Following the government decision last week to approve budget cuts and tax hikes, and with the issue of universal army or national service still up in the air, thousands of social justice protesters took part in two rallies in Tel Aviv on Saturday night.
The larger protest was held at the Tel Aviv Museum under the banner “Enough!” and was billed as a “unity rally” bringing together protest leaders Itzik Shmuli, head of the National Union of Israeli Students, Stav Shafir of the social justice movement as well as Boaz Nol and others from the Camp Sucker universal service movement.
It featured a performance by Israeli singer Idan Raichel.
Organizers said the demonstration was held because of the new social spending cuts and increased taxes, which they say will only increase the cost of living. While it was hyped as a unity rally that would bring the movement to a new level of impact or a decisive phase of some kind, the crowd at the museum was quite thin, numbering only a few thousand.
Things became contentious when a few dozen protesters from the second rally, at the Habimah Theater, arrived with megaphones and began shouting down the speakers, telling them to go home and calling them “Bibi [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu]’s collaborators.”
Many also chanted, “The haredim are not our enemy,” in a rebuke to the call for universal service.
Speakers on stage pleaded for calm, but for a time, events grew out of control as counter-protesters charged the barricades and security personnel pulled them away.
At one point, a man in a full Batman suit went on stage and postured for the crowd, before he was rushed away as well.
Shmuli took the stage first and referred to himself and the rest of the demonstrators as people who fulfill all of their obligations in Israeli life, but are left “to fend for themselves.”
He accused the prime minister of “siding with those who avoid [national and military] service,” a reference to the ultra-Orthodox sector.
Netanyahu had forsaken his contract with the people of Israel by focusing on “petty party politics,” Shmuli added.
Shafir then gave a speech that mentioned her grandmother making aliya from Iraq in search of a better life, and bemoaned the loss a sort of “fairness” in Israeli life.
“We are here so that every child in Israel will have the ability to live here in dignity,” Shafir said. “Let’s come together as we are tonight, people with different beliefs and struggles, because we know that in the time of need we can come together as one.”
Nol said Netanyahu had forsaken the findings of the Trajtenberg Committee on Socioeconomic Change and the Plesner Committee that was formed to deal with the issue of universal service.
“You had a great opportunity – a massive coalition of 94 MKs – but you made sure to look out for your coalition partners instead of the country as a whole,” he said, calling the rather small demonstrations “a tsunami of hope and dreams for something different,” before referring to Netanyahu as “the breaker standing in the way of change.”
“You’ve proven that we don’t have a partner [in you],” Nol added.
The few thousand people who rallied at Habimah Theater were part of a separate protest against the government’s economic policies.
They said they did not want to conflate the issue with the question of military service for haredim or national service for Arabs.
“The social protest movement did not start over drafting haredim but to protest social ills,” said Amnon Hillel, a civic studies teacher. “The budget should be brought before the public for a vote.”
At the gathering, one group of people carried large matchsticks made of papier mâché, an allusion to Moshe Silman, who in July set himself aflame in protest of the government’s economic policies and later died of his injuries. The largest contingents waved banners of Meretz, Hadash and Da’am, from the left wing of the Israeli political spectrum.
“Besides the economic policies, [we’re here to protest] the government’s aggressive policies toward Iran, a country that has not invaded another for 200 years,” said Gidon Raz, who wore a Hadash Party shirt.
He said the Iranians “were not nice” but that Israel had a part in the enmity that exists between the two countries, since it had launched attacks on Iranian scientists and abducted Hezbollah leaders from Lebanon.
Throughout the week, organizers of the Habimah protest expressed opposition to the leadership of Shmuli, Shafir and Nol, who have been accused of being politicians- in-waiting who are using the demonstrations to boost their own standing.
On Saturday, Shafir took to her Facebook page to report she had come home on Thursday night to discover that someone had spraypainted graffiti threats in her stairwell, including, “Watch out!” and “You don’t represent us.”
Organizers of the Habimah march said that four event pages set up on Facebook for the demonstration had mysteriously disappeared, one by one, over the course of the week.