Israel’s Summer of Discontent is opening the Eyes of American Jews to its Genuine Reality

The summer of 2011 has seen gigantic popular protests in the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and other Israeli cities. Perhaps for the first time, many Americans–”and American Jews in particular–”are beginning to view Israel in realistic rather than mythical terms.

"Even by the standards of a famously querulous country," The Washington Post editorialized Aug. 23, "these demonstrations, and the urban tent cities they have spawned, are something new, not just because of their size. Lacking recognized leaders, fixed goals or allegiance to any political party, the rallies have morphed from low-grade anger over the price of cottage cheese…to broad manifestations of genuine discontent with the nation’s social contract."

A number of factors have contributed to the growing unrest, including the concentration of wealth in the hands of just a few families, a swollen defense budget, subsidies for the ultra-Orthodox, and a housing shortage caused, many protesters believe, by the cost of settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Indeed, in the midst of the demonstrations, the Interior Ministry announced in August the building of 1,600 additional units and plans for 2,700 more. Hagit Olfran, a leader of Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlements and monitors their expansion, accused the government of exploiting the housing crisis in Israel to promote its settlements policy, which she said was meant to undermine prospects for a Palestinian state.

A Peace Now report found that the Israeli government is using over 15 percent of its public construction budget to expand West Bank settlements, which house only 4 percent of Israeli citizens. According to the Adva Center, a research institute, Israel spends twice as much on a settlement resident as it spends on other Israelis.

Israeli journalist and photographer Dimi Reider and Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian columnist with the newspaper Al Quds, wrote that "much of the lack of affordable housing in Israeli cities can be traced back to the 1990s, when the availability of public housing in Israel was severely curtailed while subsidies in the settlements increased, driving many lower-middle-class and working-class Israelis into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip–”along with many new immigrants. Israel today is facing the consequences of a policy that favors sustaining the occupation and expanding settlements over protecting the interests of the broader population. The annual cost of maintaining control over Palestinian land is estimated at over $700 million."

Writing in the Aug. 19-25 issue of the International Jerusalem Post, Gershon Baskin, founder and co-director of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), reported: "A couple of nights ago I sat in a tent camp in the center of Jerusalem. I listened to a brilliant young man. He spoke about all the social and economic ills of Israel, and what needs to be done to correct them. I agreed with every word. In turn, I took the microphone to respond. I said that I agreed with all that was said, but I look eastward and note that 250 meters away there are 300,000 permanent residents of Jerusalem who are devoid of political rights, their economic rights fall far short of an Israeli in the poorest neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and not one word is said about them. Why? Because they are Palestinians."

Asked Baskin: "How can we talk about social justice when one-third of the population of our capital city is not even part of the discussion?…So, young people…I ask you how long do you think you can hide from the injustice between Jews and Arabs in Israel? How long can you scream demands for social justice while we deny another whole people their basic rights of freedom, liberty and self-determination?…There can be no justice in Israel if we deny our neighbors their piece of justice as well."

Discussing the summer demonstrations, however, Reider and Abu Sarah noted that, "Had the protesters begun by hoisting signs against the occupation, they would most likely still be just a few people in tents. By removing the single most divisive issue in Israeli politics, the protesters have created a safe space for Israelis of all ethnic, national and class identities to work together…While some of their demands can be met without addressing the settlements…Israel will never become the progressive social democracy the protesters envision until it sheds the moral and economic burden of the occupation."

Between March 2006 and early 2011, according to the Knesset research center, the average salary in Israel rose by 2.6 percent–”but the Consumer Price Index rose by 25 percent. Salaries in Israel are the third lowest of all the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), while consumer prices are among the highest.

Increasing American Awareness

As more and more Israelis express dismay about developments in their country, Americans increasingly are becoming aware of them and their views. Writing in the Aug. 26 issue of The Forward,Leonard Fein cited the Web site of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (), which asked, "What Happened To Us? How did Israel become a country impossible to live in with dignity?"

"Such a question, so put, will most likely be greeted with accusations of ‘alarmism, exaggeration, provocation.’ At least on this side of the ocean," Fein noted. "While America’s Jews know that all’s not well in Israel, unless they follow the news from Israel quite carefully, they have little idea of just how frayed the socio-economic fabric has become."

That democracy is under attack in Israel has become abundantly clear. The Knesset’s approval by a 47-to-38 vote of a ban on any public call for a boycott against Israel or its West Bank settlements, making such action a punishable offense, has been widely criticized. As The New York Times editorialized on July 18, "Israel’s reputation as a vibrant democracy has been seriously tarnished…We are opposed to boycotts of Israel, but agree this is a fundamental issue of free speech…Advocates said the law was needed to prevent efforts to ‘delegitimize’ Israel, but no country can be delegitimized if it holds true to its democratic principles."

Many American Jewish voices have been heard in opposition to this legislation. In its July 22 issue, The Forward declared that "No attempt to threaten or censor can hide the fact that, for 44 years, Israel has ruled another people with its own legitimate, national aspirations, and it is in everyone’s interests, including those of the United States, to negotiate an end to this impasse."

While major American Jewish organizations may maintain an "Israel-right-or-wrong" philosophy and continue their traditional role as, in effect, a defense attorney for a foreign government, they are increasingly isolated in that posture. It is clear that American Jewish opinion is moving in quite a different direction.

On the Brink of Apartheid

In his book A New Voice For Israel (Palgrave Macmillan), J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami notes that although AIPAC claims to represent the traditional Jewish voice in American politics, surveys reveal that only 8 percent of American Jewish voters support its political positions. He goes on to argue that Israel’s occupation over another people is a threat to both American and Israeli long-term interests and also violates the very letter of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promises equality to all, regardless of race, religion or gender. According to Ben-Ami, Israel is on the brink of becoming an "apartheid state" and losing its status as a moral beacon to Jews and as the safe and democratic haven its pioneers sought to create.

The American Jewish community would serve Israel’s interests far better by taking a conciliatory pro-peace position instead of the stance represented by AIPAC, Ben-Ami writes. He calls for a strong American Jewish voice for active U.S. intervention in the Middle East that will bring about the end of occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

More and more Jewish voices are being heard in criticism of the direction in which Israel is now moving. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote on Aug. 21 that "Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people. They must be vociferous in their insistence that continued colonization of Palestinians in the West Bank will increase Israel’s isolation and ultimately its vulnerability."

Americans for Peace Now (APN) adopted a resolution in July supporting the call of its Israeli sister organization, Peace Now, to actively resist the new anti-boycott legislation. APN, in fact, joined in with its own call for a boycott of products from West Bank settlements.

Much of the rage this summer, explained Prof. Yossi Yonah of the Department of Education at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, stems from the cultural rifts in Israeli society and widespread disappointment at what is perceived as the failure of the Zionist dream to produce a more moral and ethical society. "The Zionist project is in deep crisis," he stated. "The country is so fragmented that it has become difficult to articulate the concept of ‘the good society’ that could unite us."

For years, according to Yonah, Israelis have been explicitly told by their leaders that social issues must take a back burner to the existential problems of security. This, he argued, is a deliberate policy: "Politicians know very well how to create a sense of panic, as if the Iranians are about to launch the atomic bomb this second or the hordes of Islamic fundamentalists are about to break down our gates. And the media…plays right along. In the face of such threats the people will always prefer stability–”even the illusion of stability–”over democracy, social justice or human rights."

As Joseph Dana wrote in the June 17 issue of The Forward, Israel has maintained the myth that its occupation of the West Bank is "temporary." He writes: "One particular success of Israel’s 44-year control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been the government’s ability to convince the Israeli population of the temporary nature of the occupation…Some Israeli scholars such as Bar Ilan University lecturer Ariella Azoulay and Tel Aviv University professor Adi Ophir have proposed that without this perceived temporariness and external character of the occupation, Israel would have a hard time maintaining its mandatory military conscription. A greater number of citizens would question the long-term objectives….Quite simply, Netanyahu’s rejection of the two-state solution as defined by the 1967 lines reflects a shift in the way most Israelis have come to understand the occupation, forcing them to see it not as a temporary measure but as a permanent fixture of Israeli reality–”a reality that might cost Israel its standing in the international community."

The developments during the summer of 2011 reveal an Israel far different from the one many Americans–”and, in particular, Jewish Americans–”believed to exist. Fortunately, viewing things as they actually are is an important first step toward adopting realistic policies and analyses.