If You Think the Occupy Movement Was a Failure, Just Look at Jesus

Like many similar movements around the globe, Israel's 2011 social protest crashed and burned. But even if it seems a bit ridiculous in retrospect, at least it happened.

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Members of Occupy Wall Street stage a protest near Wall Street in New York, on October 15, 2011.
Members of Occupy Wall Street stage a protest near Wall Street in New York, on October 15, 2011. Credit: Emmanuel Dunand, AFP

Signs reading “Welcome to social parking” have appeared recently on some streets in Tel Aviv. As far as I can make out, the signs are related to a service that allows you to rent a personal parking space from a local resident for your car by the hour. Not far from there, some of the city’s cafes are offering “social beer”: Goldstar or Maccabi, local brands, in a small glass, for 10 shekels (about $2.50). I’ve also spotted “social coffee” and “social sandwiches.” In practice, this is what’s left of the 2011 social-protest movement: reduced prices in some businesses. It’s the last grotesque tweet of the thundering outcry of five years ago.

For the past two-three years I’ve tried not to talk about the social-protest movement. During the fall of 2011 and the winter of 2012, I believed that the flame of the protest had to be protected against being extinguished. The truth is that I thought it could not be extinguished: The problems hadn’t been solved, so people would return to the streets. Nevertheless, the mass marches became marches of a few thousand, then a few hundred before they disappeared altogether. And what did remain became ever more ludicrous and outlandish.

Until, at a certain stage, I found myself in a small camp of “loyalists of the social-protest movement.” We went on speaking the language of the summer of 2011, while everyone around us had switched to other subjects: the Mizrahi revival, BDS, emigration. It all happened quite fast, but though we were only 30-somethings, we looked like a postmodern version of those elderly folk who are still protesting the dismantling of the Palmach and persist in meeting every week to sing the anthem of that pre-state strike force.

With the benefit of this insight, I decided that, precisely so as to avoid cheapening the events of that summer, the phrase “social protest movement” must never be uttered. Still, here I am, uttering it – possibly for the last time.

Protest tents against housing shortages and high rent prices on Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv, July 2011.Credit: Motti Kimchi

But what actually happened in the summer of 2011? Looking back now, the social-protest movement appears totally ridiculous. It looks like a childish, anemic, inchoate impulse whose only accomplishment was to glorify a few politicians who became old before their time. For the ensuing consumerist dialogue to take place, there was no need to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. Moreover, those who argue that the protest movement led much of Israel’s left-wing camp to abandon the Palestinians, and shift to dealing exclusively with issues like the natural-gas monopoly, are right.

Still, the perspective of time allows us to see a few things that weren’t clear five years ago. For example, the global context. All in all, the protest in this country was one of hundreds of mass protest movements that flared up around the world, from Russia to Chile. The movements empowered one other. The protest message flew from one city square to the next, and when it faded in one place it burned brightly in another. In 2012, the French philosopher Alain Badiou declared “the rebirth of history” within the framework of a world uprising against the ruling financial oligarchy. “Our masters know this better than us: they are secretly trembling and building up their weaponry,” he wrote.

All this was known at the time of the protest here, too. What was less known was the failure of many of those same protest movements. Roughly speaking, they can be divided into two types: those that melted away without leaving a trace, and those that led to the rise of protest parties that became active in the political realm and to radical or anti-capitalist leaders who failed to achieve anything concrete. True, some of the failures were heroic, so much so that they can only with difficulty be called failures. But the emerging result in most places was, in fact, the strengthening of the right wing. The masters are no longer trembling so much.

So the problems of the Israeli protest movement are not unique to this country. Elsewhere, too, demonstrators have run up against two challenges. First, the middle class still has too much to lose and is therefore fearful of toppling the whole system; and, second, even left-wing governments are subordinate today to international financial bodies, which severely limits their freedom of action. Hence, the failure of the Israeli protest movement is not necessarily related to some unique enfeeblement of the local demonstrators.

A protester holds a placard outside St. Paul's Cathedral in the city of London on October 16, 2011 as part of a global day of protests inspired by the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement. Credit: Ben Stansall, AFP

On the other hand, one important thing can be said to the credit of the social-protest movement: It took place. “One of the most striking achievements of the social-protest movement is that it occurred,” Daphni Leef, one of the Israeli movement’s leaders, wrote a few days ago. On the face of it, a senseless, even dumb statement. But it actually contains a great truth. Numberless left-wing projects are conceived, for instance, in the seminar rooms of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem or on the drawing board of this or that Israeli leftist NGO. These are sophisticated, just political projects – far more so than the vague cry of the tent dwellers in Tel Aviv in 2011. The problem is that there are approximately three and a half people who actually believe in those projects and are ready to take to the streets to implement them. The social-protest movement had no sophisticated theory behind it, but it happened. It’s an event that is amenable to various interpretations.

I remember being struck by an almost mystical thought toward the end of that summer. I thought of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Some depict him as a political radical who headed a movement of protest against Roman rule. That may be so. But if it was a protest movement, it’s hard to say that it succeeded. Seemingly, nothing changed. History went on. The Roman Empire did not collapse, the emperor apparently never even heard about the revolt. Even Pontius Pilate stayed on as prefect for a few years afterward. In political terms, Jesus failed. He accomplished nothing on the ground.

It was only many years later that someone heard about the movement that Jesus led, but it went on to become the most powerful force on Earth. Who knows? Maybe someday the story of the protest movement of the summer of 2011 will be told in those terms, too.