Why Didn't the Israeli Middle Class Protests Succeed?

Why didn’t the 2011 Israeli street protests succeed? 

Last week, I introduced veteran Israel-analyst Jim Lederman and his recent comments about growing consensus in Israeli society. Jim had made a passing reference in his blog to the failure of the 2011 street protests, a movement that garnered significant attention in the Jewish world.  

I wanted to know more about why he felt the protests failed.  Here is my question to him and his response, shared here with his permission:


I had a question about something in your recent “missive."  You said: "Today, if someone [in Israel] wants to launch a campaign to build a consensus around a particular issue, he or she must follow consensus-determined ways of approaching the task. Otherwise, he or she is doomed to failure. That is why, when a revolt by the middle class brought as many as half a million Israelis out into the streets during the summer of 2011, the rebels, despite their huge numbers, could not keep their protest alive and failed to accomplish most of their objectives."  Wouldn’t the fact that 500,000 Israelis came out into the streets suggest that many more agreed with the protesters but didn’t march?  And wouldn’t this indicate a very substantial “consensus” — millions? — on the issue?  If so, in which way(s) was there a failure of the movement to follow consensus-determined ways of approaching the task, thereby dooming the effort to failure?  I note that you mentioned several other mass protests that were successful; what was fundamentally different about them that allowed them to force the government to act? 

Dear Art,

Mass protests are one of the few ways ordinary citizens have of forcing the government to abide by the popular will. It is one of the few antidotes available to the rampant sectoralism and tribalism in government coalitions--as well a coalition refusal to bow to the popular will.

Among many other things, in order to succeed, the organizers must achieve a consensus. Functionally, a consensus ("a clear majority" in Knesset parlance) is 67-68 percent of the voting population. In other words, any demand made must cross sectoral, class, ethnic and religious lines to succeed. That support must remain consistent for at least six months and usually much longer, when measured by public opinion polls.

In addition, the consensus rules declare that any issue must be presented in easily described terms that can be answered with a "yes or no" response. Thus, the withdrawal from Lebanon was presented as the question: "Do you want your army-aged sons to serve in Lebanon indefinitely? Yes or No?" During hyperinflation, the question was: "Are you willing to accept a freeze in salaries and retail, prices and a cut in government spending, in return for an end to wild inflation? Yes or No?"

The summer revolt was decidedly a sectoral one by the middle class. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the middle lass encompasses only 38 percent of the Israeli population--far from the needed "clear majority." Moreover, the protesters' primary focus was on the high rents in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. At that very moment, there was also a less-publicized protest by the poor homeless, but the two sides never met because of the difference in demands. Moreover, because the housing issue is so complex, the protesters were unable to present a question that could be answered by a "yes" or a no"

Thus, despite the hundreds of thousands in the streets, the protesters never reached the "consensus" bar of about 5-6 million. Only the "stroller rebellion," a subset of the mass protest, accomplished anything substantive. If you recall, this was the group of young parents that marched on Fridays with their strollers. They succeeded in getting free education for 3 and 4 year olds because they were able to ally with the secular poor, the Haredim and the Arabs to achieve the necessary "clear majority."

I hope this explains things.

[P.S. by me:  I recently had a long conversation about Israeli society with someone who moved here from the US almost 20 years ago.  While many ex-pat Americans continue to have mostly other ex-pat contacts, this is not true of this individual who spent substantial time in Israel while young and who, due to employment, has daily contact with a broad swath of both Hebrew- and English-speaking Israelis.  

I did not mention Jim’s thesis, but their views were strikingly similar.  My contact mentioned that over the past few years, more secular Israelis are seeking to learn about and connect with some aspects of Judaism.  More religious Jews are seeking integration into the workforce and contact with secular Israelis.  More pre-army programs are being established to foster contacts among young members of groups who previously have had no interaction.  Political parties (specifically, Yesh Atid and Bayit HaYedui) are intentionally including religious, secular, and ethnic minorities in their leadership.  “Things are happening ]demonstrating increasing consensus and cooperation[ that never would have happened when made Aliyah.  There is still far to go, but Israeli society is definitely changing.”

As to the 2011 street protests, I asked why they didn’t succeed and was told “the protesters were mostly Tel Aviv apartment dwellers; they didn’t represent a broad segment of Israeli society.”

P.P.S.  After writing the above, coincidentally – or not -- I saw and photographed the sign in the accompanying photo.  It says: “There are no secular; there are no religious; there are (just) holy Jews.”]  


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