Skip to content

Israeli Protest Reality Check

I had the pleasure this weekend of listening to the most recent edition of The Young Guns, one of Ricochet’s podcasts. Interesting as it was, it contained one jarring note: a reference, unchallenged as I recall by any of the participants, to “rioting” in Israel.

posted on the Israeli housing protests last week. One of my objects, aside from explaining in general terms what prompted the protests, was to point out their remarkably peaceful quality, despite the seriousness of the demands being made and the persistence of the tent city spectacle on town squares across the country.

If there is a perception abroad that what’s going on here is not peaceful protest, but rioting (with all the imagery that that term entails, particularly now), we need a reality check. (In passing, I’d like to know which, if any, news outlets are explicitly portraying our protests as riots. To do so would be a misrepresentation that would say a great deal more about the reporter than the reported.)

For the record: Israelis are not rioting. With the sole exception of some anger that erupted at the Jesse Cohen tent city in Holon, the protests have all been peaceful. The Holon protest, which was undertaken by members of a genuine underclass rather than by the middle-class strivers who make up most of the other protesters, may or may not be a harbinger of greater agitation to come. As of this writing, however, it’s a wild distortion to portray the whole protest movement — which has been overwhelmingly peaceful — through the prism of Holon.

Sol Stern has an excellent piece in City Journal that should give you a more accurate picture of the reality here. I commend the whole article to you, but here is a snippet:

What makes this protest movement unique is that it was spawned not by economic failure but by Israel’s extraordinary economic success over the past decade. Despite a huge defense burden (7.5 percent of GDP, compared with 4 percent for the United States), Israel came through the worldwide recession that began in late 2008 in better shape than almost any other Western industrialized nation. Last year, Israel enjoyed an amazing 5.6 percent increase in GDP, as well as a 5.4 percent unemployment rate that would be the envy of the Obama administration and almost every country in Europe. In any fair accounting, this economic success story would be at least partly credited to the policies of the Netanyahu government and particularly to the chairman of the Bank of Israel, the brilliant American economist Stanley Fisher.

Yet it is just as fair to note that the country’s spectacular economic growth, built largely on added-value exports and a high-tech boom, has left many Israelis behind. This is glaringly evident in Tel Aviv, bursting at the seams with new luxury buildings, renovated and gentrified neighborhoods, a thriving tourist industry, and a reputation as one of the word’s great “fun cities.” The unprecedented increase in the value and price of housing has occurred at the same time that an ever-increasing number of young Israelis want to live in Tel Aviv and won’t settle for anything less. Since the law of supply and demand is unforgiving, this has led to astronomically higher rents for those young people. This is the ground on which Daphne Leef and her generation met the housing crunch and took to the boulevards. Their pressure on the Netanyahu government to expand the supply of housing and break up the extractive monopolies (such as the dairy producers) is not only legitimate; it could also help Israel become even more of an economic and political miracle…

Contrary to [columnist Gideon] Levy and his faux-revolutionary colleagues at Haaretz, the demonstrations actually proved how deep and stable the roots of Israel’s capitalist democracy are. I spent several evenings on the boulevards with the tent dwellers and among the massive crowds on the Saturday-night marches. I was amazed at their gentle yet serious demeanor. On one Friday night on Nordau Boulevard, the protesters set up tables for the traditional Israeli Sabbath dinner, complete with wine and challah and long debates about the situation.

All this reminded me of a phrase from the 1960s, “Democracy is in the streets,” which was also the title of James Miller’s book about Students for a Democratic Society. I attended many of those sixties demonstrations, and I recall that almost every one of them ended with one form of violence or another. I also remember the hatred that many self-righteous New Left demonstrators felt for ordinary Americans. By contrast, here on the streets of Tel Aviv, with almost no police visible, there was not a single reported violent incident. The middle-class demonstrators really did conduct themselves like participants at an open-air Athenian forum.