Sideways and Upward

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December 1, 2012
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Lili Ben Ami

Instead of the oft-heard question, “Where did the energy of last summer’s tent protest go?” one should be asking, “Where did the energy of last summer come from?”

The Israeli tent protest movement of the summer of 2011 was a thrilling and exceptional historical phenomenon. For the past decade, I have been active in social issues in Israel. I led (volunteer) struggles for workers’ rights, for improving the status of women, and for strengthening the educational system. I coordinated hundreds of conferences, demonstrations, and petitions and founded and directed two social organizations and four nonprofit institutions. But it was only in front of an audience of tens of thousands, after only two days of organizing, that I stood amazed at the awakening of the nation. Finally, I saw the mass exit from a state of apathy, and the coalescing of groups that took to the streets to set up tents. The message was an appeal to the government: “Enough Erosion of the Middle Class” and “The Nation Demands Social Justice.”

For the entire summer, it was clear to me that this phenomenon was temporary and rare, and at any moment the tents might fold up and disappear. But the protest was authentic and heartfelt, even if it was chaotic and disorganized and it sometimes offered unclear messages.

After a month or so, we were able to articulate an agenda and formulate reasonable demands based on research data, statistics, and the experiences of academics, professionals, and practitioners. Though today questions are being raised about the extent of the protest’s success — and though the government never answered all of the demands and has, to the contrary, placed difficult levies on the middle class, such as raising the value added tax (VAT) and the price of gas — we should not ignore the fact that certain historic decisions have been made. For example, the government has promised a longer school day that will help working families and provided a budget to cover these costs.

Beyond the response of the government, the protest altered the lives of thousands of people. Changes can be seen and heard on the street and among the decision makers. The social voice floated in from the activist field and spread sideways and upward. This is why it is not surprising to see that the movement has projected itself onto the turbulent Israeli electoral system. As expected, many of today’s politicians are trying to gain political power from the social protest. For example, in the election campaign for chairman of the centrist Kadima party last spring, Shaul Mofaz promised to lead the next summer’s tent protests. The language of the protest and its slogan (ha’am doresh tzedek chevrati, people demand social justice) have entered into the parties’ platforms, and the demands of the protest — such as lower prices for apartments and other family needs — are being addressed. The Labor Party, under the leadership of  Shelly Yachimovich, has been strengthened because it demands that social-economic issues will be at the center of the discourse in addition to security issues. Likud Party member and Minister of Communication Moshe Kahkon’s recent decision to break the monopoly on cell phone service and decrease cell phone prices, which benefits all families, garnered attention because of the recent discourse. And at least three new parties, with roots in the protest movement, are vying for seats in the next Knesset: Mifleget Ha’am, The People’s Party, Eretz Hadasha, A New Land, and Or, Light.

In addition to other young tent activists, I am entering the political fold and running as a Labor Party candidate in the upcoming election. I am 33 years old, a teacher, and a mother of two young children. For the past decade, my activism has focused on educational reform and gender issues. Several significant successes since my years as a student have taught me that change is possible. Last summer’s protest showed Israelis that the time is right to advance an agenda of change, not only among a grassroots group of activists, but also among the epicenter of the Israeli government.

During the protest, we successfully changed the discourse to focus on welfare, education, medicine, and social justice. This is the real accomplishment of the tent protest: The protest translated economic issues, such as the inability to purchase an apartment, into an accessible social agenda. We demonstrated enormous political power and found that change is possible. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

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Lili Ben Ami, a Labor Party candidate for the Knesset, has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a teacher and the founder of several nonprofits, including The Council for the Fair Employment of Teachers, Mitpakdot: The Lobby For Gender Equality, and the unit for Gender and Parenting Issues, which operates a chain of nurseries at the Hebrew University. Her website is lili.org.il. This essay was translated by Felice Kahn Zisken.

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