Analysis: Why some protests are more popular than others

Following waves of massive Tel Aviv protests over equal rights, only a couple hundred people turned out at Rabin Square to support Israeli southerners under attack.

By CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE
August 20, 2018 06:14
DRUZE RALLY with other Israelis in protest of the Jewish Nation- State Law, in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Squa

DRUZE RALLY with other Israelis in protest of the Jewish Nation- State Law, in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on August 4, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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A wave of demonstrations has swept through Tel Aviv since late July, when an estimated 100,000 Israelis converged on Rabin Square to protest the exclusion of gay couples from a surrogacy law passed by parliament. Much of the ire was directed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who initially supported a clause in the bill that would extend the privilege to members of the LGBT community but then flip-flopped—purportedly under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition members—thereby torpedoing the initiative. A nationwide strike also was held, with some companies going so far as to offer to foot the bill for same-sex couples that might be forced to pay upwards of $100,000 to find a surrogate mother abroad.

The masses of rainbow-colored flags were two weeks later swapped-out for those of Israel's Druze minority, as some 50,000 people descended on the same iconic square in anger over the passage of the Nation-State Law, which bestows quasi-constitutional status to Israel's Jewish character and associated symbols but omits any reference to upholding the equal rights of every citizen, as specified in the Declaration of Independence.

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Israelis all over the country took the streets to protest a surrogacy law that excludes single men and gay couples, July 22, 2018.

The next week, Palestinian flags and placards reading "Resist Apartheid" were on display in central Tel Aviv as 30,000-odd mostly Arab-Israelis likewise gathered in opposition to the controversial law.

The civic unrest has been all the country's rage, with related headlines splashed across the front pages of major publications and the issues dissected at length by political pundits and social activists. Overall, the newly-designated cause celebres became the talk-of-the-town.

Then, on Saturday night, another demonstration was staged in Rabin Square, one that, unlike the others, garnered virtually no press and was attended by less than two hundred people, most of them from southern Israeli communities besieged for over a decade by missile fire originating from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

In fact, only a few bystanders were around to witness the simulation of a rocket alert siren, during which demonstrators shouted "Code Red" before hitting the deck, face-down on the ground, hands placed behind their heads. Without any self-identifying flag—that is, other than the State of Israel's—participants waved arrays of balloons representing the thousands upon thousands of rudimentary incendiary objects launched over the past four months from the Palestinian enclave towards their homes, blackening agricultural land and nature reserves for as far as the eye can see.

This "kite terrorism" has been accompanied by weekly mass violence along the Gaza border caused by the Hamas-initiated "March of Return," and the firing of approximately 500 projectiles from the enclave into Israeli towns, villages and Kibbutzim, forcing civilians to spend the summer running to-and-from and sleeping in-and-out of bomb shelters.

The demonstration comes as the Netanyahu government continues to negotiate, through United Nations and Egyptian intermediaries, a potential truce with Hamas which at the very least would restore temporary "quiet" in the south in exchange for the easing of restrictions on the entry of goods into Gaza; or, more optimistically, outline a multi-phased, long-term cessation of hostilities complimented by a prisoner swap and the gradual improvement of Gaza's economy through the lifting of the blockade and concurrent investment in infrastructure projects.

For Israeli southerners, it is déjà vu all over again. After three wars against Hamas since 2009, including a 50-day conflagration only four years ago, they have been there, done that. And each time the cycle of violence repeats itself, thus lending credence to their collective skepticism regarding any strategy not providing for the total eradication of Gaza's terrorist regime (never mind one that would empower it).

What many deem more difficult to comprehend is the apparent indifference of the Israeli public to a situation that most, without hesitation, would describe in casual conversation as unacceptable. Undoubtedly, an "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" dynamic somewhat accounts for this reality, which is probably compounded by "fatigue" over an issue that, in the absence of full-blown conflict, does not directly impact on the day-to-day activities of most citizens.

But it is, for some, disconcerting that demonstrations decrying Israeli society as unjust, if not altogether racist, outdraw by a factor of more than one hundred a show of solidarity with those whose lives are at risk simply by virtue of their being. This, mind you, while the protesters exhibit a genuine obliviousness to the fact that their freedom to assemble and speak out serves to confirm the vibrancy of what they contend no longer exists: namely, Israeli democracy.

There is, similarly, an element of hypocrisy in branding the Israeli government prejudiced against Arab citizens, whose leaders have since the country's inception refused to sit in any coalition and today on the whole reject outright the notion of Jewish self-determination; or for failing to be adequately progressive even though Israel is one of the most LGBT-friendly in the world. All the while these naysayers turn a blind eye to the much more acute plight of another disenfranchised segment of the population that is perpetually in the line of fire.

There are additional factors that likely contributed to the poor turnout at Rabin Square on Saturday, perhaps most significantly the media's role in influencing the national discourse. To this end, both the LGBT and anti-Nation-State Law protests received wall-to-wall coverage both in their lead-up and afterwards, whereas most lay people probably are still unaware that a demonstration even took place in support of southerners.

This discrepancy cannot be chalked up entirely to the nature of the news cycle, as Israel is teetering on the brink of war with Hamas and just ten days ago incurred a barrage of about 200 projectiles.

The incongruity between the protests also evidences the marked difference in the ability of the Israeli Left and Right to mobilize their bases. In this respect, both the LGBT anti-Nation-State Law protests were supported, if not in part directed and funded, by an intersecting web of left-leaning groups—including, reportedly, the New Israel Fund—and, perhaps resultantly, assumed a distinctly anti-Netanyahu dimension (this, despite the Druze largely identifying with the nationalist campo).

The Israeli Right, which often accuses what it considers a hostile media of shaping public opinion to its disadvantage, has in recent years attempted to curtail through legislation the influence of such NGOs and their foreign backers.

Indeed, the country has become so polarized that issues often appear to be viewed uniquely through a political lens, which can manifest in the hijacking or, on the flip side, the suppression of a cause in order to advance ulterior motives. It would be tragic if the fate of any Israeli ever becomes an afterthought because their well-being is no longer conceptualized as an end in itself.

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