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Protesters block streets in Tel Aviv after landmark rally

Tens of thousands gathered in a Tel Aviv protest organized by the “tent city” movement, demanding affordable housing and social justice. Later, hundreds blocked main streets in the city

Tent city protest in Tel Aviv, July 24 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills)

This post is joint reporting by Dahlia Scheindlin and Dimi Reider

Dimi writes:

Hundreds of protesters for social justice clashed with police in central Tel Aviv tonight under chants of revolution and signs reading “Mubarak. Assad. Netanyahu.” Some 42 people were arrested, a rare if not unprecedented number for a Tel Aviv demonstration on any issue.

After a huge turnout to a well-organized march (estimates vary between the 20 and the 40 thousand ), a clash began as the demonstrators were dispersing. Eyewitnesses said one person was detained, which prompted several dozen people to block the Kaplan-Ibn Gvirol intersection, a major junction in central Tel Aviv. The crowd quickly grew into hundreds, who camped out in the middle of the intersection, barricading it with barriers “borrowed” from nearby repair works. The crowd chanted slogans in favour of the police, pointing out they, too, can’t afford decent housing with their miserly salaries. Others spoke to policemen, encouraging them to fight for the right to unionise (which policemen in Israel are banned from by law). Eventually, police cleaned up the junction using selective arrests, mounted police and motorcycles. This assault was met with indignation by the crowd, who briefly lodged beer cans at the police, but the protesters quickly regained their composure and began singing pro-police and pro social justice slogans, punctuated with “Revolution! Revolution! Revolution” and “Non-violence! Non-violence!”. At one point, protesters went among the huge mounted police and offered them lollipops, which the policemen hesitatingly declined, pressing their hands to their hearts.

The protesters then attempted to march back up Dizengoff street to the nearest police station, in solidarity with their detained comrades. Police repeatedly blocked and gently thinned out the march, using very limited force and selective arrests, before the protesters eventually got tired and returned to camp. Many of the protesters were very clearly new to all this and did not have any background in demonstrations. For some of the ordinary Tel Avivis, this was clearly the first time they blocked a street in their lives.

Back in camp, activists pulled out guitars and sang “My Girl” and “Stand By Me,” while a discussion wore on about police union rights and non-violent technics. In-between the camps and the slumped down activists, a couple danced back and forth, duelling with life-size lightsabers, while one of the activists obligingly provided the “Bzzzz” every time the Star Wars blades made contact. How can you not love this place.

It’s half past four a.m. here so I won’t get into a proper argument with Dahlia. I’ll only venture the fact that it’s perfectly understandable people care more about their rent and professional future than about the boycott law, and if this concern spurs them into completely unprecedented action, I don’t see any reason to complain.

UPDATE: 43 people were arrested by police following the demo.

Dahlia reports on the demonstration preceding the clash:

The demonstration on Saturday night in Tel Aviv spearheaded by the housing tent-protest leaders, had everything in it but the kitchen sink. Among the over ten thousand who attended, as reported by Haaretz (since I’m not much of a crowd-counter), there were representatives from the housing protestors, feminist groups, social workers, teachers and probably doctors or medical residents too, also striking this week, although I can’t be sure; the speakers on the stage in the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Art Museum (Rabin Square is under renovation) even remembered to mention elderly Holocaust survivors, and everything was translated into sign language. The only thing missing was, for me, the critical thing: a strong cry in support of democracy, rejection of the boycott law and every other legislation to threaten our freedom. Ah, yes, and a coherent message in general.

The crowd was huge, angry and wanted to show it. The feeling was markedly different from the calm, jovial familiarity of the more intimate left-wing gatherings: the enormous surge of people  stalking up Ibn Gavirol Street in central Tel Aviv to the museum was sweaty, hyper, young and noise-making – music, drums, groovy dancing and all.

But the message, the message. A rundown of the signs and chants gives a sort of vague composite picture of a cry for socialism, especially if you take a few steps back and don’t look for fine resolution or details. The most common cry was “Welfare state!” and the demand for public housing. A sign that seemed ubiquitous said: “the market is free – are you?” Here were some others, signs and chants and slogans:

Danger, construction – for the rich

Bibi, wake up – women are more valuable (this rhymes in Hebrew)

The people want public housing

Welfare state now

The people are calling for social justice

The answer to privatization? Revolution!

The theme that “we’re all together,” was repeated, well, repeatedly. It’s nice to feel something that unites Israelis of various stripes that isn’t security related. I certainly don’t mind hearing the accompanying calls to fire Netanyanu.

But it’s a shame that nobody dared raise the conflict, the source of so much social malaise in Israel.  It’s a shame that the promised demonstration to defend Israeli democracy seems to have been swallowed up by this and not a single sign or voice protested the boycott law, which might be a slippery slope towards ending our very right to protest, that I saw. “The government against the people and the people against the government” really doesn’t say enough to stem the tide of anti-democratic trends and legislation.

Despite efforts of Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon on this evening’s news to give the demo a “hechsher” (kosher certificate) by saying it might be left, right or center and even the New Israel Fund could support it, which would be fine with him – still, I didn’t see many representatives of right wing parties or organizations. Maybe I missed them.  There were, however, representatives of Hadash and Meretz who were impossible to miss, and I saw Naomi Chazan walking around looking pretty pleased, as well as one sign saying: “settlers and Haredim, the mother of all sins.”

More on this issue:

Everything in this land is about real estate: Understanding the tent protests / Noam Sheizaf

Tent city protest: It’s politics, but not as usual / Dimi Reider

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    1. This is reminiscent of the tens of thousands who took to the streets in Wisconsin recently. You can’t get 100 people to come to an anti-war demonstration these days in the U.S. But mess with their salaries and benefits and they go berserk. It seems the civil societies in Israel and the U.S. (the world’s two most notorious rogue nations) are made of the same narcissistic fiber. Murder, maim and invade whomever you want. But don’t threaten our lifestyle. We demand social and economic justice, but only for ourselves. To hell with the “other.”

      Ain’t nationalism grand.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Delphine

      Good to know the Arab revolutions have come to Isreal! Hopefully the Isreali government can concentrate on the millions, jews and nonjews, living in its borders; not the 300,000 living on Occupied Territories. We’re backing you up!

      Reply to Comment
    3. Liora Y

      What a day, what a day. What can I say, Dimi, you of all people will know because I’ve written to you about it, that when I got to Dahlia’s sentence “The only thing missing was, for me, the critical thing: a strong cry in support of democracy, rejection of the boycott law and every other legislation to threaten our freedom” my heart skipped – this is the sentiment that has been haunting me for days now, and was crying out in my head last night standing in front of the museum.

      2 weeks ago, when the boycott law passed, I became scared. Not frustrated, not helpless with my bank overdraft and debts (which I am, all the time, like all the tent-city sympathizers) – scared.
      The following day, I opened my facebook, and discovered a mass “attendance” from tens of my friends to an event – “demonstrating, while it is still legal”, it was called. I checked it out, to see that something like 1500 people had already checked attending, and the most amazing thing was the description. It read: “Maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m just stupid, but I really think it’s time to go protest. Without political parties, regardless of who you voted for in the last elections or who you are going to vote for in the next one, just a demonstration of Israelis who feel the ground is falling from under their feet”.

      It went on to list several problematic laws, starting with the boycott law; and then to say, what was most astounding to me as a left winged, was that the guy who opened the event was a right wing supporter.
      The attendance numbers flew. Many of the comments on the wall were along the lines of “I vote right, but I agree, the government crossed the line, it’s gone too far”. So I started to feel hopeful.

      I became very active on the event, and within days, found myself one of the organisers. The date kept changing (it started out in August…), we didn’t have a location, we didn’t know how to get speakers to do anything, the left wing organisations were pulling at our tails to try and unite and we were fighting them off so not to lose the beauty of the “all political”, as I phrased it, rally in favor of free speech and political freedom. The attendance was flying – within 3 days, it was 5000. In the very least, to me it said, there are thousands of people in this country that agree with you. This is more than any recent left wing/peace rally has managed to attract. THIS felt like change.

      In the background, the tent city prospered. We were all in support of it, joined in it when we could, because that’s also who we are, we are also tent people with overpriced rent and living costs. But we were also extremely worried about the future of democracy. We kept thinking, these two things, the tent city and our protest, can go together; to send a joint signal of a cry against the government.. but they are not the same thing. We cannot call our protest a-political, because to challenge a government IS political. But we could call it “non left, non right, but left AND right together”. Not targeting Bibi neccesarily, but trying to call for a new world order in how the government works and who it works for.

      And then, in the midst of all of it, while we were struggling to go up against the left wing protest with our own, the tent city announced it’s rally. At first, we felt no problem. But as the date grew nearer, and the focus became the housing and the economy, I started to stress. Then we saw all the left wing organisations caving and merging into the housing protest, cancelling their protest – and what was worse, the anti democratic legislation issue completely went off the radar. It disappeared from ACRI’s facebook page, from the Democracy Project page, from all the discussions. Everything turned into housing.

      It swallowed us up.

      Last night, I sat there, listening to Daphne’s speech, listening to the words “A roof is basic. A house is basic.” And I wondered – free speech isn’t basic? all those speakers going up, getting their chance to use this platform, someone even said the word “democracy” – not one mentioned the phrase “free speech”. I asked, desperately, random people around me, if they would come to more protests – they said, yes, sure. Then I asked if they would come to one about problematic legislation. Everyone froze, everyone stuttered.

      So I wonder.. how all these amazing people that rose up out of the blue to demand social justice, ignore the social justice of having political freedom. Because it’s just too uncomfortable a subject. As if the most basic founding block of this amazing amazing tent city isn’t, what else, free speech.

      But, as people tell me, is not a good subject to raise now. Bad timing for it, how unfortunate. It will have to wait. How many anti democratic laws will pass until it is time to address the issue? I don’t know. One is going up for a second reading this week, on Monday if I remember, the anti-Infiltration bill.

      In an hour, I go to meet with the other organisers of our fledgling attempt at a civilian protest for free speech, to re-assess. I don’t know what will become of our little project, but last night I felt beaten. All I can think of, is what do I do with all those “attendings” that my hunch says, were not of the tent city persuasion, but feel strongly about democracy? these were the people we needed, to REALLY return from the dark places our society was headed to, the divide between left and right. The timing is off because of the housing issue, but in every other way, this was our momentum. I wonder if we will find a new momentum.

      Reply to Comment
    4. TerryW

      Joe, the reason you can’t get 100 people to an anti-war protest in the US these days is because there’s no draft. Start drafting people again (Vietnam) and see what happens.

      I didn’t realize things were like this in Israel. It seems the corporate rich are taking over all governments, not just in the US, where it started with the “Patriot” Act, an oxymoron if there ever was one.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Rebecca Zimmerman

      Israelis are no different than other folks in the sense that they are most concerned about what affects them and their pockets. Americans vote during the elections on the economy (it’s the economy stupid). However, I will say that I find it alarming that the general public seems so unconcerned about the boycott law and threat to democracy. Unfortunately I can’t make it to any protests in the center and my availability for any intense involvement is limited since I’m a mother of two young children living in the North. But if there are suggestions on how to get involved in other ways, I would be happy for suggestions.

      Reply to Comment
    6. I was in Tel Aviv in this time, but I do not remember such crowds …

      Reply to Comment
    7. Denali

      Liora, what you are describing is when a movement gets compromised. The real issues get pushed to the background, meanwhile the message gets more and more vague until the protest turns into a street party and then you have lost legitimacy. Welcome to your first taste of counter-intelligence.

      Reply to Comment