In contrast to the “Arab Spring” that began last winter and spread among Mideast countries, with violent protests leading to deadly confrontations over autocratic rule, the “Israel Spring” that has captured the attention and pulse of the Jewish state is, in a sense, a reinvigoration of democracy and an impassioned call for a return to social justice.
The protest movement that began several weeks ago with a tent city in Tel Aviv and focused on the lack of adequate, affordable housing, has spread across the nation and incorporated complaints from teachers, students and other disgruntled citizens deeply frustrated over the growing gap between the tiny, wealthy elite and the rest of Israeli society.
What is unique about Israel’s protests is that, though massive in terms of numbers of demonstrators and fervent in terms of conviction, there has been no violence, no demands for the government to step down and no particular political party leading the calls for change.
This is not about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the impasse with the Palestinians or unemployment; it is about an Israeli society whose economy is strong but whose people are deeply discouraged by their inability to keep up with the cost of living and by the perceived lack of fairness in the system.
It has long been the case that the great majority of Israeli wealth is held by a virtual handful of super-wealthy families, and this monopoly is unhealthy and indicative of the injustices that permeate the society.
The fact that the protests have been spontaneous and initiated by students and working-class people from all segments of society has been one of its most appealing qualities, but also limiting in terms of achieving specific goals.
“The protesters know what they are against,” notes Gerald Steinberg, who teaches politics and public policy at Bar Ilan University, “but converting slogans like ‘the people want justice’ into viable public policy is far more difficult.”
Netanyahu has publicly recognized the need for change, and created a blue-ribbon panel to explore the issues and make recommendations for turning national despair into practical policies and solutions. Public pressure will be on the government to make sure this happens.
However unfortunate the need for Israelis to take to the streets to make their deep-seated dissatisfaction known, the key now is to recognize the power of the democratic process as well as the relevance of the biblical demand for justice and social equality that still holds true today.