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One year on: From social protest to civic economic power

Last summer’s tent encampments were dismantled, but the spirit of the protest lives on. Citizens are taking matters into their own hands, promoting public interests through growing numbers of cooperatives.

By Yifat Solel

The summer of 2011 was the summer of social protest in Israel. Tent encampments emerged all over the country and one call was heard from every corner – “the people demand social justice.” But the summer ended, the court enabled the dismantling of the tents and the only government response was in the form of an economic panel that produced a frail report. The protesters needed a concrete alternative – something that they could create on their own. One of the prominent initiatives that began and is flourishing is group organizing and the establishment of cooperative enterprises, thereby creating civic economic power.

The 2011 summer protest made people realize they have only themselves to rely on. In the tent encampments, people used their time to learn – each evening there were lectures and discussions about social justice, economy and democracy. The people were no longer accepting government policies without conscious criticism. No more leaving economic decisions to the economists alone.

As the current Israeli government  promotes a neo-liberal agenda, it was clear there should be no expectation for rescue from that end. The public must find ways to take things into their own hands, to create economic civic power.

As the public looked for economic and social alternatives with dominantly democratic features, it was only natural that cooperatives became widely discussed. The goal of cooperatives, being people-based organizations, is to promote members’ economic, social and cultural interests, serving as an economic power building mechanism while enhancing democratic involvement and civic responsibility.

The discussions led to action. Consumers’ cooperatives, workers’ cooperatives – are emerging all around the country and creating the social and economic change that none of us can afford waiting for from someone else.

This development was a surprising one. It is not the first time the cooperative concept emerged in Israel. Israel was founded on the basis of a cooperative economy and society. In its early days, Israel was a cooperative empire: much of its industry was cooperative, most of its supermarkets and department stores, some of its cultural life – publishing houses and theaters – almost everything was cooperative.

Until the 1970s, Israel’s cooperatives took a major role in its economy. There are arguments over why the cooperative economy diminished, and I would suggest the major reasons were the erosion of cooperative values within the cooperatives, along with dependence on government and established powers, compounded by poor legislation that embodied no values and principles. There are technically still many registered cooperative societies, but they do not represent an actual cooperative alternative, but mostly a registration form and nothing else. For many years, the general atmosphere suggested that cooperatives are a thing of the past, and all people could remember were the over-sized and over-privileged cooperative companies that faded into the capitalist market.

The new generation, the people in the tent encampments, those who started the protest, were freed from old notions. They were again ready to listen and learn and act.

The results can already be seen. In the year that has passed, more than 40 groups started to organize. As the primarily issue of the protest was the unbearable costs of living, consumers’ cooperatives led the way, and are emerging in small towns and in major cities, some starting small, others organizing in order to open a full supermarket from day one.

Workers cooperatives have started to organize as well. A workers cooperative of sound and lights technicians launched just before the social protest, and was followed by a group of social workers who organized to create an alternative to the privatized system. A group of Yoga teachers decided to cooperate, and a web-based newspaper owned by journalist was launched.

A cooperative pub/restaurant opened its doors and has become a center for cooperative and protest activities.

Although the government is not likely to change its economic course, awareness of the cooperative solution has not skipped over public authorities all together. One of the major complaints brought by protesters was against the banking system, and its centralized nature that enables it to exploit Israeli citizens by charging unjustified fees and commissions while paying huge salaries to a few managers, and distribute obscene dividends. Surprisingly, the governmental committee that examined these issues decided to recommend the establishment of credit unions.  The surprise derives not only from the ideological nature of this recommendation, but also from the fact that since 1981, it has been prohibited by law to start a cooperative bank or credit union. What was supposed to be a legal struggle to start a financial cooperative institution became all of a sudden joint goal of new cooperative initiatives and the authorities. There are now two cooperatives that are developing financial alternatives – a cooperative credit union, bank and pension fund.

Another major initiative, that preceded the protest, is the Cooperative for Renewable Energy, which, in the spirit of similar organizations around the world, tries to promote both social and environmental goals. The strong connection between social and environmental justice surfaces more and more in demands for the right to clean air, public transportation, renewable energy, public parks and more. The cooperative method of creating a community in order to promote public interests is the most suitable way to handle environmental solutions, and has been proven to be most effective in Europe and in the United States. The cooperative tries to import those successes and adapt them to the Israeli arena. The administrative atmosphere is not favorable towards cooperatives and prefers private enterprises that create profits for the few. The current challenge is to overcome those obstacles and start a cooperative environmental alternative that could make an actual change.

Beyond everything else, the new cooperatives create an active democratic arena. One of the greatest misfortunes of Israeli democracy in the last decade was the belief internalized by many, that they have no influence: that there is no difference between the different political leaders, that the economy is owned by the rich, that the system is too strong to be changed. Losing the belief in citizens’ power is the greatest strength of a corrupt and alienated regime. The social protest gave people back the belief in their strength, but its weakening had an ominous potential.

The cooperatives have become a real answer to the need for change. Each cooperative has its founders, members and activists who are creating the alternatives that affect their daily lives. Thus, embracing the spirit of the protest, the cooperatives manage to promote social, economic and environmental goals, and maintain active democratic communities.

Yifat Solel is a social rights lawyer and a promoter of cooperatives. This post was originally published on the Heinrich Böll Stiftung site. 

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    1. Michael


      Do you have a specific list of the cooperatives you mention in your article? Would you be willing to share some of the names?


      Reply to Comment
    2. Philos

      This is a feeble admission of failure. An attempt at spinning naïveté and foolishness as victorious adaptation. One year on from the social protests and I’m still asking, “why did we stop? Who decided it was time to go home? Why did we just let the momentum go?!”
      The protests leaders shodn’t be setting up their bourgeois cooperative bars for disgruntled yuppies. They should be apologizing for having been so damn stupid for stopping the protests at all thinking they could just pick up where they left off.

      Reply to Comment
      • “why did we stop? Who decided it was time to go home? Why did we just let the momentum go?!”: This kibbitzing outsider thinks the question should be asked too. Ground up organization is always hard to sustain. But my long distance sense is that in Israel it is very hard. I don’t know your society well enough at all to hazzard a guess why.

        Reply to Comment
    3. The Trespasser

      “Ground up organization is always hard to sustain.”
      These fellas have no viable agenda. They don’t like the situation, specifically high cost of living and low income – but offer nothing practical, which would speak to masses.

      Reply to Comment
      • The US has been swept by several movements in its history–one leading to a constitutional ban on alcohol, later repealed as unworkable. These movements had core on ground organization often, for better or worse, through chruches. Today’s Tea Party, which I detest, has been called, by some of its members, as the “secular wing of the Christian Right.” What I don’t see or know about in Israel are such groupings which then expand and mobilize fellow travelers in electoral events. Maybe it is just the current day, but everything seems directed top down via established parties; nothing induces the parties to change their lines. J14 seemed unable to generate background group activity ready to mobilize others. I suspect Bibi in his call for elections is not worried about the J14 event at all. And I know not why this has happened or how it could be changed.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          1 – Israel’s history does not lasts even 70 years
          2 – From the very beginning Israel is a socialist country, contrary to USA
          3 – Although there is some segregation Arabs never were Israeli’s slaves, there never was separate taps for whites as well as there is no separate bus routes in Israel proper.

          These are reasons why there were no strong social movements until now – everything was more or less OK.

          “nothing induces the parties to change their lines”

          What parties have to change what lines and into what lines?
          Could you be more specific on that please?

          As I’ve said before, J14 has not more viable politic and economic agenda than Sex Pistols, therefore they could not gain support of wide public.

          How could it be changed?
          Very simple – come up with a realistic plan.

          B.S. As of these preliminary election, Bibi not really needed them – there was arguing over budget and they couldn’t reach an agreement.
          You see, the coalition is too wide but the budget cake remains the same.
          Tight budget policy is the only reason why there are no hunger riots in Israel – world economics are not in their best shape, and Israel is too small to completely rely on its own market, unlike USA or China.

          Reply to Comment
          • By “parties” I meant your standing political parties. J14, which was rather unusual for Israel, seems to have left no lasting mark at all, in discourse, political parties, or other groupings. But I see things only in a coarse grain where I am.

            Involuntary servitude is not limited to slavery. Badges of servitude can exist in job discrimination and housing permits; and seggregation on buses and such can exist without being set in law (I actually don’t know the reality in Israel on this). Some northern States in the US had de facto discrimination (including water fountains) without direct legal backing; one just didn’t do certain things for fear of social retaliation. So if a mixed racial couple went to a restaurant, they might well find no one would wait on them.

            It may well be that your socialist beginnings created a top down culture for organization and change. Constant military readiness with several wars may have reenforced that; during those times, one had and wanted to be told what to do. I hadn’t considered that.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >It may well be that your socialist beginnings created a top down culture for organization and change

            It might well be that.
            Currently we have 4-5 (semi) standing parties, plus some 6-7 with just few seats.

            Now, what parties exactly won’t change their lines?

            Shas? Of course they won’t change their lines. They even won’t send their children to serve.

            Israel Beiteinu?
            It’s barely 4 years in some kind of power – a bit early to change lines.

            Likud, or what’s left of it?
            Their line is dictated by coalition partners.

            Avoda? With that joke Shelly?
            I don’t think they have any lines at all.

            Kadima? Kadima was created as left-centrist party, but it did not stopped Olmert (and Barak, from Leftist Avoda) from bombing the shit out of Gaza.

            So, who is left?
            Lapid. Joke as well. With a bought Ph.D.
            No lines.

            Yaadut Hatora? Insignificant and sectarian.

            J14 hasn’t apparently hasn’t organized party yet – latest message on FB is dated August, 22.

            Reply to Comment
    4. The Trespasser

      “So if a mixed racial couple went to a restaurant, they might well find no one would wait on them.”
      Situation here is a bit opposite – uniformed soldier might be refused service by an Arab.

      You really can’t compare ethno-social situation here to that in USA some 70 years ago or to most other segregation cases.

      Reply to Comment