“Man, this is better than the 60s,” comes the excited voice of Adi Green over the phone, “This is the real thing!” Before she can continue, someone else at ‘Tent City’ grabs the phone from her and says, “This is the first time in my life that I have felt proud to be an Israeli.” Green then puts her mobile on speaker mode, and a rowdy rendition of a much-loved rock song, Don’t Fear, You Are Not Alone—complete with guitars, tabla, and joyful off-key singing—travels the airwaves from Tel Aviv to India, where this writer is feeling kinda jealous that the revolution has started without her.
And a revolution, it is, sort of: daily, the graceful boulevards of Tel Aviv fill with more tents, lined up alongside each other for miles in the sweltering summer heat, and in them singles and families, poor and (formally) well to do, right- and left-wing supporters, West Bank settlers and their staunch opponents, light-skinned and dark-skinned Jews, both orthodox and secular, grandparents and hipsters, along with Israeli Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. Normally these different groups can’t bear to even be in the same room, but here they sit together, clamouring for change and unity. These tent cities, with their hippy/united we stand/morning yoga atmosphere, began in Tel Aviv but have now sprung up in every city and in many of the towns of Israel, including Jerusalem and Haifa, and the much poorer, more traditional ‘development areas’ in the extreme north and south (where yoga and more bohemian practices are probably less prevalent).
For the past few weeks, enormous Saturday night demonstrations have rocked the country, pulling in the highest numbers of demonstrators since the formation of Israel in 1948. Israelis are a vocal lot to begin with, aware of their civic privileges and never shy of voicing their criticism loudly (a famous Israeli adage says ‘If there are 70 Israelis in a room, there are 71 points of view’). Even so, no one could have imagined the 300,000 that were out on the streets last Saturday night, about 5 per cent of the population. The Prime Minister announced the formation of a committee to ‘check, conclude and suggest’, but the people are not appeased. After the anger and violence of the Arab Spring, The Israeli Summer seems almost fluffy, but the protestors are dead serious. So what is this all about?
While genuinely moved by the incredible inner strength and depths of yearning that yielded the Arab Spring, many wondered how Israel, a tiny democracy in the midst of the stormy region, would be affected. The main concern has been about the stance these countries would now take towards Israel. “While we’re surprisingly touched and proud of our Arab neighbours and their just demands,” said Amir Galon, a sociologist from Tel Aviv, back in May, “we cannot forget that they have always been keen on erasing us off the Middle-East map. We wonder if it was not these dictators, as despicable as they were, who kept the relative peace; and if, without them, [our Arab neighbours] may turn on us with a vengeance. But who knows?” He continues: “Maybe we will discover that the real people, in a democratic situation, really like us and want to become friends. We just don’t know.”
But what commentators spoke of less was how the Arab Spring might affect the Israeli masses themselves (although it is a bit silly here in India to speak of Israeli masses: the entire population of that country could fit into Delhi three times over). After all, in Tunisia, in Yemen, in Tahrir Square, they were fighting for the most basic of human rights. Israel’s citizens are so free and self-assured, relatively so comfortable and well educated, what could possibly spark a people’s revolt?
And the answer is cottage cheese. That and a landlord who decided he wanted to renovate his flat. (And Facebook, of course… what modern story of rage and uprising can unfold without it?)
When we speak of Israeli cottage cheese, mind you, we are not talking about paneer, no matter what so many menus in India call those dry fikka cubes. Israeli cottage cheese, Gvinat Kottej, is a perfect, very creamy, very soft white cheese, filled with exquisite lumps of perfect consistency, with a taste of childhood, of clouds.
When you come home and open the fridge, whether a modern two-door version or an old-fashioned ice box, you can expect to see on the top shelf a container of ‘9 per cent’ cottage cheese (9 per cent fat, that is). And by the fridge, in the bread box, a loaf of wonderful bread: farmer’s brown or French gourmet, no matter. Put the bread and cheese together, and you have the taste of Israel.
Over the past year, with the lifting of governmental subsidy and price control (many basic food products had always been subsidised and price controlled in Israel, a disappearing phenomenon as the economy has become more deeply capitalistic over the past decades), the price of a container of 9 per cent cottage cheese has skyrocketed and reached a shocking 8 shekel (Rs 100), up from 4 just a few years ago. A Facebook group was formed, asking people to ‘Resist! Insist! Boycott!’ Some 100,000 people joined this online group, and an intense consumer campaign was waged. Within a few weeks, the price was brought down by the company. The public applauded themselves, and began to wake up.
Soon after, a young film editor named Daphne Leef, raised in a relatively affluent family, received notice to evacuate her small flat in the heart of Tel Aviv because the landlord wanted to make renovations. When Leef looked around for a new flat to rent, she was shocked to see that rental rates had climbed to such extreme heights that she could not possibly afford one, although she had well-paying and steady work.
Leef, a charismatic 20-something, wrote on her Facebook wall that she was planning on pitching a tent in the main town square of Tel Aviv, and invited anyone who shared the same problem to join her. The response was overwhelming, and soon, Tent City was born, spreading like wildfire to other cities and even to remote areas where the population is usually highly suspicious of anything emerging from the modern, liberal, juicy, secular Tel Aviv. ‘The people demand social justice!’ was their cry, on signs and flags in rainbow colours.
‘We are in the midst of what is increasingly shaping up to be an Israeli revolution,’ wrote an excited editor at the liberal, internationally respected newspaper Haaretz, ‘Following decades in which the public has curled up in its indifference and allowed a handful of politicians to run the country as they wished, with no significant involvement from civil society, the rules of the political game have changed.’
“I have seen three elements about this revolt that are new to me,” says Dorit Karlin, a ‘consultant for social change’. “First of all, they are organised around entirely new principles where all of the old dividing lines have become irrelevant; second, they are using technology to organise and democratise in ways that we never could have; and third, and this is maybe the most fascinating, their ideals have this kind of new age twist, a deeply democratic, present, Indian-spirituality feeling, and I am very moved by it.”
Two weeks ago, more than 250,000 people converged at the main town square in Tel Aviv, which used to be called Kings of Israel Square but had its name changed to Yitzchak Rabin Square after the former PM was assassinated here, in 1995, at the end of a mass rally to support him and the Oslo peace accords. That next week, in extreme shock and grief, perhaps 100,000 demonstrators gathered there. Earlier, there had been another demonstration that had brought in as many: it was after the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in South Lebanon, during the 1982 ‘Lebanon war’ in which the then minister of defence Ariel Sharon aided and abetted the local Lebanese anti-Palestinian militia (by lighting up the night sky and perhaps in other ways) in massacring many Palestinian civilians.
The wrath of a majority of Israelis was immediate and immense, and that, back then, had been the country’s largest demonstration ever.
Now, thrice as many demonstrators have converged at the same place, and they plan to come out every week. “It is so refreshing not to focus on the Palestinian problem,” says Oded Eitan, a doctor, “It seems it is all we ever think about, argue about, feel fearful about—it has completely monopolised our attention, dividing us into so many factions.” So much so, Eitan adds, that “[we] did not notice the government and ‘captains of the economy’ screwing us out of our ability to live in any kind of dignity, enslaving us to their machine, forcing us to work harder and harder for less and less”.
Independent Israel was founded as a welfare state, with its founding fathers and mothers mostly upholding ideas of modified socialism. Perhaps it is the fault of its very close emotional and political proximity to the United States, in addition to the constant stress of lacking secure boundaries, but there is a feeling in Israel that the country has sold its soul to an extremely materialistic ideal and forgotten all its dreams of unity, of building a better society—nay, a better world—on which older generations were brought up.
In today’s Israel, it’s a fact that the middle-class is not thriving and the lower classes are really suffering. Although Israel seems to have ridden out the world’s financial crises well, corporate power and wealth within the country have become increasingly more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and inflation is a consistent problem. Taxes in Israel are very high, the brunt borne most harshly by the middle-class, who might be spending as much as 50 per cent of their gross income on tax. Of their net pay, half could easily be going into rent and mortgages. In almost all families, both parents, if there are two (something becoming rarer), must go out to work. But although they are working very long hours, they are not getting ahead, both salaries never managing to cover their debt and their grossly overdrawn bank accounts. The elderly are no longer able to depend on ageing in dignity, while the young, spoilt as they are by all the conveniences of Western elites, are watching their adoptive American dream slip away. What Daphne Leef and her growing rainbow coalition are saying is not only that the government has failed the people badly in so many ways, through a social policy that goes against the people it is supposed to serve, but that it is time to stop, sit down together, and re-examine what it is we are living for, what we want of our lives, what Israel is meant to be, where the country is headed, and where it’s going wrong. The ‘revolt’ has no set leadership as such (although Daphne and her few first co-tenters who articulated the angst are the much-admired celebrities of the movement); they are making it up as they go. They are taking democracy to deeper and more profound levels. They are encouraging dialogue among the many factions that have riven Israeli society for so many years that writers and thinkers have often warned of civil war.
“Israel’s sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility has long been diminished by our last remaining common denominator: a primal fear of anything that is different.” So says Etgar Keret, a leading Israeli writer. “When we have a few lazy summer days without rocket attacks, flotillas or other events that inspire existential anxiety, we are forced to discover that we have forgotten what it is to be a nation.”
Now, those who once screamed at each other and closed their ears are sitting together in circles, sharing food, singing in round-the- clock jam sessions with rock stars, communicating, processing, painting signs and sidewalks, praying, meditating (many of these tenters are old India hands, and yes, a few chillums may be sniffed out here and there). Kids are playing together on sidewalks, as their parents find interesting ways to cook and share their food, update their Facebook pages, and plan their next moves. “I’m not sure what will come of this,” says Eitan, “but just getting so far has been fantastic.”