Six months after Cairo's Tahrir Square became synonymous with the Arab Spring, another Middle Eastern city, Tel Aviv, Israel, has been hit by Facebook-driven protests; the issue is not democracy but the plight of the consumer, especially in housing.
TEL AVIV, Israel —
The tents are lined up on the grassy median of Tel Aviv’s most stylish avenue, scores of them, populated by a downtown mix of characters: the unemployed down-and-out next to the artistic elite; half-naked men in straw hats; women in minidresses. Surrounding them are protest posters — “The only place left to live is the cemetery” — and designated spots for cooking or getting an Internet connection.
Six months after Cairo’s Tahrir Square became synonymous with the region’s transformation, another Middle Eastern city has been hit by Facebook-driven protests with potentially serious political consequences. But in Israel, where urban tent cities began springing up a week ago and continue multiplying, the issue is not democracy but the plight of the consumer, especially in housing, food and other basic goods.
While Israel’s Arab neighbors have historically been seen as the source of the country’s woes, some Israelis call them an inspiration.
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“Religious Jews like to think of us as a light unto nations, meaning that others will learn from us, but this time we have learned from the nations around us that change can come from people power,” said Moshe Gant, 35, a business analyst who arrived in Tel Aviv with his baby to support the protesters.
While economic issues factored into the Arab uprisings, the issue preoccupying Israel is specific: the cost and availability of housing. In recent weeks, similar concerns were raised about the price of cottage cheese and gasoline.
Taken together, these issues have created an alliance crossing traditional left and right and are being viewed as the first threat to the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The government and Parliament have reacted quickly, promising construction of thousands of housing units, along with changes to bulldoze bureaucracies and press landlords to expand the market through a mix of carrot and stick: sell and get a bonus; don’t sell and face a tax.
“This is the first time that instead of fighting against the Arabs we are fighting for something: our life and that of our children,” said Eldad Yaniv, a veteran organizer of the left who came to the Tel Aviv protest a few days after it started and pitched 30 identical tents with other activists. “The old right and left are fading. This country needs a new left, its own New Deal.”
Ronen Shoval, founder and chairman of the far-right group Im Tirzu, was standing nearby and said his group was there because one of its goals was to build a strong, healthy society.
For Israel’s finance minister, the rise of the new consumer-protest culture is happening just as the country’s macroeconomic statistics are the best they have ever been and offer a contrast to the woes of much of the world in recent years.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz of the governing Likud Party noted that Israel’s unemployment rate was 5.8 percent, a 25-year low and about half of that of Europe. Its currency, the shekel, is strong. Its exports outstrip its imports. It is attracting foreign investors, especially in the high-tech sector.
Some economists say it is Israel’s success that is feeding the protests, a sense that Israel may be soaring, but most of its citizens are not.
“The Israeli public has the sense that the wonderful growth we are always hearing about does not filter down to most of the people,” said Avi Simhon, an economist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “The more we speak of the success of the Israeli economy, the more we will hear about this. If we had 9 percent unemployment, people wouldn’t be worrying about the price of cottage cheese.”
Many Israelis said that for years they accepted the notion of hardship in a young, isolated country struggling to get on its feet. They lived in tiny apartments and made do with basics.
But today, Israel’s gross domestic product per capita is $31,000, comparable to that of Spain and Italy, and the country has been welcomed into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of the nearly three dozen richest countries.
Yet the gap between rich and poor in Israel is among the greatest of those member countries, as is the number of people living below the poverty line.
The struggling groups are mostly ultraorthodox Jews and Arabs, both with large families and poor employment. Still, nearly everyone has been affected by rising rents stemming from a drop in construction, followed by a rush on available housing when mortgage rates dropped.
Tent cities spread
The latest protests began with a Facebook page created by Daphni Leef, 25, who urged everyone to join her with pitched tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, a historic spot facing the country’s national theater.
They came last week and have been multiplying there and in other cities. On Tuesday, the front page of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, one of the country’s biggest, was devoted to the phenomenon. “Tents Across the Country,” ran the headline with photographs of gatherings in Sderot, Kfar Saba, Beersheba and Ramat Gan, in addition to Tel Aviv.
Israel’s consumer difficulties most likely arise from a range of factors, including its small size, few producers and plethora of regulations and middlemen, economists say. Steinitz, the finance minister, said he hopes to create competition by encouraging more imports.
But it also seems clear that protests produce results. After the country was energized by a Facebook-led protest over the cost of cottage cheese — a daily staple — a few weeks ago, companies slashed the price by 25 percent.
As Yevgeny Chechel, a participant in the Tel Aviv tent city, said of the finance minister, “Tell Steinitz that if he’s feeling an earthquake, that’s just us.”