Victory of the Micro-optimist

The tremendous and affable wave of people that flowed from Habima Square to Kikar Hamedina was impossible to cover in the news. Reports from the scene missed many fascinating moments and many human nuances.

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One out of every 16 Israelis demonstrated in the city streets on the night of Saturday, September 3. And there were many more - who can count them all? - such as the elderly woman who waved enthusiastically from a balcony on Tel Aviv's Bloch Street, shouting, "Good luck to you."

Every tent protest also needs a balcony. Together with the balcony-sitters - who looked on encouragingly but did not venture down into the streets because of age or health or transportation issues - we were a million.

Protesters in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Hamedina Saturday with an image of Yitzhak Tshuva. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Israeli society had never been more split. I wrote that here only two months ago. There are few opportunities to be proven wrong when expressing political pessimism. But, more amazingly, it seems in fact that the optimism I had expressed in other opinion pieces, the faith I had expressed in the understanding and strength of "middle Israel," was more on target. Certainly I am not the only Israeli who is thrilled by the defeat of the little pessimist scurrying around inside her, or the victory of the micro-optimist in her heart.

The tremendous and affable wave of people that flowed from Habima Square to Kikar Hamedina was impossible to cover in the news. Reports from the scene missed many fascinating moments and many human nuances.

It was written erroneously that migrant workers and "the truly weak" did not participate in the march. But at 8 P.M., dozens of Asian women marched down Ibn Gabirol Street. On Jabotinsky Street, a large cluster of people from Jaffa forged ahead.

Now, the pundit should pause; I am against academic analyses in the midst of things as they happen. But it is possible to suggest some cautious insights here, insights that benefit from the freshness of the experience.

For example, relations between the individual and the many: Unlike demonstrators in the United States and Europe, Israelis do not march in orderly, rectangular formations. They do not march in uniform groups with a baton-wielder marching in front of them and trumpeters behind. In Tel Aviv, individuals mingled constantly with the collective. They mingled with joy and in no particular order.

It's worth getting used to this notion: Israeli refinement, cultivation and sophistication do exist. At street level.

Anyone who has ever attended a "social" demonstration in Berlin or Copenhagen knows what I mean. Here, they don't collect beer bottles and shards of shop windows from the sidewalks the following day. Here, rebels hand out pamphlets with critical theory, and they march with dreadlocks and drums. I have never seen a similar demonstration abroad with so much good-natured behavior and courtesy.

The social networks worked as cement, not as bricks. The bricks had been poured earlier. Between Habima Square and Kikar Hamedina, Israeli civil society spread like a stalwart - not a virtual - civil network of organizations and clubs, movements and neighborhoods, families and friends, all of them drawing their strength from belonging, not from alienation.

What began as a Facebook-to-Facebook interaction could blossom only face-to-face, and for that there is no one in the world like the Israelis.

Cell phones played the same role that the torches did in 1948 between Lakhish and Azaka. Rosh Pina signaled to Nes Tziona, and Carmiel signaled to Arad. In Hod Hasharon, something major happened: There was a surprising presence in Kfar Yehoshua and Jerusalem took to the streets.

The geography of the demonstration was far more exciting than its numbers. The students association and the youth movements had their finest hour. When the great ship of the labor movement sank, a few small boats remained above water. The most beautiful of the boats, which spread their sails and kept all hands on deck, were the youth movements, Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed and Hashomer Hatzair. Yet this time, shoulder to shoulder, the grandchildren of the labor movement marched together with the grandchildren of its rivals.

Anyone who looked up at the windows of Kikar Hamedina saw many figures in the darkened living rooms gazing out at the spectacle. From one apartment, a sheet dangled, displaying the American peace symbol of the 1960s. Was the top one-thousandth on the socioeconomic scale extending a hand of peace and neighborliness to Israeli society in revolt? Did the inhabitants of Kikar Hamedina, perhaps for the first time, feel that they were living on the wrong side of town?

Peace symbol aside, the demonstration was purely Israeli. There was no need here for Woodstock or Paris of 1968. The songs and the symbols were Israeli, ancient as the golden calf, new as Daphni Leef's trilby, and both ancient and new as the tent itself. All of these poured naturally into the global foundations of this demonstration. Social justice sounded no less universal in Hebrew. Maybe even more so.

There are legitimate opponents to this demonstration, and it also has its extreme enemies. Loathers of the social agenda. Snoops into Leef's biography. Stalkers of the human rights organizations. The right that is stuck tight, sadly turning the handle of personal attack.

But how interesting it would be here if the right that isn't stuck tight - the right that is capable of creativity - offered a contributing voice of its own to the new Israeli discussion. If that happens, then I really was wrong at the beginning of this summer, and that is a very good thing indeed.

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