Israel's Social Protesters Renewing the Battle for Awareness

Many have been quick to discount the reappearance of the tents on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, and question the agenda behind setting up two weeks before the election.

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Activist Shay Cohen at the tent protest camp on Rothschild Boulevard.
Activist Shay Cohen at the tent protest camp on Rothschild Boulevard.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

There hangs a sign on one of the tents that was erected on Rothschild Boulevard earlier this week that reads "we're coming out of the closet and moving into national housing." Another sign reads "'life itself' is dying on the street,'" referencing a recent statement made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the Iranian nuclear threat.

Many of the tents here are empty. There isn't much activity here during the day, and although it ramps up a bit during the evening it pales in comparison to the events of 2011. Many were quick to eulogize this new protest movement, some happily, and others with a mix of sadness and desperation. It's possible that both reactions to the protest are baseless.

The twenty tents can be seen in the greater context of other issues such as Israel Chemical employees in southern Israel, the Israeli hospitals being overrun with patients they can't handle or the ongoing struggle for improved conditions in Israeli daycares.

Housing, employment, health and education are the issues that need to be center stage during this election. The guerilla activity on Rothschild Boulevard is meant to remind Israeils of that, to be a kind of social-economic honor guard for the public discourse, which is usually conducted in arenas that have little to do with the people's day-to-day needs.

Shay Cohen is one of the people behind this new-old encampment on Rothschild. About two weeks ago, he wrote on his Facebook page: "So here I am, suddenly 40-years-old. I have a wonderful family, lots of good in my life, but everything is still too expensive, and buying an apartment hi the area we live in seems like a faraway dream."

Cohen added, writing "we all are truly in need of a revolution in our government's social and economic policy. So for a birthday present this year I want you all to take a mat, a tent and come, at least for one night, and I promise we'll laugh and drink together, but we'll also shout and remind everyone who we are and what we demand."

Cohen is one of the founders of the organization "Koach l'Ovdim," or the Democratic Workers’ Organization, created seven years ago. Cohen continues to be involved there, helping to organize new labor unions throughout Israel. "A few friends sat down together, along with my oldest daughter, to think about how to celebrate my next birthday," says Cohen. "And then we realized that we needed to fight against the heavy shadow hanging over the celebrations – the housing crisis. My private text was meant for lots of people, not necessarily professional revolutionaries, but rather 40 and 50-year-olds, who work hard day and night, but can't hold their heads up high."

The current activity on Rothschild is guided by the thought that the people need to stop apologizing, and return to the protests. It seems that Israel Chemical employees and those forced out of Tel Aviv's Givat Amal neighborhood heeded the call, as they joined the protest last week as well. The activists here don't hide their desire to rearrange the country's list of priorities, and they're unashamed of the timing of the protest, right before the election. The protest is a fight against the way in which decisions are made and resources are distributed, and it is just as legitimate as another historic speech in Washington, if not more so. In this regard, Cohen wants to thank MK Miri Regev (Likud) who said about the tents and the activity there that "there's a limit to the lies and hypocrisy of the anti-Zionist camp, just like the last protest, all they want to do is take down Netanyahu's government." Attacks from Regev and other Likud leaders not only attest to the importance of the protests, but also help get the word out: similar tent camps have already sprung up in Be'er Sheva and northern Israel.

Since the protests of 2011, Cohen says "the political system has gained the ability to develop the skin of an elephant, and to cry crocodile tears," adding, "I've been investing in social change for many years, and I'm not ashamed of using the upcoming election to advance social issues."

Inbal Hermoni, another activist at the Rothschild camp, says, "they ask us why we took to the streets two weeks before the election, or what our interests are. But when exactly do they want us to protest? When is it convenient? There's no better time than an election, no objective more important than putting the social-economic agenda in the public's mind as they go to the polls."

Reluctance toward political acts can be explained in a few ways. One of them perhaps is the lack of hope that change can happen. But the measures of success are complex and elusive. But success is expressed in even just one person convinced by Cohen's statements that the current government's handling of the housing crisis is "not a mistake but rather a purposeful policy;" or in the tent bearing a sign that reads "it takes 140 monthly salaries to buy an apartment," or the public outcry against the gas monopoly, or the sharp increase in recent years in organized labor.

"You can't just think about the immediate result. You just have to do the right thing," says Hermoni, adding, "social change is a long process. The battle for awareness never ends."

Troubling reports from the Knesset

Sometimes, protests have immediate results as well. For example the creation of the "Knesset social guard," that grew out of the 2011 protest movement, and published this week a comprehensive report on the last Knesset's activities. The findings included that the Knesset's Ministerial Committee for Legislation primarily determined the fate of every bill, and that the legislative branch has become "a de-facto rubber stamp."

The report found that most socially or economically oriented bills that passed took aim only at specific issues, while legislation meant to create fundamental change were rejected, or buried. Knesset members' voting participation in such bulls also continually declined, as did the opposition's fighting spirit: opposition MKs participated on average in 28 less votes on socially or economically oriented bills than coalition MKs.

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