On Sunday night, a rally convened in Rabin Square in central Tel Aviv to protest the damage being done to Israeli democracy. At this rally, called the “Black Flags” protest, Haaretz photographer Tomer Appelbaum took a perfect picture using a drone, of what may have been a one-of-a-kind scene. Thousands of demonstrators filled the square and adjacent streets, while scrupulously maintaining a two-meter distance from one another. The result, showing the crowd observing social distancing with each demonstrator standing on a spot marked by the organizers, created an almost engineered pattern of people.
This was a stark contrast to “normal” demonstrations, which are dense and complex affairs, with clashes with police. This time, the tidy look of human dots studding the square, spaced out, and with policemen not interfering with the event, emphasized the power of this space — yet again demonstrating the degree to which Rabin Square has become an asset for Israeli democracy.
The “Black Flags” protest is a new milestone in the history of this square, which has been amply documented. What hasn’t it seen yet? The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 gave it mythic dimensions. It has seen the fans of Maccabi Tel Aviv jumping into the fountain after the team won the European basketball championship in the 1970s (and again in 2014); it has witnessed fans of the transgender singer Dana International reenact that celebration when she won the Eurovision song contest in 1998. Rabin Square, has also been the venue of countless demonstrations, including one featuring an estimated 400,000 protesters after the Sabra and Shatila massacre during the first Lebanon war; it also hosted a rally against the disengagement from Gaza in 2005.
But the coronavirus is a new time and provided an exhilarating new demonstration of the uses the square can serve.
Prof. Tali Hatuka, an architect and urban planner from Tel Aviv University, wrote about the history of Rabin Square. It sits on what used to be an orange orchard belonging to the Arab village of Sommeil. The municipality purchased it in 1925, intending to build a hospital there, but ended up using it as a park. For a while the area served as a parking lot. In 1951 a contest was held to plan a plaza in the space, which was won by the then young architects Shimon Povzner and Avraham Yaski. They designed it as an elongated rectangle, 190 by 97 meters. A book reviewing Povzner’s works defines the square as the acme of partnership in planning ceremonial plazas.
Actual construction of the plaza dragged out because the new municipality building was being constructed next to it in parallel. When it was inaugurated in 1966, the city said that this, its largest square, was meant to hold rallies and folk celebrations, as well as strolling and relaxing.
Pompous PR efforts usually overstate matters and indeed, it cannot be said that the square serves for many an amble and a rest, which may however work in its favor. As Hatuka writes: “Despite the rigidity [in its purpose], and perhaps because of it, the square fulfilled a significant role in various events throughout the city’s history. The space of this square, which was already used for social-political assemblies in the 1930s, such as during the protest against the British Mandate White Paper in 1939, has undergone a process of transformation, becoming more rigid.”
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In the 2001 documentary film "The Arena" (Hazira), directed by Moish Goldberg and Jonathan Gurfinkel, which showed a group of people protesting the construction of an underground parking garage on the site in 2001, Yaski discusses the rigidity of Rabin Square’s utilization. “It’s not a beautiful square, it’s not one with some unusual design,” he says. “The square has a function which is much more than something aesthetic…basically, it’s an urban space, meaning that the city has opened up a space at its center, making room for people gathering there for special occasions. This is a social urban vessel needed for a nation.”
The character of Rabin Square has faced some threats, one being a proposal to build underground parking there, which would have increased local congestion and reduced general public access. Another is the city’s habit of renting out the square to commercial interest groups. But even if Rabin Square isn’t sophisticated like the Campo del Fiore in Siena, romantic like the San Marco Square in Venice, dynamic like Times Square in New York or Trafalgar Square in London, or as bustling as Tel Aviv’s renovated Dizengoff Square, Sunday’s protest showed its best use. Due to its size and presence, it serves as the most important democratic space in Israel during times of disaster, war or epidemics. Rabin Square belongs to the nation, even when the human elements that make up this nation have to keep a distance of six feet from one another.