Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets five years ago, demanding a new direction in domestic policy. Was it a flash in the pan or the start of something more substantial?
“Israel will no longer be the same,” Itzik Shmuli confidently told hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on a warm Saturday night in downtown Tel Aviv. It was September 3, 2011, and the massive protest was the culmination of an extraordinary revival of grassroots activism. Although the protest failed to live up to its unlikely “March of the Million” nickname, it was a tremendous success that brought more citizens into the streets than any demonstration in Israeli history.
But while past grassroots movements had almost always been about defense issues or the peace process, this one was different. The rallying cry chanted on that summer night by an estimated 450,000 Israelis around the country demanded something new: “The nation wants social justice” was the mantra, chanted time and again by Israelis from across the social, political, and religious divides. Housing, healthcare, childcare, and taxes were the hot-button issues, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was noticeably sidelined.
So when Shmuli, the 31-year-old leader of the National Union of Israeli Students, stood in front of a crowd ten times larger than the biggest Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders rally and called for a higher standard of living for the working and middle classes, it’s understandable that many, perhaps most, Israelis felt that the country was on the cusp of a political revolution. On the table were issues like free childcare, a higher capital gains tax, housing reforms, and limiting the privatization of Israel’s economy.
While the social justice movement lacked a centralized leadership or clear goals for most of the summer, this didn’t stop it from gaining widespread sympathy from constituencies far beyond its leftist base. “Even though the momentum was clearly from the Left, all kinds of Israelis joined,” explained Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “There were settlers…there were Haredim. It was seen as a national movement.” A poll released one month prior by Israel’s Channel 10 found that 85 percent of the country supported the protestors, which would be impressive in its own right, but proved even more significant once the numbers were examined in depth. Unsurprisingly, 95 percent of center-left Labor party voters supported the movement, but so did 85 percent of center-right Likud party voters, the same party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who during his term as Minister of Finance had supported free markets, neo-liberalism, and further privatization of the economy.
That turbulent summer, it seemed as if Israeli society transcended the Right-Left divide that had become increasingly wide in the aftermath of the Second Intifada, Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza, and the stalled peace process. Halevi believes that the overwhelming support for the demonstrations reflected the fact that Israel was “desperate for a semblance of normalcy.” In his view, Israelis were expressing their desire for “a politics that deals with normal economic and social issues like the politics of other countries. We don’t want to be dominated by a politics of survival, of security emergencies.” Halevi saw the movement as “a revolt against the old politics of Left vs. Right, of settlements vs. the peace process.”
Yet five years later, little seems to have changed. Netanyahu was elected to a third term in 2013 and a fourth in 2015, after vigorously campaigning on the Iranian nuclear issue. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the social justice movement has come and gone without leaving a lasting mark on Israeli society. While it’s true that Israel still finds itself in a political climate focused on survival, the momentum from that summer’s demonstrations has brought social and economic issues back to the forefront of Israeli public discourse, second only to security issues.
The protests that summer began when Daphne Leef, a 25-year-old freelance video editor based in Tel Aviv, received a notice from her landlord that she’d have to vacate her apartment while renovations were taking place. Searching for a new residence, she found herself priced out of the city due to her inadequate 7,000 shekel (roughly $2,000 in 2011) monthly income. Determined to reside in Tel Aviv, she created a Facebook event calling on her neighbors to pitch tents on ritzy Rothschild Boulevard to protest Israel’s out-of-control real estate prices.
Leef’s call for action struck a chord, particularly among leftists. Dozens of tents went up on Rothschild, while other tent cities sprouted in dozens of locations around the country. In a matter of days, larger groups adopted Leef’s cause, including the National Union of Israeli Students and the Socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. At the first public demonstration a week and a half after Leef pitched her tent, the number of protestors already numbered in the tens of thousands.
Netanyahu, whose political savvy is chronically underestimated, understood almost immediately that the social justice protestors had come to represent more than the partisan Left. In fact, a general feeling of solidarity across political lines was itself a major draw for many citizens who were compelled to join the demonstrations.
Inspired by the increasingly visible sense of unity throughout the country, Israelis enthusiastically joined the movement, including many Right-leaning voters who looked past the anti-Netanyahu slogans often chanted at rallies. Halevi described the widespread support for the movement as a “longing for social solidarity in the era of consumer capitalism….One of the most touching scenes that I witnessed that summer was a group of young people blocking traffic while dancing the hora to old Israeli songs,” reflecting the yearning for the good old days, when a sense of unity permeated Israeli society.
Within two weeks, Netanyahu announced a new housing plan to placate the growing movement. In Tel Aviv two days later, the demonstrations expanded beyond housing when thousands of parents marched with their strollers to protest the rising cost of raising children in Israel. Tellingly, Yael Barda, one of the organizers of the stroller protest, stressed that she was not demonstrating against the government: “This isn’t about Bibi. Who will you replace him with? As far as we are concerned, elections are not the answer. We see ourselves as a social movement for change.”
For many, the general sentiment of the protests was more important than the movement’s actual demands, which in the early stages were largely unarticulated. More important than policy proposals was the fact that social and economic issues, which had been neglected for decades, were reentering the national conversation. At this point, the movement was less about specific actions than about shifting the dominant public discourse from security matters to social issues.
The protesters’ determination was most obvious in their perseverance despite a rocket onslaught from Gaza. The movement began in a period of relative stability: In May, there was one rocket launched from Gaza, and in June there were four. But in July there were 22 and, a month later, 145, along with 45 mortar attacks.
In an impassioned speech at the March of the Million demonstration, Leef explicitly addressed this issue, proudly declaring that the social justice movement had outlasted the security crisis.
And then came the security escalation. But even the missiles that fell did not ruin this protest. The opposite—they showed how strong and true it is. The fact that we didn’t fold then was…the most moving aspect of this protest. The time has come for the concept “security situation” to stop being a value and return to being what it is – a situation. And a situation that must change.
But Leef spoke too soon. It would not be long before the politics of security would again be prioritized over social concerns.
As the summer of social justice continued and became increasingly politicized, Netanyahu took a serious hit in the polls, with his approval rating dropping more than 20 points in a mere two-month span. It seemed a near certainty that the champions of social justice would take control of the country’s future.
This appeared to be confirmed when Netanyahu established a committee in response to the demonstrations, placing Tel Aviv University economics professor and Harvard Ph.D. Manuel Trajtenberg at its helm. Tasked with examining the country’s socioeconomic issues and proposing solutions, the committee represented an attempt to translate the movement’s demands into concrete policy proposals while preserving Israel’s political stability.
But as summer turned to fall, and the students living in the tent cities returned to school, the national discussion abruptly shifted back to security matters. Fewer than three weeks after the March of the Million, the Palestinian Authority ramped up its bid for statehood at the United Nations, which many Israelis perceived as a serious threat. Netanyahu responded with an uncompromising display of strength, pledging an unwavering commitment to truth and invoking the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a powerful UN speech, a move that was widely perceived in Israel as effective and courageous.
Soon thereafter, Netanyahu presided over a prisoner exchange with Hamas that saw the safe return of captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit after five years of imprisonment. The exchange cemented the view that, social issues aside, Netanyahu was strong on national security, making a deal with Hamas that the previous center-Left government had been unable to conclude. In a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 2 in the aftermath of that exchange, Netanyahu trounced Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich by a more than 2-1 margin, foreshadowing his victory in the 2013 elections.
Though the 2013 campaign did involve social and economic issues, security proved the top priority. As Halevi explained, “Bibi’s reelection was a reassertion of an Israeli recognition that we can’t be free from the old politics of security, because that’s our reality.”
Netanyahu’s party won 31 seats in 2013, 12 more than the second-largest party. But that party proved to be a significant victory for the social justice movement. It was the newly formed Yesh Atid, led by former TV journalist Yair Lapid, who ran on a bold platform championing the cause of the middle class and promising major social and economic reforms. Lapid proved to be the single greatest beneficiary of the social justice movement, joining the Netanyahu government and serving as its Minister of Finance, showing that the movement had come of age through its absorption into the old politics. But Lapid accomplished little in the way of actual reforms.
The following summer, the movement seemed to have finally run out of steam. At a protest marking the anniversary of the Rothschild tent protests, the crowd numbered in the low five figures; an impressive achievement, but a far cry from the hundreds of thousands that turned out the previous year.
Five years since Leef pitched her tent, it would be easy to write off the social justice movement as an aberration that came and went in a matter of months. After all, Netanyahu is still in power and only two years away from becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. Housing prices continue to rise, as does income inequality. But a stronger case can be made that the movement remains vital and significant.
For one, several of its key figures are now Knesset members. Stav Shaffir rose from the social justice demonstrations to become the youngest female Knesset member in the country’s history and came in second in Labor’s most recent primaries. She was followed by Itzik Shmuli, whose prominence as National Union of Israeli Students leader in 2011 propelled him to national standing. Manuel Trajtenberg, who chaired the committee appointed by Netanyahu to address the situation five years ago, is also a Knesset member for Labor.
As opposed to Yachimovich, who ran purely on social issues, Shaffir represents a new constituency that backs the social justice movement while appreciating that security and the peace process are integral parts of the national conversation. Now, as politicians acting from the inside, Shaffir and her peers are in a much stronger position to affect Israeli politics than they were five summers ago.
Moreover, it would be a mistake to point to the dissolution of the solidarity that surrounded the social justice protests as indicative of its failure. In fact, the public debates in Israel today about social and economic issues are reflective of how the conversation has shifted significantly over the past five years. A new political reality exists in which a party cannot achieve success without addressing the issues that sparked the movement in 2011. The availability of housing, for example, is now a staple of every major party’s platform, contributing to the empowerment of a new breed of politicians.
Indeed, leading up to the most recent elections in 2015, a Channel 10 poll found that for the majority of Israelis (53 percent), the most important issues were related to the cost of living. This may be the reason that Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, whose support collapsed in 2015, has seen its poll numbers rise again, indicating that unlike most centrist parties in Israeli history, it may have staying power.
The continuing relevance of social issues also sparked the rise of Moshe Kahlon, whose popularity began when he took on the telecommunications monopoly, reducing cell phone prices. Kahlon left Likud and formed his own political party, Kulanu, campaigned on housing issues, and won 10 seats. More importantly, Netanyahu appointed him Minister of Finance. After taking office, Kahlon took immediate steps to ease the construction process by consolidating control of various housing agencies and cutting red tape. Additional steps taken by Kahlon included a new tax to de-incentivize property investment and approving more subsidies for first-time homeowners.
But Netanyahu, perceived as least capable of addressing socioeconomic issues but most qualified to face Israel’s security threats, won the 2015 elections by a sizable margin. Perhaps the idealistic leaders of the 2011 social justice movement were naïve to think that Israel could completely transcend its security situation and behave like a country that is not engulfed in military conflict. But to focus on that naiveté is to overlook the ways in which the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who took to the streets altered the national conversation, leading to concrete policy changes. For example, Kahlon has introduced legislation to establish new pension and unemployment benefits for the self-employed, increase benefits to Holocaust survivors and the elderly living under the poverty line, and place a cap on bankers’ salaries, the last of which passed unanimously in the Knesset.
Ultimately, however, the 2011 protests were the acknowledgement by mainstream Israel that, while security issues are the top national priority, social and economic issues can no longer be ignored. On that point, Israelis felt solidarity with one another and demonstrated their overwhelming support. As such, the fact that the movement lacked centralized leadership or clear policy goals played to the movement’s advantage, enabling it to transcend the Right-Left divide and gain support from both Likud and Labor, forcing politicians across the spectrum to take their complaints seriously. It still remains to be seen how the movement will play out in the coming years, but if there’s something we can be certain about, it’s that the movement is still very much alive.
Banner Photo: Matanya Tausig / Flash90