When 300,000 people took to Israel's streets two weeks ago to protest economic conditions in the country, commentators swiftly credited the revolts raging throughout the Arab world. Israelis, they claimed, had learned a lesson from the Arab Spring.
The demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem do, in fact, evoke those in Cairo, Tunis and Damascus. Mobilized by Facebook and Twitter, young Israelis, like young Arabs, are stirred by the spirit of change sweeping the region and insist on a better future. But for all the seeming similarities, far more than a single season separates the Arab Spring from the Israeli Summer.
Whether in Libya, Syria or Bahrain, many of the Arab rebellions have pitted rival religious and ethnic groups against one another in bloody confrontations.
In Israel, though, Jews stand beside Muslims and Christians; immigrants from Russia march with those from Africa. The divisions between secular and religious and between right and left are virtually absent. And women, confined to a secondary role in most Arab demonstrations, are among the leaders of the Israeli rallies. Indeed, the first protest tent was set up by a 25-year-old professional woman. Israeli mothers, meanwhile, eager to rejoin the workforce, launched a "stroller march" for subsidized day care. They are not demanding a change in the form of Israel's government, but a reform of its policy — exactly how a democracy should work.
Unlike the Arab revolts that seek to overthrow dictatorial rulers, the Israeli demonstrations aim at achieving "social justice" within the existing political system. Specifically, they want affordable housing and wage increases to keep up with Israel's swiftly expanding economy. They want to narrow the social gap that has widened in Israel over past decades under successive governments, right and left. In Israel, it's not about tearing down a regime but preserving the middle class. These Israelis are committed to making their country a better place for all its citizens — entrepreneurs, teachers and factory workers.
With few exceptions, the Arab Spring has been tainted with violence. Thousands have been killed and many thousands more reduced to refugees. Egyptian police beat and arrest protesters, and Syrian troops shoot at their fellow citizens with tanks. In Israel, by contrast, performing artists and authors — not security forces — have greeted the demonstrators. Their protest tents are protected, rather than uprooted, by the police.
The violence characterizing the Arab demonstrations and the peaceful nature of Israel's reflects the most outstanding difference between them. Arab populations are protesting for the democracy and freedom that their rulers regard as mortal threats. The Israeli demonstrations, though, are taking place because democracy and freedom already exist. And the government views them not as a threat but as an opportunity. Accordingly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established committees made up of state officials, economists and professors to address the activists' demands, and opened an online forum for dialogue. "We cannot ignore the voices emanating from the public," Netanyahu said. "We want to give real solutions, and we will do so."
A few days ago, I visited the thousands of tents that have sprung up along Tel Aviv's most illustrious boulevard and saw posters expressing love for Israel and commitment to a just society. I spoke with the organizers who told me that the electricity for the "tent city" is provided by nearby restaurants and that the people of the neighborhood have opened their kitchens and showers to the demonstrators. I did not see a single police officer, much less a soldier, in any way trying to silence the activists. The peaceful, non-partisan nature of the protests is a testament to Israeli democracy.
For all their differences, the Arab Spring and the Israeli Summer share one fundamental similarity. In both, the people of the Middle East are challenging the status quo and making their voices heard. Everywhere, there is a new sense of empowerment. In Israel, we have the parliamentary representation and freedom of speech to discuss the demonstrators' demands and together weigh the solutions.
We hope that someday soon, our neighbors will enjoy those same basic rights. Seasons, by definition, pass, but we can all work for a permanent future of liberty, opportunity and peace.