Reporter's Notebook

Israel’s Pre-Occupation

Mitchell Hartman Jan 24, 2012

As I began research on the global precursors to Occupy Wall Street for a story I was working on (about whether the Arab Spring sparked the “Occupy” movement), I made myself a timeline.

The first entry was December 17, 2010, when Tunisian street-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest corruption and police brutality. Tunisian dictator Ben Ali fled one month later, on January 14, 2011. By January 25, tens of thousands of Egyptians had massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. President Hosni Mubarak left office on February 11.

That same week, on February 15, anti-Gaddafi protests began in Libya. I had just arrived in Cairo on a reporting trip, and could feel the anger and rebellious energy flowing west to Benghazi and Tripoli.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The day before, on February 14, protesters started gathering in Madison, Wis., in what would become an “occupation” of the state capitol by tens of thousands of labor union supporters. After that, the protests come rapid fire through late winter and spring: Bahrain, Indiana, Iraq, Morocco, Spain, Yemen, England, Ohio, Greece, and the list goes on.

Connecting the dots of civil unrest on my timeline, it looked like what was emerging wasn’t an Arab Spring, but a Global Year of protest.

Still, while one protest may inspire another in a neighboring country or continent, these movements have arisen from radically different conditions. In the Middle East and North Africa, citizens have faced bullets, tear gas and tanks in an attempt to overthrow states that offer no meaningful democratic rights or protections from state abuse. In Europe and America, protesters mostly face police, not soldiers (and rarely bullets). By and large, they are trying to redress economic grievances and perceived injustices by corporations and government institutions in the aftermath of the global financial crash. They want to restore the middle class and opportunities for future prosperity — birthrights of Western democracy that they see slipping away. They don’t want to overthrow their governments.

So, following my timeline from political protest in the East, to economic protest in the West, I came to a surprising crossroads: Israel. It appears on July 14, 2011.

On that day, dozens of young people set up tents on Rothschild Boulevard, the fanciest residential address in Tel Aviv. Their signs called for lower rents and grocery prices (especially for cottage cheese, a national favorite); more government welfare spending; and more equality between haves and have-nots. The “J14” or “Tent Protest” movement quickly spread to every major city in Israel; it was supported by Jews and Arabs of every political persuasion. By late August, hundreds of thousands were marching in the largest street demonstrations in Israeli history.

Sarah Anne Minkin was in Israel during the protests. She’s a graduate student studying comparative sociology at U.C. Berkeley. Here’s how she described the Tel Aviv encampment to me: “People sitting outside their tents, talking about what they could ask for from government, what was fair, what kind of welfare state they wanted to live in. Problems with the rent being too high, pay too low, public transportation totally ineffective, the medical system on the verge of collapse. And everyone struggling, the gap between rich and poor having increased enormously. The middle class in Israel has shrunk, and most people are feeling this pinch. As they put it in Hebrew, ‘not being able to finish the month.’ They’re living paycheck to paycheck. They can’t afford their lives.”

Minkin was also closely following the protests in Cairo and Manama, Madison and Madrid. When Occupy Wall Street exploded on the scene in the fall, she visited the movement’s encampments in Oakland and Berkeley.

“The Occupy movement here certainly looked a lot more like the tent protests that I saw in Israel,” she said, “in terms of what people were actually doing: squatting with tents, occupying and laying claim to public space, listing the issues that are paralyzing the country, the enormous obstacles to people being able to achieve their potential and access opportunities in their lives.”

What’s surprising is that no one I’ve talked to in the Occupy movement seems to have been paying much attention to Israel’s eerily similar “tent protests,” while they were busy hatching their occupation plots across America. Matt Schwartz, who wrote the Genesis story of Occupy Wall Street for The New Yorker finds pretty much the same thing. He says lots of Occupy leaders talked to him about the “Indignados” movement in Spain — massive street rallies in May against unemployment and economic austerity — and what labor was doing in the U.S. Midwest. Few people mentioned the massive protests and occupations that erupted in Israel, so close to the birthplace of the Arab uprisings.

Still, I can’t help but think that Israel’s summer of discontent is the foreshadowing of fall’s Occupy. In Israel, all the anti-autocratic political protest swirling around the Arab world was able to mix it up with a citizenry raised on Western-style democracy, and fed up with economic decay and middle-class decline. They kept the protest fires burning while Occupy got ready to boil over.

Protest Timeline

December 17, 2010: Street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, sets fire to himself in Tunisia, over allegations of corruption and police abuse.

January 14, 2011: Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flees the country.

January 25: Major protests erupt in Cairo, Egypt; Tahrir Square is occupied by pro-democracy demonstrators; later, the government shuts down internet and social media.

February 11: President Hosni Mubarak steps down in Egypt. The military takes control of the country, promising free and fair elections and an eventual transition to civilian rule.

February 14: Protests begin in Madison, Wis., over legislation proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker to reduce union benefits and collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers. Protests eventually spread to Ohio and Indiana, where governors propose similar budget-related measures.

February 15: Unrest erupts in Libya; Benghazi falls the following week. Tripoli falls in August; Col. Muammar Gaddafi is killed in October.

March 14: In Bahrain, pro-democracy demonstrations are forcefully put down by troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.

May 15: Spanish protests, known as the “15-M Movement” or the “Indignados (Indignants), kick off in 58 Spanish cities. The protests are taken up in other European countries, including Greece and Portugal.

May 30: A leader of the Indignados, inspired by the Arab Spring, calls for a worldwide protest on October 15.

July 13: Canadian-based magazine Adbusters blog post proposes a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest corporate influence on democracy and the growing gap between rich and poor.

July 14: Israel’s ‘J14’ or ‘Tent Protest’ movement begins, with young people setting up a tent camp in Tel Aviv. On August 6, 300,000 march in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheva, and other cities to protest the rising cost of living.

July 30: Occupy Dataran begins in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

September 17: Occupy Wall Street begins at Zuccotti Park in New York City. By October 9, Occupy protests had taken place or were ongoing in more than 95 cities in 82 countries.

November 9: Occupiers evicted from a park in London, Ontario — the first eviction in North America.

November 14: Authorities forcefully close down and evict Occupy encampments in many U.S. cities, including New York, Oakland, Portland, and Denver.

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