The New Face of Israel's Social Protest

If the slogan of the 2011 protest was 'the people demand social justice,' this year's slogan is 'the people demand all kinds of things.'

Social protest showed a new face last night: What began in the summer of 2011 as a small tent protest, aimed at bringing down housing prices, is in the summer of 2012 a strange and endless coalition of interests and agendas that have yet to find common ground. If the slogan of the 2011 protest was "the people demand social justice," the slogan this year is "the people demand all kinds of things."

Rabin Squarelooked more like Woodstock, without the drugs, than the Bastille, on Saturday night. The music was loud and contemporary, no more Eyal Golan or Shlomo Artzi, and the average age has gone down. The language is completely different and the burning anger that was so missing last summer, was, unfortunately, absent last night as well.

May 12 social justice protest Tel Aviv
Moti Milrod

The founding fathers and mothers were walking around in the square, among them Daphni Leef and Regev Kuntas, but they were like strangers, interviewed on TV in an appearance that seemed more nostalgic than political. The protest, generation 2, has not produced new leaders like Leef. The organizers took care to put unknown faces on the dais, who read from prepared texts passing the microphone on as if this were a Shavuot play at a kibbutz.

"Ask yourselves why you know more about the Iranian nuclear reactor than the Jesse Cohen neighborhood in Holon," one said, referring to a poor neighborhood. "Why is there such a broad government with such narrow interests?" another asked.

The texts were interrupted repeatedly by the call, for those present to put down political protest signs. "This is a demonstration of being together. This is not a political demonstration." Not political? If that's the case, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can continue to rest through another summer of settlements, bombings and social injustice.

Since last summer the government coalition has broadened and public support of it has not decreased at all, according to the polls. Perhaps that is last summer's failure. Since then, taking to the street in protest has become almost a matter of course. That may be a good sign. But it is doubtful that a coalition consisting of the Social Guard; the Social Darma movement; the First Cooperative for Social Change; New Peace - Come Learn and Create; and the Suckers Encampment; My People - the Future of Israel; the Venus Project; a group organizing fun days for Palestinian children; and a group supporting the legalization of cannabis, are more threatening to the government and the existing order than the cries of the homeless that echoed last summer.

The good news is that (very ) young people took over the square, the bad news is that they were much too diffused. Someone counted no less than 30 groups, and not one major group was there. TV monitors showed live broadcasts of protests elsewhere in the world, in Madrid, Barcelona and London, May having been declared the month of international protest and "we are not alone."

But the globalization of the protest is unlikely to help the residents of the Jesse Cohen neighborhood in Holon. They were (once again ) missing from last night's rally, although it had begun with the march of the few from south Tel Aviv, it was (once again ) a rally of young, secular, Ashkenazi Tel Avivians from Facebook. It's good to see them disconnect from their computers, going out into the streets, worrying not only about themselves, and at least imagining that they are protesting.

About an hour before the protest started, a big circle of dancers covered the square to "hold hands" against the sunset. Two women invited me for a hug; two others for two minutes of silence together. Only a man collecting tin cans asked a traffic policewoman, "what's the protest about," and she did not know the answer.

Yes, the police were there last night, as at every Israeli protest, far too many. But last night at least they were not violent, for a change. The emcee spoke of the "amazing voice" in the square as if we were in an ashram in Pune or an evangelical church in the southern United States.

Of all people, it was the promising leader of this summer's protest, the veteran and devoted social activist Shaul Mofaz, who was absent. Only one or two MKs dared appear, with hatred for politics and political parties having grown with the expansion of the coalition. "All the parties have failed," one speaker said. And that is not necessarily a good sign.

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Israelis protest in Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv - Moti Milrod - May 12, 2012.
Moti Milrod