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More Than 300,000 Take to Streets to Protest High Cost of Living in Israel

photo by Ariel Schalit, TimesOnlineOn Saturday night, a tide of popular frustration over the ever-rising cost of living in Israel culminated in an enormous protest, with over 300,000 people taking to the streets. Most of the protesters were in Tel Aviv, where the movement originated, but Israelis also marched in Jerusalem, Modiin, Hod Hasharon, Kiryat Shmona, Eilat, Ashkelon, and Dimona.

“We are not talking about a change of personnel at the top, we don’t care about that,” National Student Union Chairman Itzik Shmuli told the crowd in Tel Aviv. “We’re not demanding a change to the ruling coalition, we’re demanding human economic policy that doesn’t destroy people, that can see people’s distress and that doesn’t only crunch the numbers. We’re no longer embarrassed to say it’s hard for us. We want a home to live in without being enslaved to it our entire lives. We want to work a decent job for a fair wage.”

This movement, which is three weeks old, is notably peaceful, at least so far. Little tent cities have sprung up in town squares around the country (mine included). Grievances are aired on hand-drawn posters. Children are at every protest, in strollers and on shoulders. Acoustic guitars are abundant.

As serious as the protesters’ grievances are, there’s an unmistakable quality of joyfulness to the movement. The sense of common purpose might hearken back somewhere in people’s minds to the country’s earlier days, when unification over matters of social justice was championed without irony. It might just as easily bespeak a general delight at a collective opportunity to (verbally) trash the government, which is every Israeli’s favorite pastime.

There’s chanting, there’s marching, there’s gathering in large numbers. What there hasn’t been (yet) is firebombs, or looting, or clashes among protesters, or between protesters and police. This has been a strikingly civil example of civil disobedience.

photo by Linda Epstein, the Jerusalem Post

That is not to say that the protesters are not angry. They are. The protests started when a group of young people, fed up with being priced out of Tel Aviv, pitched tents on Rothschild Boulevard, a leafy, elegant street lined by swanky bars, wonderful restaurants (I took Claire out for a spectacular Japanese meal on Rothschild last March) and lovely apartment buildings. That protest happened to coincide with wider popular outrage over the inexplicably jacked-up price of cottage cheese, and the movement quickly gathered steam. Its organizers are now talking about getting a million Israelis out in the streets, across the length and breadth of the country, on September 3.

(It is perhaps fitting that while the American metaphorical edible is tea, the Israeli metaphorical edible is a plumpifying dairy product. Israelis might have morphed the stereotypical image of the Jew from a pale, physically weak, over-educated, hyper-articulate guy with a preternatural gift for math and physics into a tanned, surfing, tattoo-sporting, board-shorts-wearing guy with a preternatural gift for math and physics. But he’s still not going to tolerate any messing with the cottage cheese.)

The Tel Aviv stock market took it in the teeth, plunging 7% yesterday on the double whammy of domestic revolutionary rumblings and the body blow just dealt to Israel’s American ally by Standard and Poors. Bibi’s government, which was slow on the uptake as the popular movement was gaining strength, is now scrambling to construct a committee. Bibi, who is all about free markets and privatization (he is nobody’s idea of a poster boy for a welfare state), said the goals of the new committee would be: “One, a change in priorities, with the goal of easing the economic burdens on Israel’s citizens. Two, a change in the mix of tax payments. Three, expanding access to social services. Four, increasing competition and efficiency in the goods and services markets, with the goal of reducing prices. Five, implementing the housing plan we’ve already launched. The panel’s recommendations will reflect the need to maintain fiscal responsibility in the state budget. Such responsibility is especially necessary at a time of economic uncertainty.”

Sounds good. Only there’s already a snag: yesterday, the cabinet deferred a vote on opening up the dairy markets to foreign competition.

Uh oh.