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The Middle Class Anarchists of Israel's Tent City Revolution

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Just two weeks ago, when a tent city suddenly snowballed the length of Israel's most prestigious boulevard in protest of the lack of affordable housing, Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis, a former spokesman and adviser for Benjamin Netanyahu, took to state radio to elucidate a government response.

"Part of the protest going on at the moment on Rothschild Boulevard is being driven by a gang of anarchists," the Likud member said, claiming the protesters came from "the adjacent Ahad Ha'am Street, where, as you know, the main branch of the Communist Party is located."

It took tens of thousands of people filling Tel Aviv's streets Saturday night, people from all over Israel, from all walks of life, from across the political spectrum, for the government to see their anarchists for what they really are -- the middle class -- and to realize just how revolutionary all of this is. It took all of them for the government to realize that they had a revolution where they least expected it, when and where they were least prepared for it, led by middle-class young adults that seemed the least likely to ever raise a cry.

You'd expect an Israeli government to know how to deal with a revolution. After all, the story of Israel is a clash of revolutionary movements, the sum total of which is the cabinet table. Every political party was once a revolutionary movement, from the Revisionists that gave birth to the Likud, to the Soviet Jewry movement which spawned Yisrael Beiteinu, to the Sephardi revolution called Shas.

But revolutions get old. Their fire goes out, and with it, their memory. This is what their leaders forget:

When a revolution is born, it is born messy. It erupts hoarse and rough-edged and faltering. Its hunger may not have direction. When a revolution begins to move under its own power, it doesn't play by the rules. It's one of the ways you can know that it's for real. And it's one of the reasons why this one may be so difficult to contain.

No one knows what to make of the tent protest -- which is exactly where its strength lies. It does not fit into any Israeli pigeon hole. It leaves experts guessing. Its power is in its oddly sharpened innocence, its excess of intuition and inspiration and its lack of polish.

This revolution is ostensibly about affordable housing. However, it is about much, much more than that. It's about whether people can actually live in a place like this.

These are people -- not people as Jews or as Arabs, not people as fundamentalists or secular, gay or straight, right or left -- just people. These are people who as individuals need to live somewhere, have a chance to work, have a chance to get to work, and send children to decent schools.

These are people like students and social workers and doctors who are being worked to death. These are people whom others may call children of privilege, but whose future is, in fact, dimming -- turning them into the kind of people who make revolutions.

This revolution is not about the existential threat to Israelis posed by Iran or Hamas. It is about the existential threat to Israelis posed by Israel.

This revolution, not even two weeks old, has already made new rules. You know Israeli politics? You don't know this revolution. This is not mean. This is not pre-packaged and machined. This is, thus far, not a circling drain of bottomless rage, that is to say, it is not one tribe set against another.

This revolution has made even revolutionaries uneasy. It is, thus far, a revolution of humor and heart, of openness and -- are you sitting down -- respect for differing opinions.

In standard Israeli terms, the chants are far too general to be taken seriously ("The people demand social justice"). Some of the placards are too Yippie-like for dour radicals ("My message is too complex for this sign").

From an Israeli standpoint, the most radical act of this newborn revolution has already taken place. In a country where, whether on serious television roundtables or the Knesset floor, discourse is defined as everyone screaming simultaneously, the "Tent People" have adopted a system that sanctifies listening and respect.

When a speaker is addressing the group, crowd members respond not with interjection but with sign language -- raised, fluttering hands signify agreement, crossed fists show disapproval, and a rolling of both hands means the speaker is going on and on without making a point.

Akunis' implication, that the protest was a transient provocation by marginal troublemakers, underscored the government's early dismissal of the protest as of no consequence.

The assumption, of course, had long been that if the protest is not about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, no one will care. If it is about housing or health care, education, or transportation or food prices or employment -- and especially, if it is about all of them -- no blood will boil, no public outcry will be heard. The business of government, which is business as usual, will proceed.

But something in the tables has started to turn. Welfare and Social Services Minister Moshe Kahlon has indicated that the government plans to unveil a far-reaching new housing plan in a matter of days. Netanyahu on Sunday dressed down his cabinet for inaction on new ideas to solve the housing crunch. And the prime minister has come under pressure to replace Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz over the issue, possibly with Kahlon.

There is little question that the government hopes that the protest will soon wither. But there is no question that the government must now take it seriously.

For Netanyahu and the present coalition, the most dangerous part of this revolution is that its goal is not to topple the government, but to spur the government to do what it was put there to do -- see to the most basic, most crucial needs of ordinary people.

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Originally published on Haaretz.com