Protests Over Housing Inequality Have a Long History in Israel

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Yfaat Weiss is professor in the Department of the History of the Jewish People and head of the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The summer of 2011 in Israel was marked by social protest that drew hundreds of thousands of Israelis onto the streets and squares. They were protesting against the government’s ongoing policy of ignoring economic and social hardship, against the deterioration of public state services in the areas of education and health, and in particular against the severe shortage of affordable housing experienced by Israel’s middle and lower classes.

The standard of revolt was raised by Tel Aviv film student Daphni Leef. In response to being evicted from her rental apartment following a sharp rise in the city’s rents, Leef set up a lone protest tent on the city’s main boulevard in the summer heat. This step was a visceral expression of the difficulty that she and other young people encounter in finding adequate housing at a fair price. She was rapidly joined by many thousands in Tel Aviv and in numerous other cities, who, in protest against the decline of Israel’s welfare state, turned the streets and boulevards into encampments, creating a fleeting semblance of civil society -- a rare and unfamiliar sight in a society immersed for the most part in political, military and security-related confrontations.

Israel has witnessed waves of housing-related protest in the past. The first occurred in the summer of 1959 in Haifa’s Wadi Salib neighborhood. In the summer months of that year, indigent young Mizrahi Jews, living in appalling conditions in the slum demonstrated against the local Ashkenazi city establishment. Wadi Salib, a neighborhood abandoned by its Arab founders and residents in the 1948 war, was in the late 1950s home to primarily poor Jewish immigrants, mostly from Morocco.

This dilapidated habitat, comprising housing erected by needy Arab railway and port laborers, was in '59 in an even more precarious condition, having been declared “abandoned property” after 1948 and placed in the hands of the “Custodian of Absentees’ Property.” The area, parted from its original owners, was infiltrated in the 1950s by large and destitute Moroccan Jewish families, some of whom had no education or marketable skills. Moroccan independence in 1956 had brought them little joy. They had become victims of decolonization, rejected in their Muslim homeland. It is debatable to what extent they benefited from Israel’s independence, although they were certainly motivated to migrate to the country by religious Jewish sentiments. In effect, they exchanged their life in the mellah, the impoverished Jewish ghettos in Moroccan cities, for the Israeli slums that rose out of the ruins of abandoned Arab property.   

The movement of indigent Mizrahim to the abandoned Arab property in Israel’s city centers was in fact frowned upon by the veteran Ashkenazi establishment. In the early 1950s this establishment laid down national guidelines for spatial planning. The plan’s supreme objective was that of population decentralization in the new state. Contrary to the natural tendency of immigrants in general, and of Jewish immigrants to Israel in particular, to gravitate to the urban centers located mainly along the coast, the plan sought to disperse them along the borders. Driven by geo-political considerations with regard to frontier nationalism, as well as the Zionist social democratic aspiration to alter the Jewish social-professional structure by encouraging a transition from trade and services to agriculture and industry, the planners sought to place the immigrants in small settlements. The Mizrahim resisted the plans of the social democrats, however, spontaneously gravitating toward the "abandoned property." These settlers’ action was driven by fear of living close to the border and their aversion to farming, an occupation that was and continues to be foreign to Mizrahi culture.

Whether they remained in the border settlements or moved to the “abandoned property,” they were likely to remain poor. It is thus hardly surprising that the second wave of social protest that swept Israel in the early 1970s was likewise sparked by housing concerns. The Israeli Black Panther movement that led this wave took shape in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, a former Jordanian quarter whose original inhabitants abandoned it in 1948, and which was populated in the 1950s by needy Jewish tenants. While Arab Musrara, unlike Wadi Salib, had been an affluent neighborhood, its stature rapidly declined after 1948 since its location on the Jordan-Israel border endangered the security and safety of its residents. Given these circumstances it inevitably became a refuge for the poor.

Housing, so it transpires, was and remains a key issue and constitutes the basis of Israel’s class disparity. The foundations of this disparity were paradoxically laid during the heyday of Israel’s social democracy, and continued to serve their function all the more so in the free market economy that has taken hold in recent decades. For a number of reasons -- the lack of a rental housing market, the concentration of Israel’s population in employment and subsequently also in accommodation in the center of the country -- the housing shortage has in recent years spread from the lower to the middle classes. Contrary to the events of the late 1950s and early 1970s, it was primarily middle-class people who took to the streets last summer.

The demonstrators initially strove to maintain as broad a coalition as possible. This “non-partisanship” dictated that they eschew issues perceived as essentially “political,” such as the question of the possible link between the government’s massive subsidy of Israel’s settlement enterprise in the occupied territories and the housing market within Israel proper. Neither did the housing problems facing Israeli Palestinians gain much attention -- for example, the lack of significant state investment in Arab urbanization, and the additional impact of the process of rampant gentrification in their residential areas, which drives out needy Palestinian tenants in favor of newly-enriched Jews.

Housing was and remains the source of material distress in Israel. So too, the tendency persists to ignore the concrete contexts of the housing issue, which link internal Israeli issues such as center and periphery, relations between the religious and secular sectors and between Ashkenazis and Mizrahim, to the issue that many prefer to ignore ­­-- that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely the 1948 war and its repercussions.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously identified Prof. Weiss as a professor of history at Haifa University. This was a previous appointment -- she is currently a professor in the Department of the History of the Jewish People and head of the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. HNN regrets the error.

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