The Makings of History Disappointed Generations

It's easy to embrace the protesters, but they also must be told the truth: They bear some of the responsibility for what happened. Not because they like sushi, but because they permitted themselves to flee from politics and to become addicted to the illusion that there is life without it.

In June 1937, a few weeks before the publication of the Peel Commission's partition plan for Mandatory Palestine, one of the heads of Mapai (a forerunner of the Labor Party ) demanded "to call up the nation to war" against dividing the country. He was probably referring to mass demonstrations, perhaps a civic revolt, maybe even acts of violence against the British government.

David Ben-Gurion, who supported partition in principle, replied that even that issue wouldn't bring the nation out to war. "A nation does not enlist based on a decision," he wrote. "For that, there need to be profound emotional motives that have not been artificially shaken up, but are strongly aroused by means of an inevitable push that contains shocking and explosive material. Logical proof alone that this war is necessary and effective is not sufficient, and I still don't see the explosive material that will shake up the nation."

protest, demonstration, Tel Aviv 1939
Demonstration in Tel Aviv, 1939.Zoltan Kluger

About 15 years earlier, Ben-Gurion had visited the Soviet Union, and after seeing an October parade on Red Square, he returned full of amazement at the achievements of the communist revolution; he considered himself a socialist. Many of those who came to Palestine after him, including Yitzhak Tabenkin, Meir Yaari and Yaakov Hazan, were more radical leftists than he, but there was never a revolution here. Indeed, Tel Aviv was built in the image of bourgeois Lodz and Munich.

Nor was there a civil war. Because most Israelis saw themselves as part of the Zionist revolution, the shared national vision was stronger than any actual dispute. Most citizens thereby adopted the basic values of their parents; their fundamental experience was conservative for the most part. That also explains the absence of genuine protest against the oppression of the Palestinians.

And yet there has emerged nostalgia for what seems like an expression of genuine rebellion: It is no coincidence, for example, that the protest tents on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard adopted Charlie Biton, who in the 1970s was among the leaders of the Black Panthers. The Panthers seemed at the time like a real threat to the establishment and were harshly repressed, as was the handful of seamen who closed down the Haifa port in the 1950s. Biton did not endanger the establishment; today, a former member of Knesset, he receives a pension from the legislature, and comes to Rothschild Boulevard from his private home in Mevaseret Zion. Representation of the Mizrahim (Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origin ) became the realm of Shas, which also discovered that establishment politics can achieve more than a revolution.

That is also one of the lessons from the upheaval of 1977, which brought Menachem Begin to power. Begin was frequently described as a fascist. The fact is that he was a dyed-in-the-wool democrat; he operated with parliamentary patience until he won in the elections.

Not everyone saw it that way in real time. The clashes between the right and the left in this country sometimes looked like battles in a civil war: That was the case in the wake of the murder of Chaim Arlosoroff, the attack on the ship Altalena and the dismantling of the Palmach (pre-state elite commando force ), the battle over reparations from Germany and more. But usually most of the political energy was expended over the years on curses and slander: Ben-Gurion called Ze'ev Jabotinsky "Vladimir Hitler," but that didn't prevent the two from drinking tea together in London, a Zionist with a Zionist. Ben-Gurion also compared Begin to Hitler. But on the eve of the Six-Day War, he received him for a heart-to-heart talk in his home.

Real violence was limited almost exclusively to the battles of Haredim, Arabs and settlers. Their struggles often conveyed "profound emotional motives," and they even sometimes contained "shocking and explosive material." But those were sectoral battles; they did not succeed in shattering Israeli Zionist togetherness.

Nor is the voice arising from Rothschild Boulevard the voice of a national revolution; the tent dwellers are not descendants of the Panthers. They are the children with candles who mourned for Yitzhak Rabin after his murder, a clear symbol of Israeli conservatism. They have grown up since then: Many have completed their studies, were in the army and backpacked to Machu Picchu - and now, on the threshold of real life, they are discovering that contrary to what they expected, their lives will not be better than those of their parents. They are conveying generational disappointment.

It's easy to embrace them, but they also must be told the truth: They bear some of the responsibility for what happened to them. Not because they like sushi, but because they permitted themselves to flee from politics and to become addicted to the illusion that there is life without it. There will never be "social justice" without politics. The protest on Rothschild is having difficulty finding "explosive material that will shock the nation," but perhaps it will teach its children a history lesson: "Social justice" requires constant political care and maintenance.