By Daniel Estrin
There's a new revolt brewing in the Middle East. It's not about bringing down a dictator, like in Syria or Egypt. It's about bringing down the cost of living.
In Israel, one young woman, fed up with unaffordable rents in Tel Aviv, started a Facebook page calling on people to pitch tents on a downtown boulevard.
On Thursday night, hundreds of tents lined the center island of Rothschild Boulevard.
Thousands of Israelis, mostly in their 20s, milled about. Musicians played without asking for tips. Some banged on drums next to a big teepee marked, "The Revolution of Love." But Shay Soffer, who's staying in a tent, said don't be fooled by the carnival atmosphere.
"It is fun, but along with that fun, is coming a big sense of change," Soffer said. "Change must be done."
Soffer sat in front of his tent with a few friends, including 28-year-old Tami Ben Tzvi, a fifth-grade teacher. She makes about $1500 a month after taxes. It's not enough, she said. "If I want to become a mother, I can't. I can't afford myself. It's a luxury for me."
At an ATM in an upscale part of Tel Aviv, I came upon some people overdrawing on their accounts – taking out more than they actually have. Or Nahson told me that his salary doesn't cover his cost of living. He makes 4,000 shekels, about $1,160 a month, but his rent is almost 3,000 shekels.
When I asked what he does, he said he worked as bank teller in this bank. Even he had to borrow the bank's money to get by. The next woman in line was Rosanne Sigliano Mersand, an American expat who owns a well-known Tel Aviv cafe.
"I have been living here for 14 years," she said. "In New York, I was never in overdraft, and now I am living in minus 1300 shekels. And that's nothing. Being an American going in to overdraft, my stomach gets tightened. It's hard for me."
These kinds of economic worries might seem surprising, given Israel's overall economic health. Unemployment has fallen to about 5.8 percent, the lowest level in 25 years. The economy is expected to grow by 6 percent. So why are middle class Israelis feeling the pinch? Economist Daniel Doron said it's low salaries, high prices and steep taxes on consumer goods.
"A car, a simple Toyota, costs what a Cadillac would cost in America," Doron said.
He said that on average, Israelis make half of what middle class American workers make, but prices are double. Part of the reason, he said, is that just about everything is monopolized in Israel. To understand that centralization, you have to understand the idealistic spirit upon which the country was founded.
"The founding fathers of Israel — David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir — thought themselves to be socialists," said historian Tom Segev. "The basic belief was the state is responsible for the basic needs of its inhabitants."
The government and the trade union federation used to own nearly everything. There was only a very small private sector. But that started to change in the late 1970s. The current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the biggest champions of a free-market economy. But the protests over the past two weeks have forced his government to scramble to offer some quick solutions, including a promise to free up government-owned land for affordable housing. Protestors say it's not enough. Historian Tom Segev said despite Israel's new economy, these young Israelis expect their government to take care of them.
"I think it's a generational thing. These people are sons and daughters of people who grew up in country that expected the government to provide them, the leftovers of social democracy," Segev said.
The housing protest is quickly becoming a catch-all for all kinds of gripes about the cost of living here. On Thursday, thousands of mothers marched with strollers to protest the high costs of raising a family. Doctors marched to Jerusalem and set up tents of their own, to demand higher wages. Israel's federation of trade unions has threatened to stage a general strike on Monday.
And the tent dwellers on Rothschild Boulevard? They're not going anywhere.