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Divided society, divided protests

Two separate protests were held Saturday night in Tel Aviv, in a bizarre drama that split the ritual Saturday evening demonstrations into two ragged parts, with each group claiming to represent the true social justice movement. Both struggled to generate their own energy as if the other didn’t exist, though one city block alone separated the two events. At one point members of one demonstration burst into the other, staging a counter-protest. The attendees’ attention was clearly divided between addressing the range of policy injustices, and each other.

One demonstration had no clear leader; it began at Habima Square, and proceeded up Ibn Gavirol street to the government compound near the entrance to the Ayalon highway. This was clearly the angrier, more ragtag group that was unafraid to express openly politicized thoughts on numerous hand-made signs. Representatives of the largely-Arab workers’ party Da’am waved slogans calling to end the occupation, while others sought to recruit support for an upcoming demonstration against bombing Iran. A creative sort of installation-demonstration had protesters holding up huge papier-mâché matches. One of the matches was black and burnt-looking, symbolizing Moshe Silman, who self-immolated and died of his wounds a few weeks ago. People raged against economic hardship and tycoons through competing megaphones, blew whistles and beat drums.

The other demonstration, held at the Tel Aviv Museum, was far more groomed. This one had a strong institutional presence – the former student leader Itzik Shmuli was prominent along with Stav Shaffir, activists from the Meretz party waved signs, and a large banner advertising Yair Lapid’s new party was draped prominently. There was a clear focus related to the demand to draft the ultra-Orthodox: “Sharing the burden,” which has become a euphemism for a militaristic sort of call for unity around serving in the IDF.

Lapid signs at demonstration, Tel Aviv, 4 August, 2012 (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin)

At the museum plaza, people stood in an orderly grouping. Comfortable funding was on display, with printed signs neatly stacked for distribution. Oversized video screens beamed the speakers back to the crowd as if there were millions, while amplified sound and floodlights strained to give the impression of a rock concert.

Signs at Museum demonstration read: "Up to here!" Tel Aviv, 4 August, 2012 (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin)

In reality, both demos numbered a similar few thousand. It was notably easy to slide through the museum crowd, compared to the compressed-flesh factor of last summer’s events in the same spot. The other demonstration was unruly, unsure of whether to maintain the separation or join forces – like good lefties, the match-marchers paused at a major junction to hold a conference about which way to go (they ultimately maintained the separation).

The situation was so confusing that would-be protesters weren’t sure where to go. Some, even a few journalists, could be seen wandering around from one to the other, confused about which one represented the one they intended to join. Other protesters were deeply disappointed in the decision of last summer’s leaders to choose one side or the other. A demure-looking Shaffir threw her J14 cred behind the “institutionalized” demo at the museum.  Yigal Rambam, an early leader of last year’s protests, ran about nearby, feverishly goading on the counter-demonstration at the margins of the museum. I didn’t see Dafni Leef anywhere.

Stav Shaffir at Museum demonstration, 4 August, 2012 (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin)


Former J14 leader Yigal Rambam urging on a counter-demonstration at the Tel Aviv Museum, 4 August, 2012 (Photo: Dahlia Scheindlin)

In both, demonstrators ridiculed the now-familiar sight of uniformed regular police, riot police and their favorite, the “hidden,” or rather lazily-disguised security figures. These burly guys mill about the crowd dressed as protesters, but with wires in their ears and tiny video cameras in their hands. Late in the evening, one of these got into a scuffle with the marching, leaderless protesters who had by then camped out in front of the government compound. There is little agreement about who started what. But it ended with pepper spray, and a coughing cop caught fleeing the scene with handcuffs and walkie-talkie sticking out of his putative revolutionary t-shirt.

In truth, both demonstrations failed to find a unifying theme geared at deep, substantive change. Perhaps demonstrations have run their course; perhaps the protest needs to move off the streets and into more bold forms of civic action. The anger is still real, but the cries are hollow: The master slogan printed on all those well-funded signs at the museum said simply: “Ad Kan” – roughly: “It stops here!” The best thing on offer from the more subversive march was an irritatingly faux-provocative sign in English saying “I can’t believe I’m still f-king protesting this sh-t.” (Censorship mine)


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    1. yonatan

      Small note: Da’am is not an Arab workers’ party, it is simply a workers’ party. It includes Jews and Arabs and anyone who chooses to join. Thanks.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Thanks Yonatan, indeed, it’s clarified now. I noted that to make the point that as a party whose list is majority Arab, including the top person, most Israelis would view it that way if it were to enter Knesset. Also b/c its presence last night represents one of the more sensitive aspects of the protests – creating a truly inclusive community together with Arabs, which was only beginning to happen last summer and with unfortunate resistance. But yes, like Hadash, it is indeed Arab+Jewish.

      Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      This posting put its finger exactly on the big problem the “Progressive” Left faces. Divided agenda. Everybody agrees that the situation today is terrible, everbody is in a rage, everone is in despair. But what to do about it. For example, Avrum Burg, in his usual self-righteous wrath denounces the current Israeli situation and longs for a romantic past of a “pure”, small Israel that supposedly was “humainst”. Roi Maor showed how that was a gross overgeneralization. So do the demonstrators today want what Burg wants, the restoration of a mythical past (sort of like the Salafists who want to go back to a non-existent perfect state that supposedly existed at the dawn of Islam!) or to overthrow the whole thing as the other group of demonstrators want. Good luck in sorting this out!

      Reply to Comment
    4. Security must be extended from bodily protection to livelihood. This does not have to be socialist, unless you think skewed progressive taxation is socialist, as in fact the Tea Party over here does (with many of its adherents in fact in the falling middle class, bizarrely; I think the description of the Tea Party as the secular arm of the religious right correct–God demands many sacrifices from us).
      There is nothing for demonstrators to actually do. They can’t avoid paying the VAT or their other taxes. All they can seemingly do is turn out to indicate a new voter base for apparently non-existent alternatives to the present parties. Labor has been splintered by Barak; once again, the National Unity governments seemed to have destroyed the possibility of change by forbiding real oppostion. The only lever I see from very afar for demonstration is conscription and national service which affect most households. Some of your political elite have to be willing to risk alternatives; else why form demonstrations at all? To hit the sides of bank buildings?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Philos

      The liberal-capitalist state is too strong. It co-opted the buffoons and charlatans from last year. Furthermore, in testament to the shallowness of democratic feeling throughout Israeli society, nobody had the bright idea of forming a new political party or trying to take over an existing one. The immature notion of an “apolitical” political protest allowed the liberal-capitalist ruling system to triumph (again) because hippies are full of s**t, and only egotistical a**holes run for student union.
      If you ask me, good riddance.

      Reply to Comment

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