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Between euphoria and anarchy: Tel Aviv's revolutionary festival

A midnight walk through the Rothschild Boulevard protest camp

Kahane follower Itamar Ben Gvir arguing with leftwing protesters that demand their expulsion from the tent camp. Tel Aviv, August 4 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

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.

A girl standing next to a sign that reads "Punk is not dead!" on Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

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    1. @ Noam – really enjoyed this. Perhaps you can wear the Gonzo-journalist-hat every now and then to satisfy those of us (myself included) who could use more of it regarding these protests.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Already more than 300.000 according to Haaretz. And that on a population of, what is it, 7 million? And virtually no coverage here in Europe. Makes you wonder how many uprisings go unnoticed.

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    3. weinstein henry

      Ben Israel, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is not a fable about “mass uprisings” against the Israeli system, but a fable about Stalinism & Fascism, about totalitarian systems, and you know that, being educated.
      If you are so terrified by this Israeli ‘sedition’, then maybe you should seek asylum in Saudi Arabia.

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    4. Ben Israel

      Animal Farm was about a mass uprising that got hijacked by a totalitarian gang and how it was easy for them to get the rank and file animals to go along with giving up their freedom bit by bit.
      It is not enough to overthrow a bad government. You have to replace it with something constructive. The anarchists of a century ago claimed that there was no need for government. Once the masses overthrew the bad regimes in power, the fact that ‘people were naturally good and willing to share with each other’ would automatically bring about the anarchist dream paradise in which no government was neeeded (this is just another version of Marx’s ultimate Communist goal of ‘the whithering away of the state’). George Bernard Shaw then asked the anarchists ‘if people are so naturally good, how did the bad governments come into power in the first place’?.
      I am not ‘afraid of this sedition’. What I am afraid of is that people will think the ‘mass uprising’ is successful if the government then carries out some half-hearted reforms but then the long-haul effort needed in the parliamentary system will be neglected. The ONLY way to carry out real reforms is to work within the parliamentary system and get people to cooperate and get the necessary compromises in a wise way. Remember the cottage cheese boycott? (I participated in that one). Today, the gov’t announced a plan to increase competition in the dairy industry and to allow imports of dairy products to lower prices. Immediately, the dairy farmers carried out demonstrations all over the country. Now, what are you going to do…are you going to please the consumers and stop protecting the dairy producers who are probably inefficient because of decades of government protection, or are you going to preserve their interests? These things need to be worked out in a cool, reasoned way. Mass demonstrations are not conducive to it.
      Recall the big Leftist uprising in France in May 1968? It almost lead to the paralysis of the country and the overthrow of the government. In the end I heard it described as really nothing more than a ‘gigantic panty raid’. De Gaulle called a snap election a couple of months later and the conservative Right won a big victory. After De Gaulle stepped down he was succeeded by Pompidou and Giscard-d’Estaing, both of whom were conservatives. So the Left should not get its hopes up and think that turning out some big crowds mean that they are going to take over or that they are going to get their way.

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    5. Adam

      No police?
      I have been down to Rothschild in a few days, but don’t remember seeing many police. The city has a duty to keep the protesters and citizens safe – given the unpredictability of large crowds, that place should be swarming with police. If it isn’t, is that a conscious choice by the city? Or are police just avoiding the place because they aren’t paid enough to get involved…?

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    6. Adam


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    7. Weinstein henry

      Ben Israel, I don’t blame you to be warry of mass social revolts, but frankly I don’t see how the Israeli protests could be the prelude to a communist revolution. It has on the surface a flavour of Mai 68 en France: young citizens demonstrating to shake the system without having a revolutionary agenda in mind.
      Whatever the spin doctors can say, such mass demonstrations reveal deep social fractures within a society. When such spontaneous uncontrollable events happened despite social control, it is because the political system & the ruling establishment have failed to address crucial issues for its citizens. And it’s not the parliamentary system in itself which infuriated them, it’s the way the parliamentary system & the electoral system, which should work for the common good, have been privatized by the ruling class (same story in Great Britain, and in the USA).
      When a majority of citizens couldn’t help but notice their votes are useless & their politicians out of reach, then they logically question the rules of the game. And the average American, Israeli, British, French citizens are on the same boat: our wonderful new global market world, which actually looks like the Titanic. Maybe it’s time to ask to change the rules, or at least to ask for a good captain & leadership.
      And to think some people here on + 972 are still lamenting the elephant in the room is the Occupation, sneering because the Israeli citizens are demonstrating ‘only’ for a better future: how one can be so blind to refuse to see the elephant was demonstrating just in front of them, the Israeli people for real?
      As you can see, my english is very limited, apologize. It seems to me that intellectually the question should be from the Left to the Right: is the present political & electoral system amendable, obsolete, how to eradicate corruption, nepotism, and so on. Because on the ground the citizens, from the Left to the Right, who have expressed their distrust for a lot of different political reasons, are waiting to see their problems seriously addressed. Their problems are real, it’s not another intellectual & PR razzmatazz.
      To be continued, Mai 68 en France digested by a French.

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    8. weinstein henry

      Mai 68 en France Digested, Ben Israel.
      What a myth, in the official French culture. Before Mai 68, the Middle-Age, the darkness, after Mai 68, the New Emancipated France!
      I was born in a small town in Burgondy, November 10, 1959. That’s where I was, in Mai 68. I remember everybody took their holidays very early, fearing a little for petrol. No school from May till September, good. Endless summer. My Dad was like you, very upset. If only he hadn’t fell in love with my mother after the war, he would be safe in the USA, with no Parti Communiste around. He wanted to emigrate to the USA, but God thought it would be better for him to emigrate to Burgundy. God and my mother.
      Mai 68 wasn’t a Leftist uprising. Only in the imagination of the Gauchistes and the Right. Yes it pretended to be a revolution and blah blah. But it had more to do with a Teenage Revolution than anything else. It began with male students wanting to visit freely girls’s rooms on the campus: liberté sexuelle! 1967 was the year the contraceptive pill became available for all in France, with huge consequences. At that time, France was still a very traditional country, with strong moral values (and I miss this France, with real adults, no bullshit).
      The motives of the leaders of the Student Movement were similar to the Young Turks I think: they didn’t want to abolish the system, they simply wanted to take as soon as possible the well-paid jobs, and have fun without having to ask the permission to their parents. At that time, there was still no mix-gender schools in France: after Mai 68, the girls arrived in my school life, good.
      So the privileged students wanted to “contester” the paternal authority, and the General De Gaulle was perfect for that! They wanted to take the good jobs, and that’s what they did in the 70-80s. They are still there, it’s our current spoiled ruling class, la génération Mai 68; and I hate them, just like all the French post-68 generations hate them, because they blocked everything after them, and behaved themselves like the Aristocrats of the Ancient Regime.
      Thus what happened in Mai 68 en France was first a revolt from the privileged youth against their parents & the moral order, followed then by a successful general strike led by the Communist Trade-Unions to get simply better wages and some social adventages for the working-class. And that’s all. At that time the economy was good, there was no unemployment, France was at last out the War Zone since the Independence of Algeria: everything seems possible for the privileged youth, with the contraceptive pill.

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    9. amir shipperman

      thank you, “Daddy!”

      Reply to Comment