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The Awakening of Israel’s Political Middle Class, by Josh Banyard

Housing Protests, Tel Aviv

The summer of 2011 saw the resurgence of the Israeli middle class as a political and activist entity. Massive street protests galvanized by middle class youth connected through social media, stole the news cycle from the government and forced public concessions from the government including promises of new more affordable housing and the creation of the Trajtenberg Committee, an entity established by Prime Minister Netanyahu to examine the flaws in Israel’s established socioeconomic order and to recommend policy solutions to improve both the social hierarchy of Israel and the economic situation of its middle and lower classes through amendments to the tax code and social benefits. 

The protests began with a social media push, mainly through Facebook and Twitter, to hold the government accountable for the lack of affordable housing throughout Israel. What began as a Facebook group with a few hundred members quickly turned into a small tent city in central Tel Aviv, established in July 2011. The remarkable staying power of these campers brought large amounts of media attention, which in turn was rewarded with even more protesters arriving in Tel Aviv as well as sympathy protest movements being established in other Israeli cities. Quickly, the protests grew to tens of thousands taking to the streets on a regular basis, all built around this core campground of hardcore activists. 

These protests increasingly became massive in scale, culminating in a street protest in Tel Aviv that was 400,000 strong, not even counting sympathy protests across Israel that occurred on the same day. It was a huge turnout for a country with a population of 7.6 million, over 5% of the nation was on the street at one time. This would be the equivalent of 16 million Americans marching on Washington, DC at the same time. It was under this immense social outcry that the government finally relented and began negotiation sessions with protest leaders which eventually led to government promises for increased housing and the creation of governmental bodies to examine ways to increase availability to social services for all Israeli’s.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of these surging protests was the changing nature of the causes that the activists wished to be addressed. What began as a protest of the looming domestic housing crisis quickly grew to envelop pressing concerns about taxation and deteriorating access to crucial public services such as healthcare and education. Out of these growing concerns came the development of this overarching concept of “social justice” that they wished to be integrated into the way policy was made in Israel. This new regard for Israeli social justice was an attempt to portray the need for a change in the established socioeconomic order of Israel, a reassessment of taxation and social services are handed out within the nation. This is perhaps the most powerful idea to come out of the summer protests and is what directly led to the establishment of the Trajtenberg Committee, a body established to examine ways to integrate this new concept of social justice into Israeli policy and society. 

These protests represented a new and potent voice that had previously failed to unite and speak out in such a powerful manner. There has been a marked surge in public displays of the middle class’s discontent in recent years, something that had been lacking in years past. The push for this discontent to be displayed on the streets by grassroots activists is something that should continue to be encouraged as it has shown a remarkable ability to pressure the government into change. The most remarkable aspect of these summer protests however has been the ability of these disparate middle class individuals and organizations to unify under one banner and push for sweeping social change, a powerful message that, as seen by these protests, when unified presents an immense amount of pressure on the governing coalition to enact change. 

Josh Banyard