Summer 2011 – The Israeli Revolution

4 Jan

by Nicola Simmonds

Image courtesy of Nicola Simmonds

Two hundred and twenty-two years to the day after the Parisian masses stormed the Bastille, on July 14, 2011, a young woman called Daphni, who couldn’t find a reasonably priced apartment in all of Tel Aviv, pitched a tent on Rothschild Boulevard to protest the shortage and high prices of housing in Israel.  She woke up a whole country.

Within days, hundreds joined her with more tents, and the students and youth movements were quick to express their support.  This was when the summer of 2011 really began.  More and more discontent people pitched tents along Rothschild Boulevard.  An estimated further ninety encampments sprung up all over the country, from Kiryat Shemona to Eilat.

The demonstration that Saturday night, which paraded through the streets of Tel Aviv, was attended mainly by students and Ashkenazi twenty-somethings – who looked like they hadn’t been back long from India – carrying hand-written banners and banging pots with wooden spoons.  This was a middle class revolution.

Over the following weeks, it became apparent that it wasn’t just housing that needed fixing.  Corruption, a rich elite controlling the economy, the monopolies and cartels, and general governmental disregard for the people’s needs, were all publicly acknowledged.  Rothschild Boulevard, steaming from the August heat even late at night, soon became not only a carnival with jugglers and guitars, but also a public information service. As the number of tents grew and grew over the coming weeks Rothschild, as it is known in Tel Aviv, became a “university.”  You came here in order to hear what the politicians, the papers and the television hadn’t been telling you.

As we walked down the same demonstration route on the third Saturday night, there were parents carrying children on their shoulders, there were elderly people, there were Mizrachim from poor neighborhoods, there were Ethiopians and there were even signs in Arabic.

One sign read: “The Market’s Free for Ten Families.”  This was no longer about housing and it was no longer a middle class revolution.

The Knesset had decided to take its recess after all.  A placard on a tent on Ben-Gurion Boulevard in north Tel Aviv (next to a sign reading “The Invisible Hand Has Given me the Finger”) exclaimed, “The Ground’s on Fire and You’re on Recess.” As we – mothers with strollers, dairy farmers, taxi drivers: you name it! – marched every Saturday night through the summer (and often mid-week too!) we also sat out in the streets discussing what was wrong with the country and how to improve it. There was an enormous sense of empowerment, and the government and parliament weren’t even there.  The social justice protest had eighty-seven percent support in the polls.  Times, they were a-changin’.

We made friends and learnt about other people in the country.  A group from the encampment I joined decided to visit others.  In Lod, I met honest hard-working families who found themselves homeless following prolonged periods of unemployment resulting from injuries and illness.  I met members of an extended family with a number of children with disabilities in the encampment in Hatikva Park who had been living goodness-know-how-many at Grandma’s until pitching their tents in the park.  Late one night, by the encampment in Levinsky Park near the Old Bus Station in Tel Aviv, I saw African refugees sleeping under children’s swings and slides, curled up together like kittens, as the sounds of rats surrounded the park.  I saw an Eritrean refugee there bleeding profusely following a knifing incident, shouting “No ambulance!” at the policeman who came to assist.  He was soon up a tree shouting like a crazy person.  It was explained to me that he had seen his family murdered in Eritrea.

A week or so after attending the joint Jewish-Arab demonstration in Haifa, I found myself grumbling about the country with an Arab guy from whom I had bought a cup of coffee.

By the time we got to September 3, we were half a million strong.  A huge demonstration was held that night in Kikar Ha’Medina in Tel Aviv with busloads from all over the country, a brass band and tents held up high.

After the tents came down – some by choice, others not – “Stage Two” or “Shlav Bet” of the social justice protest was declared.  It is still taking time to take shape.

Co-operatives have been formed, and a “Knesset Guard” has been established to attend and report on every boring Knesset committee meeting, publicizing what really goes on in the democratic system.  Activists, who attempt to bring sketchy goings-on into the public eye, now attend local city hall meetings.  Activist groups now stage very regular demonstrations targeting big businesses who run themselves in dubious ways and tycoons who control the nation’s natural resources.  The social justice protest has committees looking for solutions to all aspects of life, including education, transport, and the banking system.  People of all ages and backgrounds attend mass brainstorming evenings.  Every infraction on decent values and the public good, from destroying beaches to ultra-Orthodox bullying of women in the public space, quickly evokes a Facebook event proclaiming a demonstration.

The cat’s out of the bag.  No, the problems haven’t been solved, but they can’t tell us everything is okay anymore.  Now everybody knows it isn’t.  And people care.

The writer is licensed tour guide and can be contacted at simmondsnicola@hotmail.com

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3 Responses to “Summer 2011 – The Israeli Revolution”

  1. Ittay January 4, 2012 at 11:18 am #

    I heard Daphni speak at Limmud in the UK last week. She spoke about the next phase of the struggle as something that would take “at least a generation” to bear fruit. Together with Barak Segal, they she spoke about the imminent launch a new movement that would “create a non-parliamentarian infrastructure that will continue the struggle over the cost of living and the values of Israeli culture and democracy”. The movement will form a non-profit company in which the public will be able to buy shares and which will act as a lobbying group for social affairs.

    I wish her and all those who support the J14 movement much success in attaining their vision for more tzedek and less tzedaka for all Israelis.

    • David Zohar January 7, 2012 at 7:17 am #

      A strategic error was to try to work outisde the Knesset and without getting into politics because the ONLY way to change things in Israel is through the political system/ Not surprisingly the “movement” has already crumbled.

  2. Ittay January 7, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    Hi David,
    I actually think the J14 has made the right move in not forming a political party for the following reasons. There have been several social justice parties in the past who have failed to achieve their goals (Eg: Labor under Amir Peretz, Pensioners Party etc…) and having one more is unlikely to change that dynamic. As an extra-parliamentary pressure group, they will not be put into a situation where they need to make unsavoury deals in order to get ministries or sit on committees. By working as a pressure group on all parties, they are able to move this issue away from a right wing VS left wing debate to working class Vs ruling class debate.

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