Where Are the Masses?

With its lack of ideology and values, the phenomenon of postmodernism is one reason why downtrodden Israelis choose not to rise up and free themselves of latter-day bondage. Revolution Square is empty.

The morning of November 10, 2005, was the happiest of my professional career. Early that morning, after a sleepless night, it finally emerged that Amir Peretz had defeated Shimon Peres in the race for the leadership of the Labor Party. After a prolonged period of paralysis as far as work for genuine social change was concerned - social change that would return Israel to what its founders had dreamed of - I found myself experiencing some tiny ripples of hope.

Amir was just as ecstatic. Later that morning, he asked that I join him at Yitzhak Rabin's graveside. There, among Mount Herzl's evergreens, he told me, "We did it. We now have a real opportunity to finally launch the revolution we have been dreaming of for so many years. We will now have to recruit all the social activists."

Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, Ariel Shalit
Ariel Shalit

With excitement in my voice, I promised him that we would begin the very next day to recruit those thousands of activists. During those hours of elation, I actually believed that this time, in contrast with all the previous attempts to which I had been a party, the task would be a piece of cake. I assumed (and perhaps even wanted to believe ) that taking over a political party with such a central role in the government of the country would turn the struggle for social justice into a top item on the national agenda, and that this struggle would now attract many people who had previously attached little importance to the idea of restoring social justice in the country. Here was the opportunity, I thought to myself, to channel the energies of thousands of social activists into the country's central arena of power - the political arena. The seemingly endless stream of telephone calls that I received (as someone considered to be a Peretz confidant ) after the announcement of the leadership race results only reinforced my confidence.

Well, I was wrong. Six months later, after the new government was sworn in, I was forced to admit, in the presence of Peretz, that I had been mistaken. The activists did not come and the revolution never took place. Granted, from the political standpoint an impressive unprecedented achievement had been won: Seven "hard-core" seats in the rightist camp had been transferred to the leftist camp from development towns and disempowered neighborhoods, and this enabled the establishment of a left-of-center government under Ehud Olmert's leadership. It was not enough, however, to bring about a substantive change in the political establishment. The revolution simply did not happen.

Sadly, this was not an isolated failure. Quite the contrary: Ever since the rise of the Black Panther movement in Israel four decades ago, it is difficult to point to even one substantive achievement by the country's social justice movement - at least one that could be defined as "revolutionary." Granted, there have been some minor victories, some limited achievements. While there has been the occasional rare breakthrough (for instance, the law governing state health insurance ), there has not been the slightest sign of any revolution in the true sense of the word, or, for example, in the Trotskyite sense of a continual revolution. Cairo's Tahrir Square? Beijing's Tiananmen Square? First try to find a parking space in Kikar Hamedina in Tel Aviv.

It is no mere coincidence that I use the example of Kikar Hamedina. Nine years ago, that place was the closest Israel ever got to its very own Tahrir Square. In the very heart of well-fed north Tel Aviv, among the shops selling a piece of luggage for NIS 11,000 and a pair of pants for NIS 7,499 - the biggest ulcer of all burst open.

From afar, it looked like the set of a very cheap movie. There was something weird, out-of-touch, alien about that scene: Only 150 meters from the entrance of the Beit Lessin Theater, a tiny city began to grow, a city of tents, prefabs and decommissioned buses, covered with graffiti. Even the protest signs posted adjacent to Heh Be'iyar Street - named for the Hebrew date (Iyar 5, 5708, or May 14, 1948 ) of the declaration of statehood - which encompasses the square, were weird. What possible connection could there be between the "300,000 unemployed people are dying and the world is silent" and this square, which symbolizes, perhaps more than any other place in Israel, the blatant aloofness of the country's "upper crust," its "top decile"?

One morning, the proprietors of this "Square of the State" (the literal meaning of Kikar Hamedina ) - or, should I say, perhaps, the state itself? - woke up to discover that Others had sprung up from the earth: homeless people, single-parent families, children without any hope in their eyes, and old people whose dignity had been trampled. All these Others were being led by a genuine social activist, Yisrael Tuito, of blessed memory. They captured the square and, in line with the custom here, quickly put up a sign that gave the place a new name: Kikar Halehem ("Bread Square," but also, literally, "a loaf of bread" ).

The selection of Kikar Hamedina, a local counterpart of London's Knightsbridge, was significant because its symbolic prominence augmented the loud protest against the shameless behavior of the rich and powerful in Israel, who have the audacity to travel about in prestigious fuel-guzzling cars while others do not have enough fuel to heat their homes. It was a loud protest against senior executives who have gargantuan salaries and whose employees have to ask for an income supplement stipend from the National Insurance Institute. It was a loud protest against those who have insatiable appetites while many Israelis feel hunger every day.

Tuito and my friends purposely flaunted the law; in effect, they were saying, "Alienation is a two-way street. If the state and its laws serve only the affluent, the poor have no reason to obey either the state or its laws."

But here, too, the masses failed to come out, and so the establishment, instead of trying to effectively deal with difficult problems, was able to transfer the protest from the street to the courtroom where, by the very nature of things, the protest was neutered and the struggle was ground to dust. When the protesters were eventually evacuated, Tuito angrily said to me, "I want to have nothing more to do with this system of injustice ... We just wasted our time and energy ... People told me that my going to the courthouse would just be a waste of my time and that the only way to get your way in this country is to use violence. Nonetheless, I calmed them down ... Next time, there will be no Yisrael Tuito around and then they will see what the price is for betraying the weaker classes of society."

I stood there and could not utter a single word in response, even when Yisrael added sadly, "If a few thousand people had come here, they could not have done to us what they are doing right now. Why didn't they come? For the life of me, I can't understand it. Why didn't they come?"

Paralyzed life

There have been a variety of answers provided to this fundamental question. The most hackneyed of them talks about the security situation, which paralyzes civilian life in the country (and creates a false sense of solidarity ). Other people point to Jewish heritage, which has always preferred to settle problems in backroom deals, rather than through head-on confrontations. Another familiar explanation is that the weaker members of society are so busy just trying to survive on a daily basis that they have neither the time nor the energy to join in long-term struggles. At the same time, the middle class, which could provide leadership in such struggles, identifies with the members of the stronger class rather than with what the middle class considers to be the weaker members of society.

Some people cite the lack of resources - particularly money - as the primary reason for the difficulty in launching any battle for social change. The financial bankruptcy of the labor unions in the country which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been the first ones to fund protests, has made the problem even more acute.

Another factor that must be taken into consideration is the systematic destruction of the masses' faith in the state's ability to mend what has gone wrong here. I am thinking of the parade of promise-makers (ranging from politicians to the leaders of social organizations ) who have passed through the socioeconomically distressed neighborhoods, made countless promises and who, the next day, failed to keep keep any of them, whether because of a lack of sincerity in the first place or because they truly were unable to fulfill them. In any event, this parade has eroded any hope that change can be effected through the present system.

I would offer another explanation as well. It relates to the processes that "civic society" has brought about in protest movements here. In order to understand what has happened, a few words should first be said about the wind that has been blowing in the sails of civic society during the past two decades: the postmodernist spirit.

Postmodernism has dealt a severe blow to the major ideologies of both the right and the left, because it presents them as oppressive. Furthermore, postmodernism's relativism presents the scales of right and wrong, true and false, just and unjust that are showcased by all the major ideologies as empty pretensions. There are no absolute ideologies, there are no lofty values; everything is relative.

However, without an ideological backbone, a revolution cannot be launched. Ideology is the necessary condition for recruiting the masses, for building coalitions for further action and for defining where the revolution is headed and what goals it must achieve. Ideologies serve as manuals for running a revolution; they are like road maps telling you the direction in which you should march. Only an ideological infrastructure can create a real alternative to an existing order. When there is no alternative, people will not join in a struggle and will not be prepared to pay the heavy price for waging it.

In effect, postmodernism has created a dark world where everything is relative and ambivalent and where everything is driven by selfish interests (that must be exposed .

Everything can be bought and sold; the only question is for how much. One should never underestimate the destructive power of this approach.

If there is no one you can believe in, there is also no one that you need to fight against. The community worker organizing a demonstration, the trade union representative initiating a strike, and the elected official seeking to promote an agenda of social justice - all represent oppressive forces, just like the oppressive employer they want to struggle against, and just like the Finance Ministry official who aims to serve employers; moreover, in absolute terms, the first three have no more justice on their side than do the last two. If such is the case, why should an "ordinary" worker follow them and thereby run the risk of paying a heavy price, such as the loss of his or her livelihood? If one moral code is just as good as another, then everything is permissible and it is better to just stay where you are instead of advocating change.

This state of affairs makes it difficult to create social solidarity, because every struggle for social change is suspected of being driven by a desire to oppress and to serve selfish interests. However, without solidarity and without joining forces, the system's victims have no real ability to cope with the wielders of power in that system. This is true for any situation in which the interests of the large group of the "have-nots" are vying with the interests of the tiny group of the "haves." Without a joining of forces, there can be no power, and without power, there can be no revolution.

It is no accident that division and sectoralization are the most lethal weapons of the power-wielders because they are the fiercest enemies of those seeking to bring about social change. The erosion of the belief that there are ideas that are greater than the individual serving them has led to the collapse of solidarity. The so-called Revolution Square has never been satisfied with isolated individuals; it constantly demands the masses so that it can fulfill its goal.

Freed of bondage

If we really want to bring about a revolution here - and, as God is my witness, we desperately need it - the only way is to restore faith in the major ideologies, in the existence of right and wrong, and in the existence of true scales of social evaluation. There is no better time than the festival of Passover for doing so.

According to Jewish tradition, the Jewish people was reborn on this holiday, because this is when it received its true identity from God: They would no longer be a people like any other, but would instead be a "light unto the nations." They would no longer be slaves; they would be free individuals. As part of this new identity, the Jewish people received once more the power to shout and, together with that power, the obligation to protest.

This point needs clarification. It is customary to say that, prior to their redemption, the Children of Israel, groaning under the yoke of bondage in Egypt, lacked the power to even sigh. As they approached the time when they would leave Egypt as free individuals, the Israelites stopped tacitly accepting those who savagely ruled them; instead, "the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage" (Exodus 2:23 ). Afterward, the Torah reveals, the Israelites moved on to the next stage in their empowerment "and they cried" (Exod. 2:23 ). Thus, according to Jewish tradition, on Passover, as part of their new identity, the Jews regained the power not only to sigh, but also the power to cry out and make demands. The Israelites' emergence from slavery to freedom occurred not only at the physical level, but also internally: They regained a voice that had been silenced.

Thus, Passover is an excellent occasion for telling the story of the revolution that has not yet arrived and for reminding ourselves of the obligation we all bear to help launch that revolution - whether by ceasing to emphasize the selfish and aggressive aspects of our own conduct, by renewing our faith in the ideological and moral dimensions of our character that are meant to help us lead our lives, or by any other means. If we fail to do this, the masses will stay in their homes, the law will continue to become more powerful, the weak will remain weak, our Revolution Square will remain desolate and we will all pay the price - even those who seem to be furthest away from those who so desperately need Revolution Square.