In the Inner Sanctum of the Tent Protest Organizers

Behind the scenes, tent-protest organizers explain the processes involved in making decisions, how they try to avoid politics and where their money is coming from.

Imbued with renewed energy after last Saturday's estimated 300,000-person demonstration in Tel Aviv, members of Dror Israel - the parent organization of the Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed youth movement - met at the tent city on Rothschild Boulevard. One of them, wearing a blue shirt (symbolizing the status of the laborer, according to the movement) with red laces (symbolizing the workers' blood ) was ranting against the tycoons.

A few meters away, another member was passing out flyers condemning the government. "Fight to save your home," screamed one of the pamphlets. "The Israeli government's economic policies do not serve the needs of the country's citizens!"

Shlomo Artzi, protest, Daphni Leef
Nimrod Glickman

Hanoar Haoved activists now have representatives at 15 tent cities around the country, and meetings of all the other organizations taking part in the demonstrations are being held at the movement's headquarters in Tel Aviv. The movement has also contributed thousands of shekels to help fund the mass demonstrations.

Founded in 1924 in the spirit of the socialist labor movement, Hanoar Haoved currently has about 40,000 young members - Jews and Arabs - in several hundred branches. Overall, about 100,000 activists are involved in its various activities. Hanoar Haoved gets its funding from the Education Ministry and from municipalities. The ministry gives it NIS 13 million a year, which is 20 percent of the ministry's total budget for youth movements.

For its part, Dror Israel is only one of the groups among the "protest organizers," who launched a small Facebook initiative that swelled to include several hundred thousand protesters around the country by last Saturday.

"When you are in the middle of the campaign, sometimes it's hard to say exactly where the decisions are being made. It's extremely fluid out there. This partly has to do with the fact that this protest is not organized. It is a campaign by all, and therefore cannot be institutionalized," said Uri Matoki, the spokesman of Dror Israel.

The protest movement's organization is led by 10 to 15 "veteran" activists, as they were there when the first tents were being put up. Several of them, including Daphni Leef and Stav Shafir, are now familiar names. A group called the "secret seven" meets every day, outside the tent city and the cameras' range. They make the important decisions, such as those concerning organization of the large-scale rallies, in conjunction with more established organizations such as the National Union of Israeli Students and the Dror Israel movement.

"Decisions are reached by consensus. If one of the sides has a different opinion, we seek a middle ground. So far, there hasn't been a single issue that we've been absolutely divided over. We will not make any move that not everyone can accept," said Yonatan Levi, a member of the septet.

Aside from the core leadership, there are several teams responsible for specific operational matters. They meet more frequently, sometimes several times a day. One of these teams deals with the details of producing and organizing the bigger demonstrations.

There is also a body that is being called the "national tent-city council," which includes two delegates from each tent city around the country. It convenes less frequently, and discusses issues dominating the discourse at each locale. In the wake of early tensions between the core leadership and people in the various tent cities, it was decided to periodically include representatives of those camps in the smaller group's discussions.

Alongside these two entities is a national-level group, whose members include representatives of the major social organizations, as well as delegates from the tent cities and the core leadership. It has met four times thus far. Its main concern has been drafting a list of demands for any future negotiations with the government. This week, its members were the ones who finalized the general vision statement now making the rounds at the various tent cities.

No political donors

From the start, opponents of the protest went to great lengths to unearth evidence of questionable donations or extreme leftist support of it, in an attempt to back their claim that the goal behind the entire enterprise was to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Asked about the movement's funding, Stav Shafir responded sarcastically, "Who's funding us? Why, the New Israel Fund, of course." The latter philanthropic organization has in recent months become the target of right-wing claims that it funds anti-Israeli activity. The NIF has indeed contributed thousands of shekels to tent cities in peripheral areas of the country, but has not donated funding to the main one on Rothschild or to the mass rallies in Tel Aviv.

"But seriously, we are especially careful about the donations we accept, and do not take money from groups with a political orientation. It's scary," Shafir explained. "We've been approached by bodies that seemed to have political affiliations. We refused to accept money from them, due to fear of the media. We are also extremely cautious with private sources, so that we don't discover we've received funding from some tycoon or rich foreigner."

"Finding funding is a daily struggle," Levi adds. "We are living between one crisis and the next. Everything nearly falls apart at the last second, but somehow we overcome, thanks to the energetic teamwork."

Until the first rally, the protest organizers were willing to accept only in-kind donations, such as the kitchen that serves three meals a day at the Rothschild tent city. Later, the organizers began accepting money from private individuals. Some of the money was collected in jars that were passed around at the rallies.

"At the end of the day, it just works. The money is coming in from ordinary people," says Shafir. Not a single contributor has received any credit, publicity, mention or any other advantage in the movement's decision making, she says.

A couple of days ago, on an interview on Channel 10, American Jewish millionaire S. Daniel Abraham said he had helped to fund the rally in Tel Aviv, but refused to disclose the sum involved. The rally organizers said in response that they are not aware of any such donation by the philanthropist. A spokesman for the protest said that the claim about Abraham's contribution is "a lot of utter rubbish." Haaretz obtained a document listing the costs and outlays of the protest, and Abraham's name is not mentioned.

The organizers say they personally cover the expenses incurred by meetings, travel and telephone calls. "We are relying on the banks to allow us to keep using our accounts even though we are no longer working but still are paying rent," said Shafir, clearly amused. In the course of the half-hour we sat together, she received 27 calls and 12 text messages. If she were to call everyone back, she might need to do some fundraising herself.

The largest expenditures are from the mass rallies, and include tens of thousands of shekels (depending on the scale of the production ) for setting up the stage, and renting sound systems and additional equipment. The first two gatherings, held outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, were financed by private individuals and the organizers.

"We wrote a check, even though we are in deep overdraft. Sometimes you need to pay, you have no choice - especially if that is what is going to make the difference in the progress," notes Shafir. Additional financial and logistical aid has come from social organizations and movements, including the Histadrut labor federation, the National Student Union, Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed and Six Colors, a gay community non-profit.

A few production companies were enlisted to help in last week's huge rally. They donated some of the equipment and services, and supplied the rest at cost. The organizers paid for the electricity generators, barricades and security with donations raised either in person or online. That rally cost NIS 25,000.

There are some, however, who are earning a pretty penny from the tent city. Spied there this week was a well-known popsicle salesman from the Tel Aviv beachfront. Not far away were some new street hawkers selling cups of cold beer at NIS 5 each, which is what a vendor was charging for a half-liter bottle of mineral water at Saturday night's demonstration. But the food and beverage salespeople embracing the protest are careful not to fall into a trap and charge exorbitant prices. At least for now.