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Debunking claims of a 'leftist cabal' behind tent city protests

By Don Futterman

Accusations from the right that the tent city protests are the product of a left-wing conspiracy backed by the New Israel Fund overlook the fact that the NIF and other NGOs have been addressing housing issues for years, before the middle class woke up

Imagine the body heat – not to mention the sweat – generated by a hundred thousand people walking close together, clapping, drumming, chanting, and occasionally, with no warning, but in complete harmony, raising our voices in imitation of a banshee. Mostly young, but not all young – I don’t qualify as young anymore – the crowd in Tel Aviv Saturday night was attentive, non-violent, and hopeful.

Tent City protest camp in Rothschild st, Tel Aviv. July 31, 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv / activestills)

The speeches at the Tel Aviv Museum plaza were earnest and passionate, specific in rejecting Bibi’s first bid to divide and conquer but perhaps facile in calling for free everything without outlining how to pay for it. Protest leaders went out of their way not to exclude anyone, although I’m not sure to what degree Arabs were in the minds of the speakers, and did not accuse anyone of being a traitor just for disagreeing with them.

There was anger, directed at Netanyahu – a suitable target for charges of making the rich richer, the poor poorer, and abandoning the middle class – but even these were not words of rage. They were talking ‘bout a revolution, as the Tracy Chapman anthem of the evening declared, not violent overthrow; emphasis on talking.

Of course, it’s simplistic to only blame Bibi or to detach the struggle for social and economic justice from other political struggles. When you squander the nation’s wealth on settlements, there’s less for public housing, education, health services and social welfare.

But protest leaders are determined not to allow the left-right divide to derail them. They want to outflank the usual political polarization by putting social and economic justice at the top of a new – and in this way revolutionary – national agenda.

And no criticism or unfulfilled expectation can reduce the significance of getting 150,000 people into the streets of a sweltering July. The upbeat tone with its inclusive message was as far as possible from that of the right wing diatribes that have sickened our political discourse for the past two and a half years.

So it was disheartening if not surprising to hear government leaders and settler spokesmen still claiming that the protest is a leftist cabal. They called demonstrators irresponsible, anarchists, and puppets of a left wing conspiracy – sigh – manipulated by the New Israel Fund. Maybe it’s time to get some facts straight about this national protest movement and a much maligned foundation.

The New Israel Fund (NIF) is not big enough, rich enough, or powerful enough to manipulate hundreds of thousands of people.

The New Israel Fund is engaged with the issues at the heart of the protest, having launched a social and economic justice initiative in 1994, including efforts to promote decent public housing and affordable rentals. Two years ago, the foundation decided to make housing a top priority, and in this sense, NIF was there before the middle class woke up.

But it is in the DNA of the New Israel Fund not to dictate to activists how to fight their battles. Far from being a puppet master, NIF listens, and enables, and empowers people who don’t have power, giving them resources necessary to fight for social change.

The New Israel Fund’s values are in sync with this “revolution” of priorities, but NIF is neither behind it, nor leading it.

It will be a shame if the leaders of the street decide to turn down funding because it does not want to risk being colored leftist, fearing that will compromise their ability to speak for “the people.” Political necessity does not demand surrender to the right wing tactic of “guilt by association,” especially when there is nothing to be guilty about.

The New Israel Fund (NIF), like most progressive foundations, promotes more than one agenda at a time, and they are not all dependent upon one another. NIF works for agunot, (women denied divorce by their husbands and stranded in marital limbo) and thousands of other oppressed women in Israeli society, for Israel’s environmental movement and for Jewish pluralism. It also empowers Arab citizens and promotes civil rights.

This diversity is something that the one-track demagogues running the Knesset – who have sacrificed all national priorities to settlement expansion – find it impossible to comprehend. The point is that you can fight for social and economic justice even if you do not agree with NIF’s view on the territories, or that of any other progressive foundation.

These demonstrations are a genuine expression of the frustration of huge segments of the Israeli population. Israel’s beleaguered middle class and working poor did not take to the streets because of their views about Palestinians, or because of the actions of any foundation.

In any case, progressive foundations will continue helping the dozens of NGOs who have been researching, organizing, and setting up storefront offices for years to help besieged lower income and middle class citizens, whether in Tel Aviv, Sderot or Nazareth. The leaders of this “revolution” are already busy learning what’s been tried and seeking concrete suggestions for what needs to be done. They have found activists and thinkers ready to share their experience and their knowledge, as evidenced by daily streetside lectures and debates.

And if protest leaders decide they want fiscal support from progressive foundations, they will find funders who already share their passion and their dreams.

Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel at the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation which supports the New Israel Fund and numerous other NGOs working for social and economic justice in Israel.

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    1. SIREN

      Great article, well said!

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bob Burgess

      As a goy from America, I have little to say, except that the problems you outline in Israel mirror our own. I just learned of this website today by watching our own DemocracyNow.org. I shall be consulting 976mag.com quite often. Great site.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Err, NIF has outright claimed that they are providing funding for the tent protest, as well as logisitical/organizations support and advice for the tent protest. Its all on their website! http://www.nif.org.il/index.php?id=3202

      Channel 2 TV news reported tonight that the Kadima party is funding much of the expenses of the tent protests. That means that not all the funding comes from the so-called “Left” composed of groups around the NIF but much also comes from Qadima, a party whose leader Tzippora Livni, has ambitions to be PM and replace the current PM. As much as Channel 2 hates Bibi, they report that Qadima wants to depict Netanyahu as responsible for all of the country’s problems. See this facebook link:

      You can’t hide the fact that anti-government forces are at work.

      As a center-right winger, its disheartening that the tent protest is funded by NIF and Kadima. I wish one could be socially left in this country, yet right wing on security and nationalism. (Meaning, the tent protestors refused an offer by Im Tirtzu by not allowing HaTikva to be sung, in return for right wing protestors to offer support and show up).

      Reply to Comment
    4. Piotr Berman

      On one hand, NIF and “other NGOs” put housing problems in their agenda and they “offer support”. They are clearly on the side of protesters, and that is the point for “conspiracy theory”.

      That said, it is hard to imagine more innocent social concern than housing (if it is not the concern that a wrong kind of people avail themselves to housing resources). The fact that left-of-center think tanks have seen the problem “several years ago” simply shows that they follow basic human needs. that they see real problems etc.

      I do not see a remote possibility of nefarious “agents of the Left” brainwashing and duping hapless Israelis into participation in the protests. If the housing issue is phony, “the Left” does not have a propaganda apparatus to brainwash the masses, so I suspect (from the other side of the ocean) that it is a real issue.

      Reply to Comment
    5. ruth winestock

      The tent protests and the movement for social justice is wonderful! As a dual citizen of israel and the U.S. i commend all the citizens of Israel for standing up FINALLY and demonstrating for a more just economic system.
      In particular I am so gratified to see so many young people involved in this struggle.

      The growing divide between rich and poor in Israel is actually something which I have watched grow tremendously over the past 30 years, but MUCH MORE drastically over the past 20 years. Israel, not so long ago was a relatively class-less society, at least for it’s Jewish citizens. With all of the economic difficulty of building a new country in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s the government provided a very large economic safety net for citizens through heavily subsidized housing, medical care, education, transportation, food etc.

      These programs were taken apart by the likud government, at first slowly when Begin was Prime Minister, and then very quickly when Netanyahu became Prime Minister during his first term years ago. ‘Privitization’ was sold to the country as a solution to all ills….while at the same time all subsides were largely removed are significantly reduced.

      The bell has tolled and the time has come for BIG CHANGES!!! The people have spoken and they are tired of this kind of inequality and crass capitalism at any cost!!

      As we say in Hebrew ‘All the honors’ go to the demonstrators!!!

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ben Israel

      Ruth Winestock-
      I see you have this nostalgia for the “good old days” of phony pseudo-socialist Israel. The good old days when people had to wait 5 years to get a telephone, but those with proteksia got it at once. When there were only 2 flavors of yogurt, both lousy.

      Yes, nominal salaries of the well-connected and those in powerful positions were not much higher than everyone elses, but they were given perks which appeared off the books which put them way above everyone else…for example frequent free trips to Europe and the US on their state employer’s tab enabling them to bring back luxury goods without paying customs or taxes. For example when I came to Israel in 1986 a VCR recorder that cost something like $300 in the US cost $900 in Israel so putting one in your suitcase was well worth it.
      Or special proteksia that gave them better medical treatment than everyone else, even though everyone was a member of socialist Kupat Holim Clalit ane received “equal” treatment.
      I can’t believe ANYONE in his or her right mind would want to go back to that corrupt, diseased UNFAIR system. Socialism is only good a spreading the poverty around.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ruth Winestock

      What ‘SYSTEM’ would you LIKE TO SEE in Israel, Mr. Ben Israel?

      From what i can see the complaints that you make may be legitimate, but are so trivial (only 2 yogurt flavors, 2 TV channels, waiting for a phone, occasional perks such as a trip to Europe or even a car paid for by a particular job….by the way such ‘PERKS’ are much MORE common now with private company ‘PERKS’ for people who work for wealthy private industries). Compared with the basic and extremely important things that were provided for by the socialist government of Israel years ago such as HOUSING, EDUCATION, VERY LOW UNEMPLOYMENT, TRANSPORTATION, BASIC FOOD STUFFS!!!! these are things that are literally the bread and butter of peoples lives. These are not trivial luxury items. These socially subsidized programs were and are the foundation of a functioning society. (not TV, Yogurt selections, etc.)

      Reply to Comment
    8. Terry Curtis

      Your protest stories are making the mainstream media, albeit very late and without the insight of 972mag.com. Keep up the coverage. This situation has to break worldwide. As a defendant of middle eastern families, it is good to see an independent news org, Israeli or Arab, that attempts not to distort the news toward political or economic aims of the regimes, but honest news!!!

      Reply to Comment
    9. Adam

      Your NIF movement IS the leftist cabal behind the protests, so you would say that.

      Reply to Comment