Over the years, Tel Aviv's Rabin Square had been the site of many a protest: peace rallies, cost-of-living demonstrations, water fights. But last week, Tel Aviv's most central square hosted a demonstration of a very different kind: dozens of mothers breastfeeding their infants in public.
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Very little chanting was done. No songs were sung. Just mothers doing what one Israeli newscaster (Oded Ben Ami) would term "the most natural of acts."
The impetus behind the belligerent breastfeed was what organizers called "an attempt to exclude mothers from the public sphere". It was preceded by a Facebook event opened called "The People Demand a Breastfeeding Sit-in!"
The woman who created the page (not a mother herself) explained: "For months I've been hearing about people being abusive to women who breastfed in public - in supermarkets, in cafes, in clinics, even in shopping mall parking lots."
In Israel, a country with the highest fertility rate among OECD countries, it is not uncommon to see women breastfeed in public. In malls, in cafes, in the middle of the street sometimes, breastfeeding has become almost a norm. Some mothers choose to cover themselves while they do it. Others prefer to remain "au-naturel".
This, of course, is where the controversy arises: some people – religious or otherwise –prefer not to have breastfeeding women in their FOV.
Some of these people, it turns out, are not very nice. Some, you might say, are downright mean.
The long arm of the law reaches out
Well, mothers weren't going to take it anymore. In a matter of hours, the breastfeeding protest went viral, with thousands of Facebook posts and hundreds of women changing their Facebook profile pictures to pictures of, well, babies clinging to their boobs. Some, who didn't actually have a baby to feed, took pictures of themselves with puppets as babies, in a show of support.
After the breastfeeding frenzy swamped Israeli social media, it was time for it to graduate to the evening news. Prodded by the protest, Knesset member Tamar Zandberg sponsored a bill that would protect breastfeeders from being harassed or excluded from public spaces. If a women breastfeeding in public is berated or asked to leave, according to the bill, she can sue the people harassing her for financial compensation.
Not everyone was so supportive, though.
"I can't recall the last time I encountered such resistance after revealing a piece of my breast. From men," protested one Facebook user. In a graphic (and kind of racist) remark on her morning show, Israeli model and TV presenter Galit Gutman said: "Culturally, people in India defecate in the street and wipe – if they wipe - with banana leaves. Here it is unacceptable. There are things that are OK to do in public, and things that are not."
Gutman, of course, was internet-lynched for her comparison between breastfeeding and defecating, complete with memes showing magazine pictures of her scantily clad, breasts in full view.
Now that they've got Israel's attention, the leaders of the breastfeeding protest vow to continue with their struggle to make breastfeeding acceptable in public – until victory. On December 24th, their protest will reach its peak, with a day of breastfeeding rallies/sit-ins to be held all over Israel in a venerable breast-a-palooza.
The question remains, though, who exactly is the enemy.
The burgeoning protest uses all the key protest-rhetoric clichés, complete with a sense of impending disaster and hysterical posts about exclusion and fundamental rights being revoked. But who, exactly, is the threat here? While mothers breastfeeding in public are sometimes subjected to negative reactions – some of them very hurtful, it's true –no one is actively trying to ban breastfeeding in public places, and it's hard to imagine a survey in which most Israelis would be against breastfeeding their babies when they need to be breastfed.
And if breastfeeding in public causes some people to feel uneasy, is the point to forcefully rid them of their discomfort? If no one is chasing you, are you really just protesting for your right to run scared?
Not everyone in Israel, it should be noted, cares so much about public breastfeeding, one way or another. Earlier this week, for instance, in a Tel Aviv café, a mother was seen breastfeeding her baby. She had no apron, no bib, no fuss. People were doing their business, smoking, drinking, chatting up the waiters. No one even noticed the breastfeeding, or at it seemed that way.
Could the lady have been subject to abuse because of her actions? In another setting, possibly, yes. Would it be wrong? Hell yes. But this one time, no one made a fuss and no one got hurt. A baby was fed, is all. As usual, the best thing is for everyone is to live and let live. And just relax.