The protests taking Israel by storm this month are part of a long, heartfelt history of Israelis taking to the streets to make their voices heard. Whether their demands are peaceful or passionate, one thing has always remained constant: The power of ordinary Israeli people to affect big change when they put their mind to it
Baby Strollers, tents, and cottage cheese – the protests that changed the face of Israel started from the smallest, most innocuous of sparks, which burst into flames that couldn’t be ignored.
Anyone who lives in Israel right now will be aware of significant changes happening in the country. Even if you aren’t politically-minded, when every bus ride through town is diverted, when quiet days are interrupted by remote chants over distant megaphones, and when poster board is sold out in every stationary shop, you sit up and pay attention!
But in case you didn’t know, for the last two months or so, nearly half a million Israelis have taken to the streets in protest of judicial reforms being proposed by the current government. This is one of the biggest demonstrations ever held in Israel against government legislation. In short, this new legislation would allow the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to overrule supreme court decisions far more easily, allow the ruling coalition much more influence over the process of appointing judges, and administer a few other contentious points.
Believing this to be undesirable, or simply undemocratic, thousands of Israelis have donned blue and white garb, while waving Israeli flags and taking to the streets in what often looks like a cross between Israeli Independence Day celebrations, a street party, and an uprising. In reality, it is none of those things. It is, however, the latest in a long succession of protests which have been gracing the streets of Israel since long before there was even a state to protest against.
They say that two Jews have three opinions, but this is a sore underestimation. The scope of this article could never be wide enough to cover all of Israel’s various protests, but we will explore some of the most impactful ones from the last ten(ish) years.
Over the last decade, the price of housing has risen all over the world, and Israel is not immune to this trend. ‘A nation of renters’ is the phrase sometimes used when referring to the new generation of youngsters in Israel. So, just over ten years ago, across Jerusalem, Haifa, Be’er Sheva, Tel Aviv and other vital locations, tents started springing up in small communes. What better way to show the consequences of rising house prices than displaying to the government a snippet of a potential future homeless-population. At its height, around 400,000 protestors gathered in Tel Aviv, with small stores and water stations popping up in the midst of the sea of tents to service the masses of people temporarily living on the streets. In 2022, ten years later, the next generation of Israelis were facing the exact same housing problem – and decided to implement the exact same solutions.
Housing prices were up by 15% at the beginning of 2022, after a year of prices rising monthly by 1.5%. Again, the makeshift town of tents arose, this time incorporating singalongs, public debates and even a daily Daf Yomi Jewish learning group! So, did it work? Well, it’s impossible to say for sure but in October 2022, the Knesset unveiled a program to build 280,000 new homes and approve 500,000 more, meaning that the government had essentially pledged to spend over 18 billion shekels on affordable housing.
Soon after the success of the tent protest, tens of thousands of parents with children between the ages of 1 and 4 years old, decided that it was time for them to take charge as well. Israeli parents, notorious for impeccable organizational skills, mobilized quickly and took to the streets with their strollers to protest the cost of raising young children in Israel.
Generally, parents of young children have more fixed routines and less time to take part in politics, so when these mothers and fathers – dressed in neon colors with yellow balloons tied to their baby buggies – gave up a day of sensible parenting to stand outdoors and protest, people took notice.
The main issue revolved around what many Israelis scornfully call their “second mortgage.” Daycare for infants costs around 3000 shekels per month, if not more, and with a mode Israeli monthly income of 7700 shekels, it is easy to see why young children prove to be such an expense in Israel. As a result, many women don’t return to work after giving birth, which results in an unnatural gender pay gap.
Initially, the organizers of the stroller protest requested a permit for just 500 protestors, but the week before the march more than 6,000 parents had pledged to show up. In the end, tens of thousands participated. Consequentially, the government agreed to implement free education starting a year earlier, at age 3 instead of age 4, saving families an average of 30,000 shekels per child. Eventually the stroller protest sparked a new demonstration, called the Sardines protest in which parents aimed to reduce how many children could legally be taught in a single classroom. Again, it was successful and the state reduced the maximum number of children in classrooms from 40 to 34.
Having covered accommodation and child care, the next obvious culprit was food. In the UK, young people (genuinely) judge the rising cost of living based on a chocolate bar called a Fredo. In the year 2000, Fredos cost 12 pence. Over time, the cost of a Fredo rose by a few pence annually, and now it is rare to find a Fredo bar being sold for less than 80 pence. The metric for economic downturn in the UK is routinely measured by the cost of a chocolate bar. Israeli chocolate, however, is known for being subpar, so in leu of a sweet treat with which to judge the economy, the metric used in Israel is cottage cheese.
With the growth of social media, 90,000 Israelis took to Facebook to rage against the price of cottage cheese in Israel, but the online campaign was not enough and eventually 300,000 people stormed Tel Aviv in anger over the price of the cheese. Hand-in-hand with the protests, a boycott was issued, urging people to only buy cottage cheese if the tub was sold for less than 5 shekels, as opposed to the 8 shekels it had risen to by the end of 2011.
In response, the government reduced taxes on the import of dairy products and increased import rates of food products, to promote wider market competition. An investigation into Israeli food prices was also launched. The price of dairy was set to be regulated by the Knesset and on December 30, 2013, the government imposed price controls on Israel’s largest dairy manufacturer, Tnuva, forcing the price of cottage cheese down by 20%, after the Prime Minister created a committee of experts to propose adequate socio-economic reform.
Despite the fairly-priced cheese and additional year of daycare, peace in Israel didn’t last. The following year, the Knesset proposed a plan to gradually incorporate the country’s Haredi population into the armed forces, which was met with heavy protests from the Ultra-Orthodox community. Haredim had, until this point, been exempt from military service due to religious reasons. They argued they were contributing to the safety of Israelis on a spiritual realm by studying Jewish scriptures in yeshivas, instead of physically fighting.
After the founding of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion reached an agreement with Ultra-Orthodox leaders that exempted Haredim from military service. In 1977, Menachem Begin entrenched this arrangement in law, permitting all yeshiva students to avoid the military draft. However, in February 2012, Israel’s Supreme Court decided that this law was discriminatory, and demanded that everyone should be drafted equally to the IDF. Thus it was, that on May 16, 2013, around 25,000 Haredim demonstrated outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem.
As it currently stands, all Haredim are technically required to join the army, but can easily succeed in getting an ishur – an opt-out – from their yeshiva or rabbi. Therefore, the vast majority of Haredim do not enlist in the army today. This remains a contentious aspect of Israeli culture, and many smaller protests take place both for and against this status quo on a regular basis.
On some matters, however, Israelis stand united. In 2015 the Israeli government proposed a deal to give an international consortium led by companies Delek and Noble the rights to the newly-found Leviathan gas field off the coast of Israel, which contained around 18.9 trillion cubic feet of gas, in exchange for reducing their involvement in other, smaller gas fields across the country. This plan would have furthered the goals of the Israeli government, who sought independence in those smaller fields, but it also represented the selling of Israeli goods to international firms, who would then manufacture the gas before selling it straight back to Israel at a higher price, paid for, of course, by the consumer. Professor Yaron Zalika, one of the main speakers at the resulting protests, said that “the government is plundering the largest national natural resource ever found here, after handing it — without tender — to a group of wealthy people, for almost nothing in return!”
Despite being the largest protest to take place since 2011, the deal went ahead, with minor amendments, and the Leviathan gas field was sold to Delek, Noble Energy, and Ratio Oil Exploration who still own the gas field today.
So, was hope lost for good? Well, no, but for those who supported the gas protests, it was certainly a blow to their spirits to see their demonstrations being so adeptly ignored. But despite the many people who felt knocked down by the escapade, no one can be silenced forever. In 2020, thousands of Israelis made a comeback – one of the biggest so far!
As COVID-19 took over not just Israel, but the whole world, tensions started to build. There were those who demanded more vaccines, those who insisted that vaccines were harmful; people who advocated for masks, and people who wanted to do away with masks all together; some people wanted more public closures and some wanted the country to remain open. As such, it would have been impossible for a government to please all of their constituents. Even if someone happened to totally agree with government policy, there would have been other members of society who were violating what they considered to be sacred moral codes during the pandemic. Tensions rose, and people were angry. On top of that, Israel was in the midst of what felt like a million governmental elections, and the country seemingly couldn’t agree on who would run parliament, as election after election was called. Add to this an unemployment rate which rose alarmingly in a matter of months, and you had near-chaos in the streets.
Protests sprung up quickly, and each Saturday night the numbers grew. Walking through the protests, the demonstrations were divided into small groups, each with their own flags and colored clothing, many shouting personalized slogans or playing their own music. Entering the protests from King George Street in Jerusalem, the first group one would encounter was the Breslov community, angry that their annual trip to Uman was being thwarted by travel closures. Next, one would meet supporters of the Meretz political party, with their vehement anti-right-wing chants. If you continued westward, you would get to a small but loud group of anti-mask protestors, followed by the large anti-Bibi Netanyahu group, decked out with blow up figurines and fancy-dress costumes. Further forward were the women’s rights’ activists, bearing pink flags of Israel, followed by a large floor-based meditation circle of peace activists. You would then pass by the unemployed group who demanded financial compensation from the government, and so on until you emerged, exhausted, from the other end.
As bars and restaurants were closed, large swaths of bored youngsters joined the protests, sometimes latching onto a cause, other times showing up with alcohol and music. There was even a 10 person jump-rope, live band, and fire dancers at times. Between the genuine anger and frustration, there was also a street party taking place.
That’s the beauty of protesting in Israel. People show up, in a big way, and express their democratic right whenever they have the desire to do so. In the most recent protests this month, parents bring their children along, completely unafraid. Elderly people have joined the ranks, knowing that they will be safe. Whole families have taken part, and been allowed to release their hard feelings. Prayer quorums have been formed at the protest site so that no one need miss their daily minyan due to demonstrating, and during the protests, merchants sell food and water to those who didn’t bring their own peanut butter sandwiches. The Israeli public gets to voice their opinion, knowing that they are not only completely safe to do so, but actually protected by the general good will of society, and those who enforce it.
No matter your opinion, you can find a demonstration in Israel which would fit your beliefs, and allow you to release any pent-up tensions. And perhaps that’s why, in a society comprised of so many religions, ideologies, and walks of life, Israel is able to keep going.