March of the million Jerusalem 311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
ON SATURDAY NIGHT, SEPTEMBER 3, MORE THAN 400,000 people demonstrated throughout
Israel to demand social justice and feel that they are part of a newfound sense
of change and hope.
Following the demonstrations, the tent camps in
various cities are being taken down, to be replaced by informally scheduled Hyde
Parklike happenings. Afew camps in the more economically distressed and socially
deprived neighborhoods remain but the authorities have threatened to demolish
them; a few homeless families squatted in an abandoned dormitory in Jerusalem
belonging to the Hebrew University.
The Advisory Committee on Social
Protest, hastily established by a panicky government and chaired by liberal
economist Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg is convening public meetings and
closed-session discussions as it prepares its recommendations. The informal
“Alternative Committee,” headed by social activist Prof. Yossi Yonah, is meeting
to finalize the protesters’ lists of demands.
It is unclear what the
results of these protests and committees will be. Vested interests may try to
offer social welfare crumbs, or to manipulate us into complacency, or to mollify
us with gestures. Yet whether the government accedes to at least some of the
protesters’ demands or not, whether the Trajtenberg Committee uses its mandate
to institute real change or not, we can already point to some of the successes
that the protest movement can claim to its credit.
A new cadre of young
leadership has emerged, whose political skills are being honed by their activism
and tempered by the mistakes they make. For more than six weeks, this leadership
has succeeded in galvanizing a protest movement that never once deteriorated
into violence or destruction.
There are many young women among these
leaders and they’ve introduced a new language to the Israeli public. It’s a
language that is more inclusive and empowering, less chauvinistic and
And it leads to a discourse that recognizes that the personal
is political, that emotions have a place in public discussion and that the
individual has a place in a collectivist society. The new language is already
resonating in the media and on the street.
Israeli society has wised up.
It’s no longer enough for us just to cast our ballots once every few years. The
public is taking responsibility and will not allow any government to change the
character of society without discussion or debate. The Trajtenberg Committee
invited the public to submit suggestions – and received more than 1,200 separate
policy statements. On websites and webcasts, through virtual media and
teach-ins, individuals and groups are educating themselves about economic and
social theory so that they can participate effectively in policy
Even the tensions that the protest sparked – between the poor
and the middle class, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, center and periphery, Arabs and
Jews, religious and secular, settlers and peaceniks – have contributed to a new
awareness of class distinctions and animosities and to a new commitment to
finally face these difficulties head-on. Critics accused the movement of being
unfocused – yet by refusing to be bound by narrow demands, the protesters were
able to draw attention to the real underlying question: We are still a young
We can still mold ourselves in our own model. What kind of a
society do we want to be? Powers-that-be may try to confuse us with the old
slogans and guilt us into a false unity based on external threats, as if these
threats are the excuse for government corruption and economic exploitation. But
this movement will be ultimately successful if we refuse to be distracted and if
we all continue to speak, argue and dream in the new language, even if we’re
only slowly learning to speak it.
In the summer of 2011, a majority of
the public came to realize that we Israelis really can create a society that
isn’t bound by jingoistic legislation, guilt and fear, but is rather united by
compassionate social welfare and the values of decency and interdependence.