of capital and the intricacies of social financing.) 

At another salon I attended, Steven Zecher, a public finance expert who advises the MIIC, pointed out that the Israeli government is legally obligated to replace about 150,000 public housing units that have been sold off over the years. Talk about a concrete idea — when one activist heard that, it was as if he’d won the lottery.

There are even “salon rules” to encourage civil debate. To agree with a point being made, raise your hands and rotate both wrists; to disagree, cross your forearms; and if you want to enter the discussion immediately, wag both of your index fingers in a swift back-and-forth motion. Hagit Ofran, who works for Peace Now, told me these salon rules have even started to infiltrate people’s regular conversations.

Salon meetings are happening every night across the country, most of all in the tent cities. Even Tel Aviv University economics professor Manuel Trajtenberg, appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to head a special commission to analyze the problems and make recommendations, has been coming to the tents to meet with the protest leaders. From what I hear, Trajtenberg is seriously engaging the activists by listening to their grievances and inviting their ideas and solutions.

Gidi Grinstein of the Reut Institute, who sits on the commission and has attended many of the tent meetings, is cautiously optimistic. “An entire generation that has been written off is stepping onto the playing field,” he told me. “Until a few weeks ago, people were ashamed to say, ‘I can’t make ends meet.’ Now, individual frustrations have morphed into a collective awareness.”

While it is remarkable that the protests have gone on for weeks without one window being broken, many observers warn that if Israel can’t come up with real, fundamental solutions, it may not be so lucky with future protests.

But lest you think this is only a problem for the central government, Grinstein and others emphasize that the responsibility for Israel’s social renewal will need to include the hundreds of local authorities and communal institutions across the country. All I can say is that if local committees get involved, I hope they use the salon rules during their debates.

It certainly won’t be easy to effect real change. For example, one of the big reasons for the systemic social failure is that a handful of wealthy families have monopolies over several industries, with no incentive to lower prices. These “tycoons” wield enormous power — over the government and the press. So who will have the courage to break their cartel? Will it take new elections so that the people can weigh in?

And how much influence will the voters have with a dysfunctional electoral system in which politicians are accountable more to their parties than to the people?

So, you get an idea of how complicated and multilayered this social movement is — and how difficult it will be to harness all the moving parts. 

Thomas Friedman, in his book “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” used a crude term to describe the kind of leader needed to break through messy logjams: a “son-of-a-bitch.” This is what I think Israel will need to advance the struggle for a social Zionist renewal — a tough leader who has the courage to address the totality of the country’s problems; someone who is unafraid to say and do difficult things.

A leader unafraid to face the people and say: “We will make the course corrections necessary to make your lives easier; we will work to level the playing field and make the economic pie bigger; we will improve education and add safety nets for the most needy. At the same time, we won’t turn this country into a fiscally irresponsible and bankrupt welfare state.”

A leader unafraid to take on the tycoons and say: “The monopoly party’s over. From now on, we will institute reforms so that you will have to compete and stop gouging consumers.”

A leader unafraid to turn to high-tech millionaires and say: “Chip in, my friends. We are grateful for your success. Become partners in our social renewal. The government can’t do it alone.”

A leader unafraid to say to his Knesset colleagues: “We need a constitution to enshrine the people’s rights. We need a new electoral system to make us more accountable to the people and less to our parties. This must happen, even if it means voting ourselves out of a job.”

A leader unafraid to tell the Charedi sector: “Your lifestyle of learning in yeshivot and not contributing to our economy and defense is not sustainable. It is dishonoring your religion and isolating you from the rest of Israeli society. Working for a living is a Torah value. We will gradually wean you from your dependence and give you incentives to enter the work force.”

A leader unafraid to tell the Chief Rabbinate: “You cannot control people’s lives in the name of religion. Coercion turns people off from the very religion you promote. We will introduce legislation so that you will abide by the rulings of centrist, bridge-building commissions.”

A leader unafraid to tell the Arab sector: “You are Israeli citizens with all the rights, freedoms and obligations that that status entails. Yes, we’ve made mistakes, and we can and will do better. We want to work toward a future where you will maintain your cultural identity while also being proud and loyal Israeli citizens.”

A leader unafraid to tell the settlers: “You are part of Israel. We know that it is the Israeli government that initiated your enterprise and encouraged it for many years. I don’t believe this enterprise is illegal, and I identify with your emotional and biblical connection to the land. But the enterprise has become highly problematic for internal and external reasons. For the time being, to show our good faith, we will allow only construction ‘up and in,’ but not sideways. That means no increase in the settlement footprint so as not to prejudice any future Palestinian state.”

A leader unafraid to tell Palestinian leaders: “We don’t trust you. You have said no to every Israeli offer to end the occupation and create your own state. You don’t recognize the Jews’ historical connection to this land. You teach your kids to hate us instead of make peace with us. You’ve promised your people for decades that millions of them will return to Haifa and Tel Aviv — knowing very well that this will never happen. You refuse to sit down and negotiate. You go around the world undermining Israel. And now you hope to get recognition at the United Nations so you can continue to delegitimize the Zionist project that is a bone in your throat. Here’s my message to the Palestinian people: Demand that your leaders make peace with Israel. It’s better for you, and it’s better for us.”

A leader unafraid to tell Hamas and Hezbollah: “We have no illusions that you will ever like us. But if you try to kill us, we will kill you first.”

A leader unafraid to tell the people of the Middle East: “Don’t believe your leaders who tell you that Israel is the problem. Israel can disappear today and your problems will not go away. Ask your leaders for the same freedoms and opportunities that your Arab brothers and sisters enjoy in Israel.”

A leader unafraid to tell the world: “We have a standing offer to the Palestinians to begin negotiations immediately without preconditions. We have made a commitment that any construction in the West Bank will be “up and in” and not prejudice a future Palestinian state. But we have to be candid: We think the Palestinian leadership is more interested in undermining the Jewish state than in ending the occupation and creating its own state. So we will be focusing our energies in the immediate future not only on defending our nation but on rebuilding it. And we will continue to share our innovations with the world.”

Finally, a leader unafraid to tell the Jewish Diaspora: “We need you to ease off on the preaching about the importance of making peace with our enemies. Don’t all those funerals we attend give you a hint that we understand and appreciate the value of peace? We will always be open for peace, but right now, we’re not optimistic that we have a peace partner. So while you rebuke us, feel free to also make our case with the world — and come invest in our country and help us rebuild it. That is now our priority.”

My friend Rabbi David Wolpe once said that you can start any sermon with the words “Judaism is at a crossroads” and be pretty sure you’ll be on target. It’s the same with Israel: It always seems to be at a critical juncture. Every crisis seems to be a turning point.

Is this crisis, then, really any different? My close friends in Israel who’ve lived through every crisis for the past 30 years tell me that it is. There is a sense that the country is “breaking out,” like an abused wife who finally files for divorce, seeking to find herself.

Israel, with all its flaws and mistakes, has invested great energy over the years trying to be loved by the world — obsessed with peace; obsessed with defending itself, both physically and diplomatically; obsessed with showing off its Nobel prize winners and being the first to show up at disaster sites; obsessed with being a respectable and productive citizen-country of the world.

But in the process, Israel has also neglected its own. Now the people have blown the shofar and put their leaders on notice. Sure, the movement is messy and a little scattered — but the sound of the alarm is piercing. In this country, right now, everyone hears it. Other sounds will surely intrude — terrorist attacks, diplomatic attacks, U.N. resolutions, more “peace summits”— but the call of the people in the summer of 2011 will not easily fade away.

Even as the bombs return, a hope has been lit that a new, humane and more meaningful chapter of the Zionist journey has begun.

It would be ironic if, in taking better care of itself, Israel ended up being a light unto the nations — showing America and the world that real nation-building begins at home, in your own salons. l

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