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Something Was Missing at Tel Aviv's Economic Protest. Maybe Things Aren't Bad Enough Yet

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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A protest against the poor government aid given to the self-employed during the coronavirus crisis, Tel Aviv, July 11, 2020
A protest against the poor government aid given to the self-employed during the coronavirus crisis, Tel Aviv, July 11, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Saturday's demonstration calling for more government aid during the coronavirus crisis had the high-achieving energy of the demonstration in support of the LGBTQ community after the surrogacy law was passed, or of the Druze demonstration against the so-called nation-state law (not, perish the thought, the demonstration that took place around a week later against the humiliation of 20 percent of Israel’s population, the Arabs). Rabin Square and the streets leading to it were filled with lively streams of people, as the drums and squeeze horns got people's blood flowing.

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People wore face masks and observed social distancing rules, but the human humidity, of the sort typical of lively events, rose from the crowd and embraced it. In contrast to the glum memorial rallies for Yitzhak Rabin and a few other gatherings that have become the personal possession of a very specific population group – most members of which live near the square – many of the participants were young. They gave the demonstration a certain fun atmosphere, because in the strange and depressing era in which we live, it’s impossible to gather like human beings and enjoy the simplest and most wonderful substances that our brains release.

Despite efforts not to give the demonstration a political character, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that in the vast crowd that came to the square, there was not a single attendee who cast their vote for Likud, or “Bibi,” as the party's ballot slips are now called. There were some black flag bearers aligned with the protest movement of the same name, from that protest movement, and of course the “Crime Minister” sign contingent. If only everything in my life was as reliable as their presence to the left of the stage.

A protester holds a sign that reads'democracy dies in darkness' at the Rabin Square protest, Tel Aviv, July 11, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Before the square filled up, I met Tami Nasi, Yair Lapid’s right-hand woman. She said that many Yesh Atid members would attend, but they wouldn’t be wearing party T-shirts, since the organizers had asked for a nonpolitical demonstration.

Nothing was more justified than this protest. The government’s economic handling of the coronavirus crisis was negligent and cold-hearted. It has hurt the self-employed in all parts of society. Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, left-wingers and right-wingers. But with all the anger, insult, uncertainty and anxiety, more than anything else, this demonstration recalled the instinct-driven social protests of 2011 and not a civil uprising of humiliated, frightened and hungry people.

The protest was attended by thousands of Israelis, Tel Aviv, July 11, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Perhaps it was the geographical location, which is not accessible to people in real distress, but anyone at the protest who knows Israeli society’s byways and alleyways may have got the impression that things are not yet bad enough here. Of course there’s distress and anxiety in central Tel Aviv – as seen in the cafes that have given up the ghost, the restaurants that are closing one after another, the shops advertising closing down sales and the glum spirit that hangs over it all. But as long as the strong link in Israeli society is leading and orchestrating the protest, it will suffer from an essential contradiction that will limit its power.

It’s still too early to judge the panicked plan Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cooked up when he finally realized that normal people have to make a living, because they have expenses. On the assumption that the continued conduct of the government won’t be much better and economic distress will grow, the protests must go beyond the familiar circles of the 'just not Bibi' camp.

The interesting question is whether the coronavirus crisis will become so powerful that it will be able to smash tribal divisions, which still dictate protests, or, alternatively, blind support for the prime minister.