Time and again in the last weeks, attempts were made to declare the social protests were dead. Coming back from the demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday I can say beyond doubt that it is alive and kicking.
Estimates Israel-wide have ranged from 400,000 to 460,000 participants. This means that between five and six percent of Israel’s population was on the streets. We spoke to people who had driven and walked for hours to arrive, people, who felt that it was their duty to make sure that the ruling classes, political and financial, could not move toward a sigh of relief and say “finally they are gone – back to business as usual.”
Daphni Leef, the young woman who started it all, reminded us that after the terror attacks in the South, demonstrations were cancelled out of solidarity with the dead and their families. As a result the ruling politicians said that the protest movement was dead. They thought the usual trick had worked - security trumps democracy.
But the trick failed, and the spirit of the protests is alive and well. Daphni Leef, spoke of a new solidarity, beyond left and right. She said that the most insulting expression in Israeli discourse is “the little citizen” – and that there should be a law against insulting citizens.
The protests have shown that it is not the citizens who are little: it’s the politicians. On a number of occasions I have had to spend time at the Knesset, appalled at a culture of what in Hebrew slang is called macherim - people glued to their cellphones, trying to squeeze millions of budget-shekels for a vote for their Knesset member – as if it was their money.
The head of Israel’s student union and one of the protest leaders, Itzik Shmuli, exclaimed that the demonstrators are the new Israelis, no longer willing to bow their heads, they demand their due - not more, not less.
These are Israelis who no longer willing to hear “there’s nothing to be done” (eyn ma la’asot). Most of all they are reminding elected politicians and their cronies that they are elected and paid to serve those who elected them, not to rule them.
The time has come to ask how the protest movement’s achievements can be stabilized. It must no longer be measured by how many demonstrators it brings to the streets, and how many tents there are on Rothschild Boulevard. Enthusiasm must now be fused with pragmatic action.
Nehemia Strasler wrote that there are differences between Daphni Leef and Itzik Shmuli. Leef rejects the Trajtenberg committee, and insists on demands that, unfortunately cannot be realized in Israel’s current economy. Itzik Shmuli, on the other hand, is willing to engage with Manuel Trajtenberg’s committee, and I agree with Strasler that this is wise.
From my acquaintance with Trajtenberg, I can assure the protesters that, in addition to being a brilliant economist of worldwide standing, he is a man of high ethical standards with a strong social conscience. He will not serve as Bibi’s fig leaf, and will not let him off the hook if the promise for lasting change is not kept.
The Trajtenberg commission will not leave intact the unbearable concentration of economic power in the hands of a few families; nor will it allow the continued mismanagement of land resources. Hopefully it will also lead to a sane, just, yet economically viable law of rent-protection and other changes in Israel’s economy.
In the short run, the protest movement should back Trajtenberg because this will put him in a stronger position. He will know that if his recommendations are rejected, we will take to the streets again.
In the long run, there is no way around engaging with the political system. I hope that the spirit of dignity and freedom these protests revived will be the beginning of a new political generation in Israel; that the Augean stables of Israel’s political class will be cleansed by the most democratic of means, without violence and without revolution. The people saying that they have had enough shows that the old needs to make room for the new.
So far the most gifted and the most idealistic of Israel’s citizens have refrained from entering politics, because they saw it as a petty and unproductive game. The protest movement may give birth to a new political party with younger people who will not forget why they took to the streets in the last two months.
Citizens with entrepreneurial experience and social activists, who have so far eschewed active politics, may join them.
Let us hope that, a few years down the road, we will be able to say that we participated in the birth of a new Israel in the Summer of 2011.