The Big Tel Aviv Protest: A Firsthand Account

No, I didn’t fly to Israel over the weekend to attend the Sept. 3 protest. (I was home with a sick child; otherwise I would have, honest!) But I’m happy to be able to share a (long) account by my friend Hillel Schenker.

Background: This summer saw a series of protests and demonstrations by Israelis over basic economic and social needs — seeking more affordable housing, lower food prices, less of a gap between very rich and poor etc.

For decades, Israelis have shied away from such bread-and-butter demands because of security worries: Who can justify complaining about the price of cottage cheese when shells are falling on towns near the Golan or Gaza? So it’s really significant that  thousands of Israelis were fed up enough with rising inequality and the Netanyahu government to create tent cities in Tel Aviv and take to the streets.

Tel Aviv, Sept. 3, 2011 / Photo by Hillel Schenker

The latest demonstration was on Saturday Sept. 3rd. Organizers had called for a million-person march, and got significantly less than that, but it was still a strong turnout, particularly coming on the heels of renewed attacks from Gaza.

Hillel is a Tel Aviv resident and a fellow alum of the youth group Hashomer Hatzair (although he was a member a little before my time). He’s a longtime activist in the Israeli peace movement, and currently co-editor with Ziad AbuZayyad of the Palestine-Israel Journal. Somehow, through the ups and downs of Mideast events, he remains grounded and optimistic and committed to a two-state solution. I deeply trust his political judgment. If I lived in Israel, I like to think I’d be doing what he does. Here’s his account.

Where Were You on Sept. 3, 2011? The Big Demo in Tel Aviv

By Hillel Schenker

The signs all over Tel Aviv leading up to the big demonstration read “Where were you on September 3, 2011?”  Well, I was together with 450,000 Israelis on the streets, over 300,000 in Tel Aviv alone, with another 50,000 in Jerusalem, and 100, 000 in Haifa and the north.

‪As I headed out for Habima Square, I felt a slight anxiety attack: there seemed to be too few people heading towards the Rothschild Blvd. Tent City headquarters. But the people kept coming. When I arrived at the “command headquarters,” everyone was in the midst of making makeshift homemade signs to carry, alongside the professional placards.  The main attraction was a French artist who set up a photographic studio on the square, and lines of people were entering to have their photo taken and then converted into a placard which presented the face of the revolution — you and me, every one of us.  The placards were plastered above the nearby banks and supermarkets which are among the targets of the demonstration, on the square itself, and later held on high by some of the model/demonstrators, some carrying their own image, some carrying images of others.‪

‪In this digital age it was hard to tell the formal media from the citizen digital journalist/artist/documentarians since everyone was taking pictures of everyone else.  People seemed to want to have a record that they were there on this historic day.

‪Among the attractions at the starting point was a protestor proudly waving a Che Guevera flag, a man in an Israeli flag mask and costume, and even a life-size mannequin of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who just marked his 5th year in captivity in Gaza on the back of a motor cycle.

‪ There were clusters of organized demonstrators — from the Israeli student union wearing blue shirts; green flags and “Bring Back the Welfare State” placards among the Meretz people; red flags and placards from the Hadash (Communist) people; the City for All of Us faction and the Arab-Jewish proletarian Da’am party and the National Left people with a placard of a smirking Netanyahu with the slogan “You’re Fired!”, but mainly just plain people with their home-made signs.

‪My favorite was a toddler who obviously just learned to walk (more or less), who had a slogan on the back of his shirt saying “I cost a whole months’ salary for upkeep”.  I complained to his mother that the slogan didn’t stand still long enough to take a clear photo, and she just smiled, what can I do? I’m just his mother.

His shirt reads, "I cost a whole month's salary." / Photo by Hillel Schenker

‪‪And then there were the two guys wearing a “We don’t need sex/we’re fucked enough by Netanyahu” t-shirt, who complained that my flash didn’t go off when I photographed them.  Don’t worry I said.

‪The march headed out with drums, whistles and slogans, placards and flags held high, and turned left on Ibn Gvirol Street.  The most popular slogans were “The People Demand Social Justice (Ha’am doresh/tzedek chevrati“, “Hoo, hah, look who’s coming/ the welfare state (Hoo ha, mi zeh bah/medinat harevacha)” and “The state is crumbling/get off your porches (Ha medina koreset/t’zu min hamirpeset)”, the latter two rhyming in Hebrew.

‪‪Truth is, even the porches were participating, with groups of people with pots and pans banging out their solidarity.

‪As the throng neared the imposing Tel Aviv Municipal building overlooking Rabin Square where the prime minister was assassinated 16 years ago, a big whooshing protest noise was heard — perhaps because this was the only establishment symbol along the route.  This despite the fact that Mayor Ron Huldai, who declares that he is a social democrat, allowed the Tent City to squat on Rothschild Blvd, making no attempt to remove it.  Opposite the stairs where Rabin was shot, I see a protestor carrying a sign — “Walk like an Egyptian.”

‪Yair Yanov, who was together with me on the Peace Now national leadership forum in the mid-90s, explains all of the mistakes that the organizers have made.  The route is too long and people are tired – and how could the Noar Haoved V’lomed (Habonim) youth decide to go directly to the square rather than participate in the march?  He’s skeptical and somewhat pessimistic. My response: Just remember that two weeks ago with the attack in the south and the security crisis, people were afraid that the protest would end. They never imagined that it was possible to revive it and have so many people participate.  And believe me – this will have a profound, long term impact.

‪‪We pass Arlozoroff Street near the Histadrut (General Federation of Labor) headquarters, the street named after Chaim Arlozoroff, one of the militant leaders of the pre-state labor movement who was presumably assassinated by followers of right-wing Revisionist leader Jabotinsky, the next street that we turn into to head towards our goal, Kikar Hamedina, the State Square, surrounded by Heh B’Iyar Street, the Hebrew date for the day that State of Israel was declared in 1948.   Zionist history in a nutshell.  And someone is carrying a placard — “The War for Independence 2011”.

‪‪When I was on the kibbutz, every year the circus would come to town and set up a big tent in State Square.  We would pile into a truck with the kids and come to the city to see the animals, daredevils and clowns.  Now there are circuses without animals, animal rights groups are also among the protesters, and State Square is surrounded by upscale shops and upper class homes.  It’s also the biggest open space available in the Tel Aviv, which is why it was chosen to host “the mother of all protests”.

‪‪The old order is over  — “we are the “New Israel” proclaims Yitzhak Shmuli (31), the articulate and charismatic head of the National Student Union. In a brilliant if somewhat demagogic speech, he declares that we will continue the protest as if there was no Government Trachtenberg Committee, and we will carry out a dialogue with the committee as if there was no protest.  Careful not to mention the words peace, or even social justice, he gives a powerful rabble-rousing speech, says that the protesters are in it for the long haul, and introduces the name of a potential new political party that may evolve out of the protest movement, Yisrael Chadasha/New Israel.  Shmuli rushed back from overseas to participate in the protest, and is reading Jon Lee Anderson’s biography of “Che Guevera: A Revolutionary Life” in its Hebrew translation.  I remember Anderson and his brother Scott, when they worked with us at New Outlook on an investigative journalism project on Israeli arms dealings with questionable regimes in South America.

Sign with photo of Netanyahu says "You're fired!" / Photo by Hillel Schenker

‪‪Cinema student Dafni Leef (25) is Shmuli’s counterpart, and in many ways opposite. She began the whole process seven weeks ago when she announced an “Event” on Facebook and with a few friends set up the first tent on Rothschild Blvd.  People knew that Saturday night’s demo would be a success because 350,000 people had already pressed the Facebook button Yes, not No or Maybe, to the question of whether they were coming to the 9/3/11 “Event”. Leef gave a passionate, very personal speech:  They tried to slander us, at first calling us spoiled brats, sushi and nargila (water pipe) lovers.  Then they said we were left-wing extremists.  And then they said the attack in the south would cause us to fold up our tents, and they didn’t understand that we were mourning for the loss of innocent lives, but were not giving up.  And then they attacked me personally — referring to the fact that a right-wing organization had discovered that in 2002 when she was 17 she had signed the annual 12th graders letter declaring a refusal to serve in the army in the Occupied Territories, a variation on the letter my son Adi and 250 other 12th graders signed in 2005. Leef defiantly declared that the reason she didn’t serve in the IDF was for health reasons (epileptic fits), she would have served otherwise, and she volunteered for a year and half to help problematic youth in disadvantaged neighborhood, giving service to society.   “I am in the center, and no one can push me into a corner!”  They will not cause us to stand down, or give up. She also dared to attack the current form of Israeli capitalism as the root of all evil. A hush came over the crowd when she recalled a poet friend who committed suicide two months before the protest began, because he felt that given the state of Israeli society, he couldn’t dream, couldn’t be a poet.  We must create a society where young people can have the right to dream, to be poets she exclaimed.

‪Motti Ashkenazi was there to recall the popular protest he started after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, though most of the people around me seemed to be wondering who he was.  There was also an impressive 11th grade teacher, leader of the teacher’s protests, who spoke about Jewish-Arab solidarity, and the right to quality education for all, a passionate single mother from a development town studying at the Kibbutz Movement Educational Seminary who shouted “Wake up Israel!,” Prof. Yossi Yonah, one of the heads of the advisory committees set up to advise the protest movement on policy, and even veteran stage personality/performer Rivka Michaeli, who said she was representing the senior citizens.

‪There were a few signs stating “Social Justice = An End to the Occupation”.  The issue of peace and security was not at center stage, but that will come.  There was also one lone sign held by two youth protesting against “Dafni Leef and her hallucinatory leftwing friends — this protest belongs to all of us”, but they seemed to be ignored by the masses.

‪And of course there was music, there is no revolution without music  — Hayehudim (The Jews), one of the leading punk rock groups (clearly not to everyone’s taste), Dag Nachash, the popular Israeli hip hop/funk group led by Sha’anon Street who totally identifies with the protest movement in word and song, and Mizrachi singer Eyal Golan, considered perhaps the most popular Israeli singer during the past decade, and also not a bad soccer player, who had the young people swaying in the square.

‪So what does it all mean?

‪First of all, the 9/3/11 demonstration was a tremendous success, against all odds.  But it is not an ad-hoc one time phenomenon.  It is the climax of an extraordinary, unexpected Israeli summer of social protest, a link in the chain of grassroots social protests sweeping the Middle East, Europe and Latin America in the spring and summer of 2011.

‪There will be no overnight revolutionary transformation in Israeli life.  But as Dafni Leef declared, the movement has initiated a fundamental change in the Israeli discourse.  And as all of the young leaders and most of the commentators state that the events of this past summer will have a profound impact on the long term direction of Israeli society.  There were placards which read “We’re Going into Politics — Register for a Party — Change from Within!” not calling for joining any particular party, but to simply get involved in the process.  During the past decade, the percentage of Israelis voting in national elections dropped from 85% to 62%.   That is going to change, particularly among the previously apathetic, sometimes hedonistic and fatalistic younger generation and middle class, and also among the 20% of the Palestinian Arab citizens. Old parties will have to change or step aside, and new forces may emerge.

‪And the Trachtenberg Committee will come forward with its recommendations, and both the government and the protesters will have to respond to them.

‪The summer of 2011 will be a summer to remember, a summer which has aroused a sense of forgotten pride in many Israelis.

‪Now the hard work continues.

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