Mediterranean unrest: News from Israel, Greece

A massive turnout in an anti-austerity protest in Israel and protests and student occupation of college campuses in Greece mark the latest signs of growing social unrest as the global economic crisis deepens.

We’ll start with Israel, then move on to Greece, where the crisis is deepest and one of the most significant “reforms” threatens a cherished institution.

Unrest on the streets of Israel

First, a summary from Harriet Sherwood of The Guardian:

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets on Saturday night in Israel’s biggest ever demonstration to demand social justice, a lower cost of living and a clear government response to the concerns of an increasingly squeezed middle class.

About 430,000 people took part in marches and rallies across the country, according to police. The biggest march was in Tel Aviv, where up to 300,000 took part. There was an unprecedented 50,000-strong protest in Jerusalem, and 40,000 marched in Haifa. There were smaller protests in dozens of other towns and cities.

It had been billed as the “march of the million” but organisers said a turnout matching the 300,000-strong demonstrations four weeks ago would be a triumph. Israel’s population is 7.7 million.

Saturday’s demonstrations followed 50 days of protests that have rattled political leaders and led commentators and analysts to ask whether a new social movement would transform Israeli domestic politics for the next generation.

Read the rest.

One result fo the protests has been an apparent shift from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as Radio France Internationale reports:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he will carry out “real” economic change after massive protests across the country on Saturday demanding lower living costs.

Some 450,000 people are estimated to have taken part in the demonstrations, the largest-ever in Israel, with many carrying signs calling for cuts to the cost of housing, food and eduction

“The government I head is committed to execute real changes to alleviate the cost of living and fix social distortions,” Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting on Sunday.

He said his decision to form a committee to examine the demands of the six-week-old protest movement was “serious” and it would submit “serious recommendations”.

But the prime minister repeated previous warnings that his government would not approve spending that risked throwing Israel into an economic crisis.

And the crisis in Greece deepens

First, this summary from Angeliki Koutantou of Reuters:

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou on Saturday ruled out snap elections and said his government would succeed in bringing Greece out of the crisis by the end of his term in 2013.

Thousands of demonstrators returned to the central Athens for the first time after the summer to protest against unpopular austerity measures in exchange for more EU/IMF funds on the day the ruling socialist party met to mark its 37th anniversary.

“Citizens will judge us in 2013,” Papandreou told a party conference. “By then, we will have achieved bringing Greece out of the crisis and will have completed so many and important reforms.”

But three opinion polls published in Sunday newspapers showed the main conservative opposition New Democracy party had widened its lead by 0.6-5.1 percentage points over the Socialist government, which has seen its popularity wane as austerity bites.

An Alco survey for Proto Thema newspaper, carried out August 30-September 2, showed some 22.2 percent of Greeks would vote for New Democracy versus 17.4 for socialist PASOK. In its last poll in June, support for New Democracy was 21.3 versus 19.6 for PASOK.

About 67 percent of those questioned were against snap elections and about 76 percent said they could not afford the new one-off taxes Greece has imposed to shore up its public finances and wanted growth boosting measures instead.

In another sign that Greeks were fed up with austerity and galloping unemployment, some 75 percent of people aged between 18 and 24 said they wanted to leave the country.

Read the rest.

Greece cracks down on universities

Meanwhile, and virtually ignored by American news media, student occupations are underway of university campuses across Greece, following passage of a new law that radically “reforms” the academic system.

Given that three fourths of the country college-age youth want to emigrate, unrest is a given.

Details of the new legislation come from this 24 August post at From the Greek Streets, one of the few English language websites which has been consistently covering Greek events from the perspective of the protesters:

On August 24th, the Greek parliament voted in the education reform bill submitted by education minister Anna Diamantopoulou, which included some of the most sweeping changes the country’s educational system has seen in living memory. The law introduces a UK-style administration of universities, with external individuals and non-academics taking part in the running of institutions and assessment-based and industry-oriented funding. Students are given a maximum amount of time to complete their courses, or face expulsion; the so-far compulsory distribution of free course readers to students is abolished, who also lose their say in the running of their institutions and are given a provision for student loans – speculation being rife that this is a first step toward the introduction of undergraduate fees.

In a very last minute tweak of the education bill, Diamantopoulou announced the complete abolishing of the historical Academic Asylum (which prevented police from entering academic grounds in the name of the freedom of expression) and the election of university vice-chancellors primarily from their academic community. The last minute changes aimed at, and succeeded in gaining the consensus of the Conservative party of Nea Dimokratia, which voted for the law along with the PASOK government MP’s and the far-right LAOS party.

Hours earlier, 1500-2000 students demonstrating in central Athens (in 35C!) where clashing with the police, while demonstrations also took place against the education reform bill in Thessaloniki, Heraklion and Patras.

By Wednesday, the website reports

At least 87 departments across the country are now under student occupation – General Assemblies are happening all of this and next week and it is very likely that the number will increase dramatically. There seems to be a completely unprecedented agreement between students across almost the entire political spectrum for mobilisations against the voted law: this is rapidly becoming a stand-off between the Student community and the Parliament.

The notion of the university as a sanctuary is an ancient tradition, and carried to the “New World,” where the autonomous universities of Latin America bar police presence on campuses.

The events in Greece also reveal the complete moral bankruptcy of Europe’s contemporary socialist and social democratic parties, which have become part of the problem, and not the solution.

As in the United States, only the right seems to be broadly organized, directing popular rage at government social programs instead of the greed of the banksters and corporateers, the real origin of the crisis.

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