Israeli pocketbook woes awaken a dormant protest spirit [VIDEO]

More than 250,000 Israelis of all stripes, beset by economic woes, took to the streets this weekend. They mark the largest protest movement in recent memory.

By , Correspondent

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    Thousands of Israelis march during a protest against the rising cost of living in Israel, in central Tel Aviv, Israel, Aug. 6. Angry over the ever increasing cost of living, Israelis poured en masse into the streets of major cities Saturday night in a big show of force by the protest movement that is sweeping the country and proving to be a real challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
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Israel is awash in the largest public protest movement in recent memory after more than 250,000 took to the streets over the weekend to demand reforms to ease the economic burden on the middle class.

The mass demonstrations, an odd jumble of everyone from leftists to ultra-Orthodox Jews, mark a new activist spirit among young Israelis who have grown increasingly indifferent toward their government.

Protester Oren Solo says answering a Facebook invitation to protest housing prices was his first taste of political activism since peace marches after the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when he was a teenager.

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Three weeks after coming out onto the boulevard, Mr. Solo still resides in the tent city, having found common purpose with other young people struggling to make ends meet.

"We talk about these issues all the time at home in the [living room]," he says, "but we never went out and did anything about it." Until now.

Tamar Hermann, a public opinion expert at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem says that Israel’s younger generation is still more politically aware than peers in other countries, but they are less inclined to become involved with political parties or political youth movements than their parents. (Editor's note: The original version misstated Ms. Hermann's affiliation.)

"Compared to 30 or 40 years ago they are less interested in establishment-style politics. They see the political system as inattentive, malfunctioning and corrupt, which is not so much different [from] the way people in other liberal democracies see their political systems," she says. In recent years, youths have supported niche parties as protest votes instead of mainstream parties that they can’t tell apart.

"The fact is that this [movement] is highly heterogeneous. In the past, the protesters were made of one piece of cloth. They were either highly secular and left, or Orthodox right-wingers."

Because they have maintained distance from mainstream political parties, the protesters have an authenticity with the Israeli public that allows them to reach across Israel's traditional political rifts.

While the majority of the movement is secular, along the encampment on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild boulevard – the heart of the protest movement – ultra-Orthodox Jews and settlers can be seen along with hard-core leftists. It is one part bohemian block party, one part outdoor political salon. Amid a clutter of improvised manifestos and political slogans hung like installation art from trees and makeshift shelters, the camp residents sit into the early hours of the morning in guitar circles, alternating between song and political debate.

"There isn’t any party in the government that is encouraging these [protests]. That is why this came from the people," says Uri Kalian, a musician in his thirties who had grown weary of politics before participating in these protests. "Israel is a country that used to have idealistic leaders. But nowadays politicians are corrupt, no matter who is in power."

The downside of the extra-political protest is that the movement lacks a clear political leaders, increasing the chances of disillusionment and more apathy if there are no clear results, says Ms. Hermann.

"If this is even partially successful it may bring people into the political system. But not necessarily via parties."

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