DSQ > Fall 2007, Volume 27, No.4

Until the late 1990s, Israeli legislation focused largely on the distribution of disability allowances and benefits, rather then on disability rights. Since then, owing largely to the efforts of the Bizchut organization and to two national disability protests in 1999 and 2001, Israeli disability policy and legislation have gradually shifted from a needs-based to a human rights and equality-based platform. Using Beck's (1994) theory of subpolitics, I analyze the emergence of disability rights advocacy and protestation, and their role in bringing about policy and legal changes in Israel. I argue four connected points: that Israeli disability politics demonstrate how civil society actors can advance change: that the activism of these actors, Bizchut and the two protests, is interconnected and mutually empowering; that these events represent the rise of the disability community as a legitimate and active social actor; and that these events constitute an Israeli visibility project and are crucial for advancing both disability rights and needs.

Keywords: disability rights legislation, disability policy, policy change, contentious politics, social and economic rights, civil society, Israel.


People with disabilities comprise more than 10% of Israel's population (Katz Committee, 1997). The majority of this community is characterized by low socio-economic status and high unemployment rates, and functions as a minority social group in terms of its vulnerability to discrimination and social segregation, as well as in terms of its social, economic and political disadvantages. Commenting on the marginalization of people with disabilities in Israel, Ophir and Orenstein (2001) have recently posited that Israeli society disregards the rights and needs of people with disabilities when constructing its social systems. These systems include both the legal-legislative system and the public sphere, two social arenas that are the focus of this paper.

Until the late 1990s, disability legislation in Israel has focused primarily on issues of disability allowances and benefits, and was founded upon a discourse of need and charity rather than of human rights and equality (Ophir & Orenstein, 2001). This legislation was central to perpetuating and reinforcing the inferior and powerless status of the disability community (Mor, 2006). In contrast to Israel's extensive welfare legislation, disability rights legislation has been very much neglected and was scarce, scattered, incoherent, and under complied with or unenforced (Ophir & Orenstein, 2001; Ziv, 1998). The neglect of disability rights legislation was most clearly expressed in the inaccessibility of all spheres of public life (Katz Committee, 1997). Ziv (1998, p. 200) has argued that this state was "the consequence of long neglected advocacy on behalf of persons with disabilities."

Major changes have taken place in disability policy and legislation in Israel during the past decade, largely owing to the efforts of two central civil society actors: the Bizchut organization and two disability protests. These changes have been aimed at revolutionizing the state of disability rights while countering Israel's trend of the past three decades of retrenching its welfare policies (Doron & Kramer, 1991). Using Beck's (1994) theory of subpolitics, I critically analyze the emergence of disability rights advocacy, the rise of disability protests, and the role of these two actors in bringing about policy and legal changes in the area of disability in Israel since the early 1990s. I suggest, first, that Israeli disability politics demonstrate how civil society actors can advance disability policy and legislative change; second, that the activism of both these actors — advocacy and protestation — is interconnected and represents the rise of the disability community as a legitimate and active actor in disability policy; and lastly, that these actors constitute the Israeli visibility project and are both crucial for advancing the rights and needs of people with disabilities.

The theory of subpolitics

Scholarship on public policy has traditionally located policymaking processes within the state apparatus at both administrative and legislative levels; i.e., shaping society from the top down. In contrast, Beck (1994) claims that politics, as we traditionally know them, are gradually losing their role as a key to understanding social change processes. Beck identifies a shift in today's policymaking, whereby political action is mobilized also by actors outside the traditional policy domains (Beck, 1994; Holzer & Sorensen, 2003). These actors, such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), create new opportunities for various social groups to have a voice, to take part in the arrangement of society, and to actively participate in policymaking, distribution of social power, and in determining political agendas. Beck terms this new type of politics as "subpolitics" — a form of non-institutionalized politics that shape society "from below."

Beck divides subpolitics into two types: classical subpolitics are characterized by mass mobilization and grassroots initiatives, while the newer type of subpolitics is characterized by the activism of professional NGOs. Similarly, in Israel's first decades, the State dominated all policymaking processes ("top-down" politics) and inhibited the emergence of civil society (Gidron, 1997; Zalmanovitch, 1998). Nonetheless, since the early 1980s, Israel has been witnessing a decline in the centrality of the government and an increased involvement of actors outside the traditional and centralized political structure in policymaking processes (Zalmanovitch, 1998; Ziv & Shamir, 2003). This process is most evident in the economic sphere, in which a sharp shift from a welfare state to a neo-liberal economy has been recorded. The Israeli welfare state today is at great risk. If once regarded as one of the most egalitarian societies, today Israel is considered one of the most unequal states (Doron, 2001). The 1980s also witnessed a considerable growth of NGOs that aim to provide social services, protect minority groups, and advance various public issues.

The Bizchut organization: advancing change through legislation and advocacy

Since the late 1980s, Israel has been undergoing a paradigm shift in disability advocacy from its past focus on service provision to its current rights perspective. This shift began with parents for children with disabilities who advocated greater inclusion, and which eventually resulted in some new legislation, such as the Special Education Act of 1988, and The Planning and Building Act (Special Arrangements for Disabled People in Public Buildings) (Amendment) — 1981. The establishment and activism of the Bizchut organization advanced and strengthened the emerging rights-oriented approach even further and resulted in a comprehensive new disability rights legislation, namely the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law — 1998 (hereinafter the ERPDL or the Equality Law). I focus on Bizchut's role in initiating and advancing the legislation process of the ERPDL and argue that the legal struggle preceded street protests and mass mobilization, and in fact led to the empowerment of the disability community and the emergence of grassroots activism and mass mobilization. As a civil society actor which aims to advance change from the bottom-up, Bizchut's activism represents the newer type of Beck's (1994) subpolitics.

Bizchut (the Hebrew term for "by right", as opposed to "by charity"), which is the Human Rights Centre for People with Disabilities, is a professional legal advocacy organization established in 1992. It employs only a small number of paid professional activists, mainly lawyers, although it includes increasing numbers of employees and volunteers with disabilities. Bizchut's establishment and its choice of strategies have been influenced by American disability rights academia and activism, which themselves are arguably the product of a social movement. Several individual and institutional factors triggered Bizchut's establishment. The first was the efforts of the late Professor Stanley Herr, a renowned disability rights academic and activist, who conducted extensive research in Israel in 1991-2 on the status of advocacy and rights of people with disabilities. Herr subsequently persuaded the Association for Civil Rights (ACRI) to establish Bizchut. Second, two legal advocates specializing in U.S. disability rights returned to work in ACRI and were among the founders of Bizchut (Bizchut, 2003). The Bizchut organization acknowledges the potential power of law in advancing social change and aims to equalize the status of people with disabilities by means of legislative reforms and direct litigation. Two additional factors encouraged Bizchut to choose legal strategies for social change: Israel's lack of a constitution, which grants its Supreme Court a major role in protecting individual (and group) rights,1 and the relative accessibility of legal tools, which encourages increasing deliberation of social issues in the courts rather than in extra-judicial realms (Mundlak, 2004).

Aside from the legal activism at the core of Bizchut's activity, the organization employs community-oriented strategies such as raising awareness and advancing rights discourse, aiming "to bring the language of rights to the disability community and to the wider public" (Dagan, 2005). Therefore, Bizchut represents a shift from needs-based and social security discourse to a human rights discourse. In fact, when Bizchut was first established, it entered a void where the language of disability rights, and especially human rights, were unfamiliar to the public, the disability community, and even to Bizchut activists themselves, who had to learn the subject from scratch (Ophir, 2005; Ziv, 2005).

Soon after its establishment, Bizchut led a Supreme Court petition — the Botzer case — which is considered a breakthrough in the legal status of people with disabilities in Israel (HCJ, 7081/93). This case involved a Supreme Court petition on behalf of a 13-year-old wheelchair user, requesting that his municipality make its public buildings, in particular the school he attended, accessible so that he could participate fully in his community's social and cultural life. Chief Justice Barak accepted the petition, referring for the first time "to the reality of the lives of people with disabilities as a human rights issue in general, and as the principle of equality, in particular" (Ophir & Orenstein, 2001, p. 48). Chief Justice Barak determined that the purpose of the Planning and Building Regulations — 1981 was to allow a child with a disability to be fully and equally integrated into the school community in a manner that would ensure his or her dignity and equal right to education (HCJ, 7081/93).

The legislation of the ERPDL

Despite success in the Supreme Court, in 1994 it became clear, following two years of similar legal activism, that the only viable way of ensuring the equal rights of people with disabilities was through comprehensive disability-rights legislation. This perspective reflected Bizchut's recognition of law as a powerful tool in the struggle for equality (Herr, 2001; Ziv, 1998). Bizchut initiated a disability-rights bill and called out to the disability community to respond to it. However, in this preliminary stage the involvement of the community was noticeably absent, and the drafting task was left primarily in the hands of Bizchut's lawyers. As the struggle for the Equality Bill continued and intensified, the involvement of the disability community increased accordingly (Ophir, 2005).

Following intense lobbying efforts, Bizchut presented the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Bill in the Parliament, on June 11, 1995, supported by a few Parliament members and the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. More than 200 people with disabilities, parents for children with disabilities, activists, service providers, lawyers, and government representatives participated in what is considered to be the first public and grassroots activity in support of the Equality Bill beyond the legal activism of Bizchut (Ziv, 2005). What followed was a tiresome and lengthy lobbying, approval, and redrafting process culminating on February 23, 1998, when the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law was finally ratified, and was set to come into effect on January 1st, 1999. Throughout the legislation process, Bizchut insisted on involving the disability community, and even formed a coalition of disability organizations for the advancement of the Equality Law.

The ERPDL embodies human rights legislation in both its language and spirit, constituting a revolutionary approach to human and civil rights of people with disabilities in Israeli legislation (Ophir & Orenstein, 2001; Ziv, 1998). Casting its discourse in terms of equality aims to endow the Law with a higher, semi-constitutional character (Ziv, 1998). In fact, "when enacted in full, …[it] will [constitute] the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in Israel" (Ziv, 1998, p. 178). Unlike other welfare laws, which address only specific disabilities or specific ways of their acquirement (such as veterans with disabilities), the ERPDL is cross-disability. The purpose of this Law is:

to protect the dignity and freedom of a person with a disability, to enshrine his right to equal and active participation in society in all the major spheres of life, and, furthermore, to provide an appropriate response to the special needs of a person with a disability, in such a way as to enable him to live with maximum independence, in privacy and in dignity, realizing his potential to the full (ERPDL, 1998).

The role of Bizchut in the enactment of this Law was considerable. As one activist has stated, "without Bizchut, the ERDPL would not have been legislated, or would have been legislated very differently" (Dagan, 2005). Bizchut's involvement in advancing disability rights, and especially the ERPDL, led the legislator to acknowledge the importance of including the disability community's voice in the legislation. Accordingly, a clause in the Equality Law gives disability rights organizations, such as Bizchut, a mandate to partake in future legislative stages of the new law, including the legislation of its regulations and its implementation. In line with the social model of disability and the human rights approach to disability (Quinn & Degener, 2002; Rioux, 2001), the incorporation of such a clause in the ERPDL reflects the recognition of the disability community as a marginalized and discriminated minority group, and provides it with legal tools to protect and advance its rights, which in turn may serve as another influential source of empowerment to the community.

Accessibility and visibility in the public sphere

Accessibility serves as a key criterion for equality of opportunities and real inclusion of people with disabilities in society. Accessibility is also identified as a visibility issue, asserting that the mere presence of people with disabilities in the community advances the elimination of prejudice and stigma, and creates further opportunities for the disability community to "partake in the political, public and professional life" of the larger society (Katz Committee, 1997, p. 42). The invisibility, i.e., the lack of awareness of the public and of policy-makers to the problems people with disabilities face (and of people with disabilities themselves), hinders policy reforms and solutions (Herr, 2001). Invisibility offers the main challenge to the human rights approach's attempt to accommodate the difference of disability in society. As such, the disability rights movement acts as a visibility project (Quinn & Degener, 2002). In Israel, visibility has a particular social and cultural importance in light of Weiss's (2002) claim that historically, Israeli society has excluded deviant bodies, especially people with disabilities, from its public sphere while idealizing the strong, masculine, healthy body of the pioneer, the sabra, the soldier, and the worker as part of its collective discourse and identity construction. An important tool in enhancing the visibility of the disability community has been the media, which Bizchut has used strategically to magnify its struggles. This strategy lends both concrete and ideological dimensions to the notion of visibility. Bizchut's efforts to turn legal petitions into media events aim to force a change in the public discourse and social perceptions of people with disabilities.

A recent legislative achievement of the Bizchut organization is the ratification of the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities (Second Amendment) (Accessibility) — 2005 on March 22, 2005. As accessibility became a common thing in many countries, and in light of prior legal achievements in this field, Bizchut advocates felt it was the right time to advance comprehensive accessibility legislation (Dagan, 2005). The new Accessibility Law requires that existing and new buildings, infrastructure and its surroundings, and public services be made accessible to people with physical, sensory, mental, developmental or cognitive disabilities, and allow them to enter, move, approach and fully enjoy any public place, space, or service. Similar to the ERPDL, the Accessibility Law also contains a clause which gives a special mandate to disability-rights organizations, such as Bizchut, to continue and play a major role in protecting disability rights.

Legal advocacy: Advancing change from below or a democracy of experts?

The literature contends that the passage of rights legislation is only a first step in securing the rights of minority groups in general and the disability community in particular. The second crucial step is a struggle for the interpretation of such legislation in the courts, because, through adjudication, courts determine the scope and moral and legal force of rights legislation (Albiston, 1999). Similarly, and in light of the judicial activism doctrine of the Israeli Supreme Court, direct litigation was chosen as Bizchut's key strategy in its attempts to advance disability rights and to influence the interpretation of the Equality Law by the courts. Relying upon the ERPDL and other legislation, Bizchut aims to achieve legal precedents that in turn may lead to broader policy or legal implications, since if one can establish a claim as a right, it is likely to trump competing claims that lack a similar moral basis. Litigation may also be viewed as an empowering practice, since it sets benchmarks and precedents that can be used in future battles.

It is important to remember, however, that "courts are passive institutions and depend on the private mobilization of rights to create both caseloads and rule-making opportunities" (Albiston, 1999, pp. 901-2). Likewise, court decisions, even favorable ones, may be detrimental to social-reform efforts if they only produce "the myth of rights", i.e. "that the judicially affirmed rights are self-implementing instruments of social justice" (Albiston, 1999, pp. 869-70). In addition, legal strategies divert limited resources, time, and energy from other social-change strategies, although most social movements recognize the need to use multiple strategies to advance change. Moreover, legal activism bears the risk of leading to a "democracy of experts" (Ben-Eliezer, 1999, p. 78). Since advocacy NGOs are not publicly elected bodies, they lack sufficient grassroots support and participation in the legal process, and they use professional legal discourse that often alienates the public they are supposed to represent (Mundlak, 2004). Similarly, Bizchut's activism bears the risk of disenfranchising the disability community from the struggle for its own rights, and most importantly, entails a principle problem to democracy when a society values the actions of lawyers more than it does grassroots initiatives. The fact that the Equality Law is mainly the product of legal professionals rather than of a grassroots disability rights movement (Herr, 2001) strengthens the tendency towards a "professionalized" disability politics. This is especially true in the case of a disadvantaged social group such as the disability community. Indeed, as a grassroots disability activist has attested, even today the disability community is not familiar enough with the implications of the ERPDL, nor does it yet fully embrace the language of human rights that is enshrined in the Law (Kraim, 2005).

To prevent the potential risk of a democracy of experts, Bizchut has often petitioned to the courts in collaboration with other disability organizations or individuals. Bizchut also operates a hotline for human rights violations, and today every court petition of Bizchut "practically starts from the hotline" (Dagan, 2005). Moreover, Bizchut has established a coalition of organizations to lobby and struggle jointly for the implementation of the Equality Law and further legislation, and to raise awareness of disability rights among the broader public, authorities, service providers, and the disability community. Most importantly, Bizchut's struggle for the ERPDL can be viewed as an empowerment process resulting in the emergence of new grassroots activism, as will be discussed later. While the ERPDL was initiated and led by Bizchut advocates, the grassroots support was crucial to the legislation process of the Equality Law. Despite the critique of using rights legislation and advocacy strategies, Bizchut's ongoing legal activism has allowed the disability community access to law-making procedures that would have otherwise been inaccessible. Bizchut serves as a repeat-player in courts which grants the organization the advantage of influencing rule-making through legislation (Albiston, 1999). Therefore, "legal rights advocacy can in some circumstances provide a useful resource for social movement building and strategic political actions" (McCann, 1991, p. 226).

To conclude, as a civil society actor, Bizchut has played a central role in advancing disability rights policy and legislative change, as well as furthering a major paradigm shift that embraces a human rights approach to disability. Most importantly, Bizchut's activism has engaged the community in the struggle for legislation and its implementation and empowered the disability community in what may eventually be regarded as the emergence of the Israeli disability movement. Therefore, Bizchut's activism has expanded the citizenship of the disability community and its participation in the public sphere, despite the prevailing risk of a democracy of experts (narrowing the citizenship of people with disabilities).

Going public: The disability community claiming a place and a voice

Dramatic events in the field of disability have taken place in recent years, not only in the legal field, but also in the streets. Between 1999 and 2001, the disability community turned to contentious politics in the form of two major disability protests, which were aimed at forcing the government to acknowledge and address the community's acute distress. This section analyzes the rise of the classical type of subpolitics, i.e., mass mobilization, in the field of disability in Israel. Following Doron (1999), I argue that although the protests have ostensibly challenged the retrenchment trend of the Israeli welfare state, in effect they served only to reinforce it. Nevertheless, the protests' importance lies beyond their limited policy effects, and has resulted in the emergence of the disability community as a new social actor that attempts to advance policy change from the bottom-up. The protests have also served as a multi-dimensional "visibility project" and challenged traditional social perceptions of people with disabilities. Contentious politics are characterized by collective behavior aimed at bringing about change in a non-institutional way. They are commonly used by social movements lacking the political power to affect public decision-making, since disruption has proven to be a powerful and successful political tool (Barnartt & Scotch, 2001). As Cloward and Fox-Piven (1984: pp. 588-9) attested, "the power of the poor is the power to disrupt." Therefore, the longer and the larger the disruption is, the more successful it will be. Similarly, the acute distress and lack of political power has forced the disability community to turn to contentious politics, and resulted in its garnering a place in the public sphere.

Israel's differentiated disability community

An important factor in the discussion of disability politics is the prevalence of the ideologies of Zionism and Labor in Israel up until the late 1970s. These ideologies have influenced disability policy and legislation in two main directions: first, they have led to an extensive disability welfare legislation based on needs and charity; and second, they forced an early commitment by the State to veterans with disabilities and individuals with work-related disabilities (Mor, 2006). Compared to General Disability Allowance recipients, these two groups have long had social spaces and organizations of their own, and are in a privileged position in terms of the benefits and services they receive from the State (Rimmerman & Herr, 2004). Furthermore, the General Disability Allowance and its regulations that discourage employment have left most of its recipients unemployed and beneath the poverty line, and prohibited them from receiving more than one disability benefit at a time. Many individuals with disabilities had to choose, for example, between Special Care Allowance and Mobility Allowance.

This separation has resulted in a differentiation within the disability community in Israel whereby the General Disability Allowance recipients became the most disadvantaged and impoverished group within the larger disability community. The financial distress of the General Disability Allowance recipients led a group of people with physical disabilities to hold three main disability protests in the mid-1970s through the 1980s, demanding improved benefits from the government. Although these demonstrations were important and partially effective in terms of outcomes, they garnered only a fraction of the public exposure and political impact that followed the more recent protests in 1999 and 2001 (Rimmerman & Herr, 2004). These two latter protests, as will be discussed below, signal a shift in public and political conceptualizations of disability from a personal to a structural problem. These disability protests represent a gradual understanding that the poor living conditions of the disability community are a result of public policy rather than of the disability itself, and that the current General Disability Allowance and benefits do not allow the community a life of dignity.

The first disability protest — 1999

On October 5, 1999, Israel experienced the first major national disability protest. The protest was initiated by over 100 people with mobility disabilities, but soon expanded to include other General Disability Allowance recipients from all over the country. Several catalysts have been identified in this protest, including the acute poverty of the General Disability Allowance recipients, the newly elected Labor government that failed to fulfill its promise for a wide social reform, and the growing empowerment of the disability community that was mobilized around the legislation process of the Equality Law. The protestors' main demands were:

  1. To implement the ERPDL that had come into effect earlier that year;
  2. To increase the General Disability Allowance for all recipients and to improve its benefits; and
  3. To cancel the prohibition on receiving more than one disability benefit at a time which forced many to choose between staying at home and receiving personal care or going out and losing that care.

Interestingly, Bizchut brought this issue to court a few years earlier but failed to cancel the prohibition on receiving more than one disability benefit at a time. This in itself attests to the need of using more than one social change strategy in order to create viable change.

What began as a quiet protest soon became a manifestation of power, persistence, and sporadic violence, during which the protestors announced a hunger strike, blocked roads, and occupied the Ministry of Finance's lobby. The protest received extensive support from private individuals, politicians, parents for children with disabilities, businesspersons, the National Students' Union, and the Lawyers' Bar, to name only a few. Although initially the protest did not include any disability organizations, it was able to gain the support of the larger disability community. Even the Tel-Aviv chapter of the veterans with disabilities organization eventually supported the protest. The protestors also received much organizational and negotiating support from the Histadrut (the largest workers' union in Israel), as well as legal support from the Bizchut organization. The media covered the protest extensively and had a seminal role in voicing the protesters' demands. The extent of this support was said to surprise even the protestors themselves (S. Benita, Personal communication, October 8, 2005; Fishbein, 1999).

In exchange for ending the protest, protesters succeeded in guaranteeing the cancellation of the one-benefit-only prohibition and in raising the General Disability Allowance to more than 2,000 children as well as to recipients with the most severe disabilities. Despite the compromises that were made on the original demands, reports in the media portrayed the protestors as remarkably victorious, itself a rare achievement in Israeli politics (Fishbein & Bassok, 1999). Moreover, the protest was perceived as a defining moment in terms of recognition of the disability movement, and the gaining of social space and political access, while proving to both the disability community and to Israeli society that people with disabilities had the ability to mobilize (Rimmerman & Herr, 2004). In fact, it is the first time the term 'disability movement' was used. Nevertheless, it was clear to protestors that "the struggle [was] not complete; we did not raise the General Disability Allowance [to all recipients]" (Fishbein & Bassok, 1999).

Indeed, the disability struggle did not end with the conclusion of the 1999 protest. Rather, the protest's leaders decided to use the momentum gained in the protest to form an organization. Consequently, the Centre for the Disabled People's Struggle was formed to affect public policy from the bottom-up by shaping public opinion and mobilizing individual and collective action. Such grassroots advocacy is advantageous in its ability to give a direct voice to disadvantaged groups, and to enhance the skills and social solidarity of its participants (Reid, 1999). The organization continued to represent the disability community in its negotiations with the Ministry of Finance. However, the acute distress of the disability community continued to worsen following the election of a conservative government in 2001. Following a failure of negotiations with the new government over its extensive cutbacks in welfare, the disability leaders announced that "we told [the Finance Minister] that if he did not put us in the budget, he would put us out in the streets" (Sinai, 2002a).

The second disability protest — 2001

On December 17, 2001, for the second time, people with disabilities stormed the streets in what they perceived as their "struggle for life" (Ben Simon, 2001). This time, the protest was thoroughly planned and organized by the grassroots organization's leaders and under the patronage of the Histadrut. The protest numbered hundreds of participants, lasted 77 days, and is considered one of the longest protests in the history of the State of Israel. The protesters demands included:

  1. To increase the General Disability Allowance and equate it to minimum wage as "…now it is time to improve the state of all disabled people" (Sinai & Zrahiya, 2001). Due to its huge budgetary implications, the Treasury heavily opposed this demand;
  2. To continue to receive the disability pension in addition to the old age pension upon retirement in order not to lose disability benefits;
  3. To match the General Disability benefits to the benefits received by veterans with disabilities and people with work-related disabilities; and
  4. In light of the resignation of Equality Commissioner Ophir, to reinstate her and to allocate the ERPDL Commission adequate resources for its operation.

This protest, to a greater extent than even the first one, was a militant, provocative, and forceful manifestation of power, reflecting the protestors' contentions that "…the only thing [the government] understands is power" (Haaretz, 2002). Throughout the protest, the Labor and Social Welfare Minister tried to negotiate with the government on behalf of the protestors, but the protestors rejected his patronizing approach and insisted on negotiating with the government themselves. In an attempt to find a long-term solution for the needs of people with disabilities, an agreement was eventually reached to raise the Allowance for most of its recipients, and to enable them to continue to receive it instead of the old-pension allowance upon retirement. The government also agreed to establish a public committee to extensively review the demands of the disability community and to propose a formula for a differentiated reduction of the Disability Allowance with the increase of income from employment, in order to encourage employment among the community. Again, these results were portrayed in the media as a significant budgetary and socio-political victory for the disability community (Kim, 2002; Sinai, 2002b).

As a disadvantaged and disempowered group lacking in political power, the disability community has been forced to use contentious politics to convey and demand a better address of its needs. Despite the success of the two protests, contentious politics is a short-term strategy that cannot substitute for long-term participation in decision-making arenas. In addition, due to the lengthy regional turbulence and its effect on Israel's economy, and due to recent major cutbacks on welfare expenditures, economic distress is widely felt among many groups beyond the disability community, and Israeli society is becoming weary of social protests. Yet, as Drake (1999) claims, contentious politics are essential to bringing positive change in disability policy. Most importantly and excluding all other gains, the protests' main achievements are in providing people with disabilities a voice, self-representation and leadership, and in claiming the disability community's place in the public sphere. Today, owing to these protests, the disability community is a social actor that can no longer be ignored or regarded as 'invisible'. Through the protests, the disability community also became "visible" to itself by initiating an internal process of developing political identity and raising disability consciousness. In other words, the contribution of the two protests lies in the increasing politicization of disability needs-claims and the development of a political community consciousness.

Between needs and social and economic rights

Nancy Fraser (1989) has claimed that in late capitalist welfare-state societies, needs-claims are politically contested issues and constitute a political discourse in which inequalities are symbolically elaborated and challenged. In this view, hegemonic groups are able to impose their interpretations of needs to fit their own interests and to depoliticize needs-claims by interpreting them as economic or private issues rather than issues of public concern. Thus, she suggests that social groups resisting hegemonic forces shift from focusing on the distribution of needs satisfactions to focusing on the politics of needs interpretation. Following Fraser, I suggest that the rise of the Israeli disability movement represents a politics of needs interpretation whereby hegemonic forces (the government) have attempted to de-politicize protestors' demands by addressing disability needs as matters of financial restraints on the state budget rather than as a socio-political agenda. In contrast, as a social group, the disability community has through its protests shown a slow yet growing politicization of disability needs claims.

The discourse of social and economic rights offers a further politicization of disability needs claims as they were presented in the protests. Indeed, the politicization of disability needs intensified from the first to the second protest, wherein the protestors' demand for a life of dignity shifted toward what I interpret as a social and economic rights discourse. Protestors advanced two main arguments: first, that the public sphere was not adequately accessible to people with disabilities, who could not, as a result, join the labor force; and second, that to ensure a life of dignity to individuals with disabilities, the General Disability Allowance must be increased (Kraim, 2005). The protest's spokesperson emphasized this shift to a rights-based discourse by claiming that "the gap between us and the government is not financial; it is ideological. The government has not yet internalized the principle that the [General Disability] allowance answers a need that is its duty to address" (Sinai, 2002a). The government was reluctant to agree to a wide-scale adjustment of the disability allowance, believing that this would lead to demands from other underprivileged groups such as the elderly. Unsurprisingly, some have claimed that the disability struggle would serve as a model for other disempowered groups to claim their rights. Moreover, despite the protestors' persistence and uncompromising stand, they were not able to effectively challenge the structure and underlying rationales of the General Disability Allowance (Mor, 2006) or the retrenchment trend of the Israeli welfare state. Additionally, the public committee that was appointed after the 2001 protest was able to depoliticize their needs-claims by offering an individualized solution rather than a systemic change. Most importantly, despite initial evidence of a shift towards a discourse of social and economic rights between the first and the second protest, the disability community is only at the beginning of this process, and did not fully adopt a political consciousness of disability which is essential for advancing the rights and needs of people with disabilities. The politicization of needs interpretations, i.e. adoption of a political disability consciousness, occurred mainly at the leadership level, and even there to a limited extent. In this sense, the disability movement still has a long way to go.


Based on the Israeli case study, I conclude that in the case of disability, any needs-claims for a life of dignity should be regarded and advanced as a social and economic rights demand. As the literature shows, disability allowances and benefits are essential for ensuring a life of dignity for the disability community, as well as for ensuring its ability to exercise its civil rights (Barnartt & Scotch, 2001; Pfeiffer, 1993). Moreover, shifting from a needs-based discourse to a social and economic rights discourse can afford the Israeli disability community's struggle a few essential benefits. First, it is necessary to politicize disability needs-claims in light of diminishing social solidarity, the rapid increase in socio-economic gaps, and the vast retrenchment of welfare policies. Second, the shift from welfare to rights is empowering to any deprived and disempowered community. Third, the retrenchment trend of the welfare state has already led other social groups to demand social and economic rights through the judicial system. Fourth, the current legal struggle for disability rights through the Equality Law may inform and advance the grassroots struggle for social and economic rights. Lastly, social and economic rights bring the social model and the human rights approach to disability to a point of convergence for two reasons: first, because the social model of disability perceives people with disabilities' state of acute and systemic financial distress as an outcome of state policy that constitutes a violation of social and economic rights, or in other words, as disablement; and second, because both the human rights approach to disability, and social and economic rights, essentially derive from the value of human dignity. Thus, social and economic rights may also bring the grassroots struggle for larger disability needs, i.e., the struggle for a life of dignity, and the legal struggle for disability rights to a point of convergence. To put it differently, the demand for social and economic rights and the inherent demand for distributive justice they entail may advance the struggle for disability needs and rights another essential step forward. Thus, the shift to a discourse of social and economic rights may thicken the interpretation of full equality and social inclusion of the disability community in Israel.

In this paper, I have attempted to demonstrate how both the legal activism of the Bizchut organization and the grassroots protests have brought changes in disability legislation and policy that have transformed the disability community into an active social actor that participates regularly and forcefully in policy- and decision-making on disability issues. The emergence of the disability movement was provoked by the struggle over the enactment of the ERPDL led by the Bizchut organization, and legal struggles for disability rights have since engendered a new political consciousness in the disability community. Unlike the Equality Law, however, the disability protests and grassroots organization have mobilized the disability community around issues of needs, rather than issues of rights. Nevertheless, as the disability community becomes increasingly involved in the legal rights struggle, the struggle for social security increasingly takes the shape of a social and economic rights struggle, and not merely a demand for larger disability allowances. I suggest that politicizing disability needs depends heavily on community consciousness and a realization of structural disadvantages and barriers to inclusion.

The grassroots activism and Bizchut's work, despite their use of different strategies, discourses, and goals, are both essential to the advancement of the rights and needs of the disability community. These two actors represent the gaining of voice and place for people with disabilities in the public sphere, and together they constitute the visibility project of the Israeli disability community. However, it is yet to be determined whether they will be able to change not only legislation and policy, but also public attitudes towards people with disabilities. It is also yet to be seen how the equality legislation will be interpreted by the courts, and whether the grassroots organization will adopt a political consciousness of disability, and will further advocate for disability rights rather than disability needs alone. Lastly, it remains to be seen whether legal and grassroots actors will continue to collaborate in the future and offer the disability community a thick interpretation of the meaning of a life of dignity and of full social inclusion. These two civil society actors are, in any case, likely to continue to play a major role in shaping disability politics in Israel.


  • Albiston, C. (1999). The rule of law and the litigation process: The paradox of losing by winning. Law & Society Review 33(4), pp. 869-910.
  • Barak, A. (1998). The role of the Supreme Court in democracy. Israel Studies 3(2):6-29.
  • Barnartt, S. & Scotch, R. (2001). Disability protests: Contentious politics 1970-1999. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet Univ. Press.
  • Beck, U. (1994). The reinvention of politics: Towards a theory of reflexive modernization. In: U. Beck, A. Giddens & S. Lash, Reflexive modernism: Politics, tradition and aesthetics in the modern social order (pp. 1-55). Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.
  • Ben-Eliezer, U. (1999). Is a civil society emerging in Israel? Politics and identity in the new associations. Israeli Sociology 2(1), pp. 51-97 [Heb.].
  • Ben Simon, D. (2001). The Treasury locked the washrooms. Haaretz Daily Newspaper, December 19.
  • Bizchut. (2003). Bizchut, 1993-2003, ten year report. Retrieved on July, 12, 2006 from: http://www.bizchut.org.il/eng/upload/publications/Tenyearenglishfinal.pdf
  • Cloward, R. & Fox-Piven, F. (1984). Disruption and organization: A rejoinder [to William A. Gamson & Emillie Schmeidler]. Theory and Society 13(4), pp. 587-599.
  • Dagan, N. (2005). Personal communication, December 26, 2005. [Advocate and legal advisor, Bizchut].
  • Doron, A. (2001). Fifty years of social security in the making: A participant's journey. In: A. Ben-Arieh & J. Gal (Eds.), Into the promised land: Issues facing the welfare state (pp. 87-98). Westport, CT: Praeger.
  • --- . (1999). Social welfare policy in Israel: Developments in the 1980s and 1990s. In: D. Nachmias & G. Menahem (Eds.), Public policy in Israel (pp. 437-474). Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute [Heb.].
  • --- & Kramer, R.M. (1991). The welfare state in Israel: The evolution of social security, policy and practice. Boulder, CO: Westview Press
  • Drake, R. (1999). Understanding disability policies. London: Macmillan.
  • Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law — 1998
  • Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law (Amendment no. 2) (Accessibility) — 2005
  • Fishbein, E. (1999). Negotiations between the disabled people and the Treasury resume. Haaretz Daily Newspaper, October 21
  • --- & Bassok, M. (1999). The government decided unanimously: All the demands of the disabled people will be met. Haaretz Daily Newspaper, November 8.
  • Fraser, N. (1989). Talking about needs: Interpretive contents as political conflicts in welfare-state societies. Ethics 99(2), pp. 291-313.
  • Gidron, B. (1997). The evolution of Israel's third sector: The role of predominant ideology. Voluntas 8(1), pp. 11-38.
  • Gross, A. (1998). The politics of rights in Israeli constitutional law. Israel Studies 3(2): 80-118.
  • Herr, S.S. (2001). Reforming disability nondiscrimination laws: A comparative perspective. University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 35(1/2), pp. 305-401.
  • Holzer, B. & Sorensen, M. (2003). Rethinking subpolitics: Beyond the 'iron cage' of modern politics? Theory, Culture & Society 20(2), pp. 79-102.
  • Katz Committee. (1997). The public committee for a comprehensive review of the legislation regarding people with disabilities. Submitted to the Minister of Justice and to the Minister of Labour and Welfare. Jerusalem, Israel, July 1997.
  • Kim, H. (2002). Disabled people on behalf of all needy. Haaretz Daily Newspaper, March 5.
  • Kraim, Y. (2005). Personal communication, September 19, 2005. [Disability activist]
  • Kretzmer, D. (1999). Israel's basic laws on human rights. In: A.M. Rabello (Ed.), Israeli reports to the XV International Congress of Comparative Law (pp. 293-316). Jerusalem: The Sacher Institute for Legislative Research and Comparative Law.
  • Lebel, U. (2002). Cracks in the mirror of military hegemony: The courts and the media as agents of civil society. In: D. Korn (Ed.), Public policy in Israel: Perspectives and practices (pp. 205-223). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
  • McCann, M. (1991). Legal mobilization and social reform movements: Notes on theory and its application. Studies in Law, Politics, and Society 11, pp. 225-254.
  • Mor, S. (2006). Between charity, welfare, and warfare: A disability legal studies analysis of privilege and neglect in Israeli disability policy. Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 18(1), pp. 63-137.
  • Mundlak, G. (2004). 50 years to the National Insurance Law: The celebrations will take place in the courtroom. Social Security 67, pp. 83-108 [Heb.].
  • Ophir, A. (2005). Personal communication, October 27, 2005. [Former executive director of Bizchut and the former ERPDL Commissioner
  • --- & Orenstein, D. (2001). Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law 1998: Emancipation at the end of the 20th century. In: A. Barak et al. (Eds.), Sefer Menahem Goldberg (pp. 41-87). Tel Aviv: Sadan [Heb.].
  • ---. (1993). Overview of the disability movement: History, legislative record, and political implications. Policy Studies Journal 21(4), pp. 724-735.
  • The Planning and Building Act (Special Arrangements for Disabled People in Public Buildings) (Amendment) — 1981
  • Quinn, G. & Degener, T. (2002). The moral authority for change: Human rights values and the worldwide process of disability reform. In: G. Quinn, T. Degener et al. (Eds.), Human rights and disability: The current use and future potential of United Nations Human Rights Instruments in the context of disability (pp. 13-28). New York; Geneva: United Nations.
  • Reid, E. (1999). Nonprofit advocacy and political participation. In: E. Boris & E. Steuerle (Eds.), Nonprofits and governments: Collaboration and conflict (pp. 291-328). Washington D.C.: The Urban Institute.
  • Rimmerman, A. & Herr, S. (2004). The power of the powerless: A study on the Israeli disability protest of 1999. Journal of Disability Policy Studies 15(1), pp. 12-18.
  • Rioux, M. (2001). Bending towards justice. In: L. Barton (Ed.), Disability politics & the struggle for change (pp. 34-47). London: David Fulton.
  • Shachar Botzer and Others v. the 'Macabim-Reut' Municipality and Others (HCJ 7081/93)
  • Sheleff, L. (2003). Two different models for the protection of human rights: An American model versus a potential Israeli model. In: Y.Z. Stern & Y. Zilbershats (Eds.), Law in Israel: A prospective approach (pp. 199-235). Ramat-Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan Univ. Press [Heb.].
  • Sinai, R. (2002a). Ideological gaps translate into financial differences. Haaretz Daily Newspaper, January 8
  • ---. (2002b). The disability protest ended, now begins the struggle for financing the agreement. Haaretz Daily Newspaper, March 4.
  • --- & Zrahiya, Z. (2001). Benizri refused to show the disabled people the compromised he formed. Haaretz Daily Newspaper, December 28.
  • Special Education Act — 1988
  • Weiss, M. (2002). The chosen body: The politics of the body in Israeli society. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.
  • Zalmanovitch, Y. (1998). Transitions in Israel's policymaking networks. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 555, 193-208.
  • Ziv, N. (2005). Personal communication, September 21, 2005. [Former Bizchut activist and Tel Aviv University professor]
  • ---. (1998). Disability law in Israel and the United States: A comparative perspective. Israel Yearbook on Human Rights 28, pp. 171-202.
  • --- & Shamir R. (2003). Build your house: Big politics and small politics in the struggle against land discrimination. In: Y. Shenhav (Ed.), Space, land, home (pp. 84-112). Jerusalem: The Van Leer Jerusalem Institution [Heb].


  1. This research was conducted in affiliation with York University, Toronto, Canada.
    Return to Text
  2. Israel's Declaration of Independence includes a commitment to adopt a constitution no later than October 1948, however, due to a political controversy this matter was postponed indefinitely, and today Israel still does not have a constitution. Hence, a compromise was reached in 1950 according to which the Knesset (Israeli parliament) would legislate a series of basic laws that would eventually be consolidated into a constitution. However, until 1992, the Basic Laws that were legislated dealt only with the institutional aspects of the formal democracy. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and in the absence of constitutional legislation that would enshrine individual and civil rights, the Supreme Court developed an expansive rights jurisprudence that came to be known as Israel's 'judicial bill of rights,' i.e., Israel's judicial development of rights (Gross, 1998). In 1992, the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, and the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation were passed, and are referred to since then as Israel's 'constitutional revolution' (Kretzmer, 1999; Gross, 1998; Zalmanovitch, 1998). Soon after their passage, the Supreme Court stated in a ruling that these Basic Laws had precedence over ordinary laws due to their constitutional status. "In the years to come, these Laws provided the grounds for the Supreme Court's legal intervention into a range of public issues" (Lebel, 2002:209). Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Barak perceives these two Basic Laws coupled with the Declaration of Independence as Israel's de facto constitution (Barak, 1998), placing human dignity at the core of the Israeli legal system (Sheleff, 2003).
    Return to Text