I Pitched a Tent in the Center of Tel Aviv. This Is What Happened

Hagai Amit made a bid to reignite the spirit of the social protest. The masses prefer their smartphones.

Tuesday, July 12, 2:30 P.M. It’s true that the 2011 social protests in Israel actually began on July 14, but we couldn’t wait. Achieving the element of surprise demands that we bring our mission two days forward.

It’s basic marketing — if everybody’s going to hit the streets again, let’s get there first, become the founding core of the movement. Be in one of the first seven tents: Then you get invited to the talk shows and have a chance at a career in the Knesset, with pay of $10,000 a month. Last time around we only came after some 300 tents had already arisen and nobody noticed us.

We take the placard we prepared, pack the tent and grab a cab to Rothschild Boulevard. Tree-lined pedestrian and bike paths stretch along its extent, in the middle of which, in the burning heat of the summer of 2011, hundreds of tents sprang up in protest at the high cost of housing, and living in general, in Israel.

July 12. Remember that date.

2:50 P.M.: En route. My main fear is that the police or the city will make trouble. Inspectors trying to send us packing half an hour after we set up the tent could ruin our plans. We’d have to explain that the revolution is on their behalf too, try to bring them onto our side. If it doesn’t work there’s glory in being frog-marched off in handcuffs too.

3 P.M.: After some argument over location, we choose a spot towards the boulevard’s end at Habima Square, exactly where Daphni Leef set up her famous tent on July 14, 2011. If it worked then, surely it will work again. Anyway, it has the best shade. Approaching, we see there’s already one tent there and panic that somebody stole our idea, but it turns out to be a prop for a TV skit. We wait for them to leave and settle in. We’ll be the kings of the party to come, megaphone in hand and telling the DJ what music to play.

I figure there will be 10 tents by nightfall, maybe 50, and by week’s end at least 1,000 people camping out on the median. At least 100,000 will show up for the Saturday night demonstration, all we need is to arrange busing from the north. By this summer’s end nobody will remember the half-million people marching for social justice one night in 2011. We’re coming.

‘I’d stay, but I’m in a hurry’

3:15: We did it. The first tent of the 2016 summer protest is up. I look at it proudly. It’s a six-person, family-sized tent.

With all my delight, I also feel the weight of history on my shoulders. I don’t deny how the plastic sheet I just draped over two sticks undermines the stability of the State of Israel. When you start a revolution, you never know how it will end. Stronger regimes than Israel’s have collapsed like a house of cards because of people like us. So be it. They brought it on themselves.

I’m rather surprised nobody else thought of this. It’s so obvious — things are worse than in 2011. Housing prices have risen by 30%, the prices of meat and fish have risen, together with those of fruit and vegetables and even cottage cheese (which, by rising to 8 shekels ($2) for a 250-gram tub, triggered the first consumer protest).

Inequality is worse and so is education, the prime minister hasn’t been replaced and defense budgets continue to grow. Concentration in the banking system hasn’t been reduced and the natural-gas deal the government shoved through assures us of high electricity bills for years to come. Things have to boil over. The streets of Tel Aviv just need the match to set them alight and I’m willing.

3:30: Truth is, the boulevard seems pretty empty. Some moms with strollers, kids out with dogs and lots of people busy with their smartphones. Nine out of 10 pedestrians are on their phones. There were smartphones in 2011 too but they seemed less prevalent. Here and there somebody glances at out placard and walks on.

A guy on a bicycle stops. “I remember the protest. I remember it unhappily. They gave up too soon,” he says sadly. “I’d stay but I’m in a hurry.”

“We’re reviving the protest. Join us!” I call on a young couple strolling down the boulevard. “Hey, maybe,” they say and walk on.

A kid with a guitar case sits on a nearby bench and looks at our tent. “If there were more tents here, I’d join. We’re all in the same boat,” he says, then leaves.

I try to attract the attention of a young mother with a baby and a dog. In 2011, the “stroller protest” was part of the social-justice movement, but this one has a baby carrier. “I’d be happy to join. I’ll just put the baby and dog at home and return,” she says, much as people tell shoe salesmen, “I’ll come back soon.” No, you won’t.

A young guy pops up. “How great that you’re still here! I passed in a bus, saw you and hoped you’d still be here. But I’m a soldier. I can’t be involved.”

We give up on the young’uns and try folk with some years under their belts. “I’m not sure a tent is the best way to revive the protest,” says a woman who gives her name as Netta. “I think the government does need pressure, because things just keep getting worse. What did the last protest achieve? Nothing, no change in the cost of living in Israel or in housing prices. But bringing back the tents isn’t the answer, that’s a kind of recycling. What’s needed is something new.”

She lives on Rothschild, Netta adds, and didn’t put up a tent but identified with the people who did. She still believes the people can bring about change, but it takes persistence and consistency, and people to lead the effort.

4 P.M.: Netta’s right . The protest must be authentic. Recycling is for the birds. Maybe that’s why we’re having such trouble getting people to join us. We need to invent something new. Maybe a parasol protest would work better. Or maybe the very characteristic that fired up the last protest, its generality, its appeal to the broadest common denominator, is working against us this time.

“I was here at every demonstration the last time around and didn’t feel anybody was saying anything practical, that was useful,” says Ismargad, a young lady who stops for a moment to show support. “For instance, it’s difficult to be environmentally minded and to be involved with consumerism. It would be better if they took a smaller common denominator to protest ... if there’s no practical application people would rather spend their time watching television.”

Where’s the fire

4:30: We can try striking this match of our protest till our fingers bleed, but nada. The streets of Tel Aviv refuse to catch fire. I start to feel like an old auntie trying to raise money to knit sweaters for orphans. People avert their gaze, lest we make eye contact and ask for their support.

“I participated in the demonstration five years ago, not in Tel Aviv though. I didn’t put up a tent, I just demonstrated. Going by my experience, there’s no point because it didn’t go in the right direction. The fresh young protest leaders went to national politics and the older ones spun things so nothing happened, says Tziki, who lives in a northern Israel and came to Tel Aviv for a day of R&R.

Where should the protest leaders have gone?

Tziki: “They should have kept protesting.”

How can things be changed for Israeli citizens?

“Only by voting in the Knesset elections, through orindary democracy.”

4:45: A police car passes. We try to attract the cops’ attention to the public nuisance we have created. By this point we crave any attention. They ignore us. There isn’t even a city inspector to be seen. As far as law enforcement is concerned, I could stay here forever. People have been living in tents by the Arlosoroff train station for four years and nobody cares. Just as we start to give up, Oded and Aviya show up.

They’re definitely going to set up a tent on Rothschild, they say: The 2011 protest fizzled and the cost of living in Israel just got higher. “Mainly, I want the rule of the people to go back to the people,” Oded states. “I reject this cynical reality in which we live.”

Could if possibly succeed where it failed before?

Avia: “I hope so. The more noise we make, the better the chances. The problem is that all the noise these days is on Facebook. Nobody’s taking to the streets. Last time around I was abroad. Maybe that’s why it didn’t work.”

Oded explains that democracy doesn’t begin and end with putting ballots into boxes: “The people need to take responsibility. The round tables from which the State of Israel’s constitution will grow should arise from these tents,” he says.

Sounds like you really care. Would you lead the next protest?

“Why not, sure.”

Why are you laughing?

“It isn’t every day that I undertake to lead a revolution.”

Seriously, are you saying you’d join the movement if there were tents, but wouldn’t initiate it?

“I teach theater and I’m working on my final project.”

What’s it about?

“Democracy and revolution, and the future of our generation in Israel. We’re totally getting into it. How long are you here for? I’ll talk with the guys and we’ll come.”

5:30: After the magical months of mid-2011, when everyone seemed united around a cause, the meeting with reality in 2016 is sobering. It’s a shame. No question, if people took to the streets again, it could make a difference.

I fold up the tent. After all, I have to pick up the kid from his after-school program. There’s a show I want to see tonight. But surely I can count on Oded and Avia to show up with their people and pick up the banner.

With reporting by Rafaella Goichman