A midnight walk through the Rothschild Boulevard protest camp
Tel Aviv – On the corner of Allenby Street and Rothschild Boulevard, a Jewish supremacists’ group is conducting fierce arguments with several bystanders. I am spotting former Kahane men, Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben Gvir, accompanied by “hilltop youth,” the radical settler teens, notorious for harassing Palestinians, who are now standing across the street from the busy pubs and food places, a bit bewildered, wearing tee-shirts saying “Tel Aviv is for Jews.” Rumors are that a couple of their tents were burned by leftists. While the older kids argue, the younger ones are standing in the back, staring at the night traffic at one of the city’s busiest junctions.
It is almost midnight. This part of the city is always packed on weekends, but right now it’s so crowded it’s practically impossible to walk. Around 400 tents are scattered along the boulevard. Hundreds of young Israelis are lying between them on mattresses and old furniture, drinking, smoking, playing music, talking with “tourists”—the unofficial name for the visitors to Israel’s first and largest social protest camp site—and mostly arguing about politics.
A hundred yards up, the boulevard is blocked by a large white structure made of plastic bars and fabric. A sign on it declares “revolution of love.” Inside a DJ playing loud trance music. Several dozen people are dancing around. Further up, the Divorced Fathers’ party is beginning their routine march. A short, emotional speaker calls into a megaphone: “I want to see my daughter. I want to take her to Rothschild Boulevard. She is calling to me “Daddy!’” as he screams the last word, the crown answers “Daddy!”
On the corner of Nahmani Street, I meet Yuval Ben Ami, Daniela Cheslow and a girl I don’t know, sitting on a bench. Yuval is holding an acoustic guitar. He says he has never seen anything like it, admits that the atmosphere is too intense for him to even write about right now. He invites me to sit with them, but I prefer to continue. As I say my goodbyes, an elderly woman, dressed in black, approaches Yuval and asks him to play a song by Bob Dylan.
This is no longer about housing. The papers are discussing economical figures and social plans, but something very different is taking place on Rothschild Boulevard. It seems that everyone who has something to say came here, put up a tent and started shouting. The euphoria of the first few days of the struggle is still present, but the tension is rapidly building. People still play music and discuss politics, but many fear violence. I am told that the original group that started the protest doesn’t sleep in this tent camp anymore, after receiving threats to their lives.
Yet the camp seems to grow by the day. There are tents everywhere, and in between them stands and people handing leaflets in the middle of the night. There are tents for animals rights, for drafting the ultra-orthodox to the IDF (would you like to sign the petition?), tents built by the Communist party, tents for settling the north of Israel with Jews, a joint Jewish-Arab camp named “Tent 1948,” a tent of social workers dealing with disadvantaged youth (their services have been privatized, and they demand the state give them a formal contract), tents representing art students, a new-age circle of tents with the inevitable girl explaining about the power of inner peace to heal society, a small camp populated by physiology interns, and more, much more. In between, dozens of signs: “Bibi has sold us out”; “The market is free. Are you?”; “Tahrir, corner of Rothschild”; “we are non-political”; “Lock your doors, billionaires.”
What does it all mean? With every day that I visit this place, it seems less calling for political analysis and more for a novelist, or a Gonzo-style journo.
All around the country, the social protest goes on. Just today, there have been more demonstrations in Tel Aviv than in an average month. A parents’ march for free pre-school education; cab drivers blocked a major road in protest of the rising petrol prices; farmers protested against lowering the tariffs on dairy products; several thousands union people had a rally in front of their headquarter. There is a tent camp in almost every city; some of them are yet to be discovered by the media, like the Ethiopian Jews’ tent camp, half an hour from Tel Aviv. Someone visited them and tweeted: “They ask for water tanks, signs and a singer with a guitar.”
Some of these protest echo things we have seen before, and the main novelty is that they come all at once. But in some places, and most of all on Rothschild Boulevard, something else is going on. Over here, the political festival is getting wilder every evening. A couple of nights ago, Channel 2′s live panel from the Boulevard was heckled so badly, they had to cut the broadcast after half an hour. They will not be broadcasting from here anymore. Yesterday, Army Radio, which has been here for a week or so, was chased away. No policemen are in sight. Freedom is exciting, and scary.
“The donation box has been stolen!” someone is shouting over loud speakers. A small gathering of young students is discussing Saturday’s planned rally, while next to them a dozen hipsters are playing old songs on a laptop and dancing between two tents. Temperature is over 80 degrees Farenheit, and it’s incredibly humid. August is always a wild month in the city.
A couple of old men with long gray hair are sitting on a bench, smoking and smiling. There is a large Indian tent on the corner of Sheinkin Street. Next to it, a group of Breslov Hasidim are singing Hanukah songs to a tribal rhythm, and a large crowd joins them. On the other side, the divorced fathers are making their return tour; and right at the junction itself, on the road, a homeless junkie has turned a large garbage bin upside down and is looking through the trash for cigarettes while the cars honk as they maneuver around him. “I want to take my daughter to Rothschild Boulevard,” calls the leader of the divorced fathers’ march. “I want to show her how to build a tent. ‘Daddy!!!”
The homeless guy lifts an empty water bottle in the air. “Daddy!” he answers.