‘The people want social justice’? On ‘people’ and ‘justice’ in the Israeli protests

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August 30, 2011 by Antony Lerman

by Yoni

Last June an Israeli protest about the price of cottage cheese ended with a relative success. More than 73,000 people were part of a facebook group that called for a boycott of cottage cheese until its price goes down. What started as an individual campaign of one person, outraged at the price of the most “Israeli” cheese, gained pace and created a huge public awakening in Israel. Not only did the campaign  reach the headlines of Israeli newspapers, but eventually the three main cottage producers realised that if the price did not change, their cottage cheese would stay in the supermarkets’ refrigerators. After a couple of weeks, the price indeed went down from 7.30 Shekels (about 1.3 GBP) to 5.45 Shekels (less than one GBP). This was followed by special sales of cottage cheese and today I can buy two cottage cheeses in my local supermarket for 10 Shekels only (about 1.7 GBP).

The success of Israeli customers in bringing down the price of such a basic ingredient of so many breakfasts encouraged them to look around and spot further social and economic injustices. They were found all over the place. Under the revolutionary spirit of the region, and especially the title of the heroic Egyptian campaign – “The People Want to Bring down the Regime” – a group of Israeli-Jewish activists declared that they were moving to live in tents in Rothschild Avenue, one of Tel Aviv’s most famous thoroughfares, as it had become too expensive to rent an apartment in the city. They asked more people to join them and began speaking about serious injustices in Israel: the high price of basic food, unregulated privatisation, high taxation, high prices for accommodation, the inability of young couples to buy a house, and more. As the number of people who joined grew steadily, the Rothschild Avenue became filled with people and tents, and it was clear that many in Israel have become fed up with the high cost of living. Two weeks later, about 300,000 people marched in the streets of Tel Aviv and demanded social and economic reforms in Israel. “The People Want Social Justice” was the main slogan of the masses. But who are the people and what is the justice called for?

The Hebrew word for People (“‘Am“) is usually associated with another word – Israel.  “‘Am Yisrael” is the people of Israel, a religious and national term that relates to the Jewish people who live in biblical Eretz Yisrael or in modern Israel. Citizens of the state who are not Jewish, for example more than one million Arab-Palestinians, never consider themselves as part of the Israeli people (ha-‘Am ha-Yisraeli) or of the people of Israel (‘Am Yisrael), as they are not part of the Jewish collective. This works also vice versa. When an Israeli-Jewish person says “we are all one people” it is obvious that the “we” includes Israeli-Jewish society only.

The “justice” desired by the vast majority of the demonstrators is also far from being inclusive. It is a good term, very catchy, and many in Israel want to be associated with the struggle to achieve it. But the fact that the protests began in 2011 – in a period of increasing privatisation in Israel and relative economic prosperity – proves again that the justice is actually “Jewish justice”, or at least a desire to stop processes of economic injustice alone. It is, however, by no means a genuine call for justice. If that was the case then the demonstrators would have been more willing to speak about the most obvious Israeli injustices, which began as soon as the state was established: the discrimination against its Arab-Palestinian citizens. Even with regards to the issue of building and accommodation alone, one can realise how severe is the situation: the lack of Master Plans for Arab villages in Israel, discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel with regards to infrastructures, the letter signed by 50 state rabbis calling for Jewish citizens  “not to rent apartments to Arabs”, continuous house demolitions in Arab villages and cities in Israel, the refusal to grant building licenses to Israeli-Arab citizens, state-projects whose declared goal is to offend the Arab population in Israel (such as the project of “Judaising the Galilee”) and many more.

All these issues remain unheard in the current protest, and even the activity of one courageous tent (titled “Tent-1948” or the “Arab-Jewish tent”) that tries to speak about these matters, seems like a drop in the ocean of the Israeli-Jewish protest. Instead, the leaders of the demonstration, so we heard, want the protests to remain a-political. In other words, please do not mention the Palestinian citizens of the state, and also not the 44 years of occupation, and not the money poured into Israeli military establishment and industry. Try to protest only about the common denominator of Israeli-Jewish-Zionist discourse. And if possible, also call it “justice”.


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