Arabs, Orthodox Jews sit out Israel protests

By TIA GOLDENBERG | August 12, 2011 | 11:14 AM EDT

A girl and her mother hold yellow balloons during a protest march against the costs of living in Israel, in Tel Aviv,Thursday, Aug. 11 2011. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews are among the poorest in Israel, but they are almost nowhere to be seen among the hundreds of thousands of people protesting the country's corrosive social inequality.

Nearly 60 percent of Israel's ultra-Orthodox and half of Israeli Arabs live below the poverty line. But many ultra-Orthodox fear losing the stipends they survive on as they devote their lives to religious study and Arabs are generally more concerned with political issues including Israel's 44-year-old occupation of the West Bank.

"It's a classic secular, Jewish and urban protest. Arab participation would open the door to the divisive questions here," said Tamar Hermann, a political scientist at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Economic protests have flared across Europe in recent months, with demonstrations in Greece, Spain and Italy by people who receive government benefits and don't want them to be cut as the countries struggle with massive deficits.

By contrast, Israel has impressive macro-economic figures, with far stronger growth and lower unemployment than most other developed countries.

But the wealth has failed to trickle down to the country's heavily taxed and increasingly squeezed middle class, many of whom are going into debt just to pay for housing.

The protests that began last month against housing costs quickly ballooned into a movement against sweeping economic problems affecting Israel's middle class, including the soaring prices of food and fuel.

On the sidelines, an array of other causes joined in, ranging from gay activism to vegetarianism and fathers' rights. Each is represented by a tent on the ritzy Tel Aviv avenue that is the protest's epicenter.

The sheer diversity of the popular outcry has made the absence of the ultra-Orthodox, who make up 9 percent of the population, and Israeli Arabs, who account for 20 percent, all the more marked.

Fewer than six in 10 ultra-Orthodox men work. The rest devote their lives to religious study and subsist on government stipends, to the resentment of Israel's secular majority.

Some ultra-Orthodox worry that the protests will shine a light on the vast amounts of money they receive from the state.

Cultural differences are also keeping the ultra-Orthodox at bay, said Jonathan Rosenblum, an ultra-Orthodox commentator. The protesters' main tent camps in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are predominantly secular, with scantily clad young men and women trying to beat the summer heat and socializing in close quarters — something the ultra-Orthodox frown upon.

While at least one ultra-Orthodox tent has been pitched in Jerusalem, the insular community of the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim, has not joined the movement en masse.

"These protests will become hostile," Rosenblum predicted. "The haredim become the great hole that explains every government shortfall."

Most Arabs in Israel are skeptical of the movement, fearing their concerns will again be sidestepped, said Jafar Farah, director of the Arab advocacy group Mossawa.

Protest organizers have deliberately avoided politics and barely mentioned the costly military occupation in the West Bank, a major concern of Israeli Arabs.

Yet a smattering of Arabs are participating, joining the diverse group on Tel Aviv's leafy Rothschild Boulevard in "Tent 1948", where both Jews and Arabs hand out flyers describing the plight of the Arab population in Israel and the importance of addressing the occupation.

Smaller tent camps have emerged in a few Arab towns and villages. In a rare development, two Arab writers joined a lineup of Jewish figures at mass protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last week, delivering speeches to a predominantly Jewish crowd, but avoiding talk of the occupation.

Rozeen Bisharat, one of the Arab residents of Tent 1948, said she joined the protests to contribute an Arab voice.

"The whole country deserves social justice," said the 25-year-old independent film producer, echoing the mantra behind the protests. "It's not just for Jews."