The way social movements expert Professor Tamir Sheafer of the Hebrew University
tells it, most political scientists had given up on the younger
“People thought for years this is a generation that’s not
interested in politics, that’s more interested in themselves, they’re very
individualistic, very hedonistic, and not willing to get into politics,” he
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Political leaders did not have high hopes for the young generation
until a month ago, when a wave of protests led by the students exploded onto the
streets, culminating in hundreds of tents around the country and a massive
protest that attracted 320,000 people last Saturday night.
something we’re very happy to be wrong about,” Sheafer said on Tuesday from his
home in Givatayim.
Sheafer, who specializes in political communication
and social protests, said that the current fervor of demonstrations sweeping the
country is something Israel has never seen before.
“It’s not something
that deals with the peace process or with war, it’s an economic protest, and we
really haven’t seen it in such a magnitude in Israel ever,” he said.
added that the current protests have broken all the rules that usually govern
social movements. Previously, political scientists believed that the most
successful social movements advocate for focused, specific demands. Either the
demands were met, indicating success; or not met, indicating failure. “Initially
what we thought... that if they cannot form a specific list of demands, a narrow
list of demands, then it won’t work – and if they don’t have specific
leadership, then it won’t work,” he said. “But they demonstrated that they have
their own way of doing things, and it works. I’m not sure that they need to have
very specific demands.”
Sheafer said instead of thinking in stark terms
of success or failure, the protests should already consider themselves
beneficial because they are focusing political energy on their
“They are talking about changing the social order, changing the
basic economic and social approach,” said Sheafer. “I don’t think there’s a way
to be specific. They are right to say to the government and to political
parties: ‘You have to change your way of thinking, you have to change your
priorities.’ And if they continue to pressure the government and the political
parities they may have a chance to really make a difference.”
challenge for the protest is what happens now: A critical mass was reached on
Saturday night, but as media interest begins to wane, the protesters will either
need to find ways to reengage the media, or learn to function without the
Usually, the media has about a two-week attention span
for social movements, explained Sheafer, citing another way the month-long
protests have differed from their historical counterparts.
like Vicki Knafo’s march from Mitzpe Ramon in 2003, the media wandered away from
the story after new developments ceased. Sheafer said he believed Israeli
mainstream media would give at most another week, with little change, before
completely moving on to other issues, unless the protesters dramatically change
“The big question is whether the protesters all over Israel
will be strong enough and determined enough to continue the protests, even
without mainstream media coverage,” said Sheafer. “They can’t have tents for a
year and expect it will continue to have the same impact, because it will become
“Their biggest challenge is to change the form of protests, and I
don’t know how they will do it. Until now they have proven themselves to be
extremely creative. I hope that they will manage to show such creativity in the
next phase of the protest,” he continued.
The media can be both a
blessing and a curse to social movements, Sheafer added.
On the one hand,
there’s the free publicity. When the newspapers and TV stations report that
there’s going to be a massive protest on Saturday night, they help make it come
But the media’s scrutiny can also bring a social movement to its
Reporters look for the most charismatic leaders – the ones who can
give the most inflammatory or most creative sound byte – not necessarily the
true leaders of the movement. This can often create friction inside the
leadership, sowing chaos and distrust.