Where has Israel’s Social Justice Movement gone?
Yonatan Levi 16 September 2019

The aftermath of a social movement is, to a large extent, just like a hangover: yesterday’s thrilling events suddenly seem like a distant dream – and all you’re left with is a major headache. Looking at recent developments in Israeli politics – from the outspoken racism to the right’s assault on the country’s democratic institutions – the events of 2011 seem more unreal than ever.

During the burning hot summer of that year, Israel saw the largest civil mobilisation in its history, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets. What started as a local initiative against rising rents in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, turned within days into a broad movement protesting the government’s neoliberal economic policies. Even in a year ripe with popular upheaval, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, the Israeli Social Justice Movement managed to stand out: at its peak, it brought out half a million demonstrators to the streets of Tel-Aviv, which is approximately 7% of the country’s population – the equivalent of 21 million people in the United States. And the protest extended far beyond liberal, metropolitan Tel-Aviv: of the 120 camp cities which sprung up across the country, many were located in the poorest parts of Israel, including Arab cities, and a few were even jointly led by Jewish and Arab Israelis. Today, when the Israeli left is heading towards what seems like another disastrous election, it seems reasonable to ask: where has that movement gone?


The Israeli Meaning of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’

First of all, and before we get to the bad news, it’s important to consider the movement’s achievements. At the most immediate level, the public pressure amassed by the movement over the summer impelled Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government to start providing free preschool education to three- and four-year-olds – one of the principal demands raised by activists. The protest also generated historically significant antitrust legislation and led to changes in the government’s housing and fiscal policies. Second, it propelled two of the movement’s young leaders into the Knesset, Israel’s legislature. Today, ginger-haired firebrand MK Stav Shaffir (of the newly-formed progressive alliance, the Democratic Union) and former leader of the National Union of Israeli Students MK Itzik Shmuli (of the Labour Party) are among the most popular and influential figures on the Israeli left, and are widely seen as its future leadership. But perhaps most importantly, the protest transformed public debate in Israel by carving out a permanent space for socio-economic issues in a political system which had, up until that point, been exclusively occupied with national security questions.

Why, then, did the movement have virtually no influence over electoral politics? This is when we get to that severe headache that follows every mass mobilisation: namely, the question of what to do next. To survive, social movements have to reinvent themselves anew in sustainable forms. Thus, for instance, the explosive progressive energy released by Occupy Wall Street fuelled the present-day regeneration of the Democratic Party – from the movement around Bernie Sanders to the meteoric rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. To give another example: the 15-M Movement, Occupy’s Spanish equivalent, took a slightly different path when it founded Podemos, its own brand-new party. The Israeli movement, for its part, didn’t do any of those. While it did give rise to a myriad of new civil society organisations, and even sparked an unprecedented wave of worker unionisation, it was never able to harness the enormous public support it enjoyed in its heyday to either remould an existing party or establish a new one.

And it’s not like no one has tried. The Labour Party has attempted – over three election campaigns so far, including the run up to this month’s one – to distance itself from its historical position as the leading proponent of the two-state solution, and redefine itself instead as a ‘social justice’ party focused on ‘kitchen table issues’, such as the high cost of living and the housing crisis. Following a decade-long delegitimisation campaign conducted by the populist right, which successfully branded all supporters of a diplomatic compromise with the Palestinians as treacherous, this looked like a perfect solution. By abandoning their contentious dovish legacy and appealing to Israelis’ economic grievances, the Labour leadership was hoping – and still is, in fact – to woo disgruntled Netanyahu voters.

So far, they have failed miserably. First, because hardly any voters bought this PR exercise, which reeked of fear and disingenuity. Second, and more crucially, Israelis don’t generally vote on social justice issues. While surveys consistently show that voters across the political spectrum recognise that the left cares more about their economic well-being, this isn’t the question most Israelis ask themselves upon entering the polling station. Contrary to almost any other country, the colloquial distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in Israel is based solely on one’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Welfare, education and workers’ rights – all pale in comparison to suicide bombers, Hezbollah’s artillery arsenal and Iran’s nuclear project.


A Movement Grows Up

Thus, although the Social Justice Movement succeeded in pushing the socio-economic debate significantly leftwards, it did so without benefitting the left. In the absence of the appropriate, well-established political frame in which politics can be interpreted as a battle between a neoliberal right and a social-democratic left, the movement was never perceived by the lion’s share of its participants as a clash of two opposing worldviews. Rather, it was seen as a confrontation between ‘the people’ and a homogenously defunct, indiscriminately corrupt political system. In other words, those who were certain that the protest would cause a radical realignment of Israeli politics assumed that a whole country could easily skip over its core, longest-established political cleavage. This, however, doesn’t mean that the promise of the Social Justice Movement – and, importantly, its almost instantaneous unravelling – has nothing to teach Israeli progressives today. In fact, in the wake of the upcoming elections, that sweaty, electrifying summer is probably as relevant as ever.

What, then, can we learn from 2011 and its aftermath? First, that a great many Israelis are yearning for change – not simply for better economic policies, but on a much deeper level. Israelis are yearning for reasons to come together and feel pride in the country that we love so much and that we sometimes barely recognise nowadays. This energy – a curious mix of fear, anger and hope – is still there. Second, that for this energy to effect longstanding change, it must be translated into political language and action – and it must start winning elections; a political camp consumed by fear and self-denial will never be able to spark enthusiasm and gain wide popular support. Third, that to win elections, a social movement depends on institutions. Parties, think-tanks, training programmes, media organisations – political energy has to be placed in institutional vessels, or else it dissolves into thin air. And finally, the centre-left must realise that there is no escaping national security issues – namely, the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is still the issue that troubles Israelis the most, and for a good reason.

When a social movement matures, just like any rebellious teenager, it discovers – to revisit the alcoholic metaphor which opened this essay – that one can’t live from one drunken night out to the next. Instead, it learns to experience the excitement of political change the only way it can truly be achieved: over the long term, stubbornly, and systematically – one sip at a time.


Yonatan Levi is a political researcher. In 2011 he was one of the leaders of the Israeli protest movement. Today he is a Ph.D. student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, studying the topic of millennial politics, and a research fellow at Molad – the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy.


Photo: Jack Guez/ AFP

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