A Protest Bigger Than the Space It Occupies

It is no secret that Israel does not have a single 'city square' deserving of the title in the traditional sense of the words, and there are few squares, if at all, that may be counted among this grand family.

The tent protest is bigger not only than the sum of its demands, but also than all its public squares combined.

It is no secret that Israel does not have a single "city square" deserving of the title in the traditional sense of the words, and there are few squares, if at all, that may be counted among this grand family. But isn't it amazing to see how these non-squares scattered across the country are quite successfully seeing the full flowering of civil democracy?

museum of art
Tal Cohen

From Kiryat Shmona to Be'er Sheva, from Afula to Petah Tikva, Ashdod, Baka al-Gharbiya and even Holon, these spaces have been transformed into a single, large network of expansive solidarity. It seems that the fact they actually do not count as city squares in the grandest sense of the word - which have become overly kitschy and too touristy to hold protests in any case - has actually turned them into the perfect place to spontaneously agitate for social justice.

The absence of Rabin Square, currently being renovated, did not weaken the hand of the tent protests. The 100,000 protesters in Tel Aviv were not disturbed by the fact that the default option, the plaza of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, is normally seen as second-rate. Nor did the presence of Defense Ministry headquarters across the street cow them. This protest was bigger than militarism.

Rabin Square is the only urban square in Israel that comes close to the traditional definition of a city square, but it seems that its status has been recently undermined by its niceness and friendliness, with the wonderful fountain that recently opened there that attracts delighted families. Who knows if its glory days will ever return? At the same time, there was also a certain undermining of Tel Aviv's presumed hegemony as the only urban city in Israel, and as the only city that can spark activism.

It all may have started in Tel Aviv, but the tent camps that popped up in the peripheral cities are the ones that are powering the revolution. If 20 tents were set up in a city devoid of even a hint of urbanity such as Modi'in, and 1,000 non-Tel Avivians came out of their homes to join the protesters, and if Hod Hasharon - the truth is I didn't remember it was a city - brought out 400 protesters and people showing solidarity, and if in Be'er Sheva hundreds of protest tents went up and hundreds of protesters marched to the plaza in front of city hall, and if at the Horev Center in Haifa a reported 15,000 protesters gathered on Saturday night, and Arab protesters joined in, it is a sign that urbanism in Israel has not had the last word and apparently its rules need to be reformulated.

Or perhaps this protest is the one that has not yet had the last word.

The public space itself became larger than the sum of its parts. Some 150,000 people provided every park, garden, street corner and strip of grass in Petah Tikva, Afula, Ashdod, Kiryat Shmona and Tiberias a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to for a moment be a bona fide Israeli Hyde Park.

Nearly three weeks after the protests started, they are prompting harsh deliberations. On one hand, the childish, romantic dream is that it will never end, that the protest will only intensify and remain in the squares and boulevards forever, young and spontaneous for eternity.

However, there is also the equally romantic and naive hope that the protest will quickly achieve all of its unfocused goals, and the protesters will return home peacefully - though not before they succeed in their just struggle against the National Housing Committees Law.

Under the guise of supposedly reducing the bureaucracy, and without a housing policy, the law is meant to help real estate and not social causes and will lead to the elimination of open spaces, public and private, without resolving the housing crisis at the heart of the demonstrations.

The children of the revolutionaries may have no open spaces along the boulevards to pitch their own tents.

Solution in hand

The Technion has accepted the challenge. In a last minute move, the Architecture and Urban Construction department decided to set up a protest camp in a Haifa auditorium to host a panel of architects and protesters to discuss housing, under the title "More for Less."

The Israel Association of United Architects also awoke from its slumber. In a position paper signed by chairman Prof. Baruch Baruch, the union states that the planning and operative tools for resolving the housing crisis already exist and can be activated. The union "encourages the government to find an appropriate solution for the housing problem and especially housing that is obtainable by changing land regulation policy, strengthening the city centers and using available lands within the cities and communities, while upholding environmental values and maintaining public and private space."

The advantage of the urban renewal programs for built-up areas, the union stresses, is in the fact that they include have a large share of the physical and essential infrastructure, such as educational and cultural institutions, commercial space and road networks, and there is no need to build those from scratch.