The protest in Israel: The formation of Activist Citizenship

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Joined: 2 March 2011

Four weeks ago, an incredible phenomenon has swept Israel. One short post on facebook urged thousands of young Israelis, at first in the major cities and soon around the periphery, to step out of their too costly rented residence and move into the streets where they built tents and started a new life. At least for the time being.
Much has been written about this so far and my intent is not to reiterate the chronology of this unique phenomenon, but to shortly suggest how it fits into our understanding of activist citizenship.

The uniqueness of this protest, aka the 'tents protest', lies in several places, mainly in its unanticipated eruption at the heart of middle class Tel Aviv and in it highlighting the discrepancy between the raw data on that reflect Israel's relatively stable economy and the hardship of these young professionals who can't make ends meet. Thus, while this kind of protest in the past was exclusive to the lower strata or to political activists and movements which fought directly against the erosion of the Israeli welfare state, and saw the neo-liberal reforms as harmful to Israel's society at large, at this point the carriers of the same message were those who, until a day before the protest, would have been portrayed as politically alienated and indifferent. Moreover, it would be just to say that while Israeli society has been, for most of the time, strongly favourable of the welfare state, it was perhaps the first time, since the Black Panthers' protest in the early 1970s, that large sections of the society took their political will to the street.
Finally, while this claim needs further investigation (to which I turn now and will be happy to share my findings with you all as they come), I believe that this protest shows indeed the difference and shift from active citizenship to activist citizenship. First, by making the welfare state their main message and aim, the leaders of the protest redefine the political, shifting it away from mere foreign and security policy issues to their domestic concerns. Second, the very fact that this protest is focused on the welfare state re-delineates the social boundaries and the political alliances within the Israeli society. In this respect, it's not surprising that the right wing and the conservative quarters of society turn against this protest. The protest practically speaking pushes the national security question to the margins of the political debate, thus leaving the nationalistic wings with no way to address the new goals and new means of struggle that the protesters adopt.
In this sense, this is a clear case of activist citizenship, that may mark a new era for Israelis. It might be premature to be determinative, and yet, I risk saying that for the first time there is a window of opportunity for a struggle which is civic and citizenship based, and not ethnic or nationalistic. This kind of a shift, I believe, is the consequence of a brave act of citizenship.


Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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