Socializing with social protesters

Has the movement become little more than a gathering for nihilists and anarchists whose only goal is to spark pandemonium?

July 18, 2012 15:41
Social Protests

Social Protests. (photo credit: Deborah Danan)


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One night last week, I suffered from a bout of insomnia. I just couldn’t fall asleep. It didn’t help that it was stiflingly hot and I didn’t want to switch on the air conditioning for the simple reason that it’s just too expensive.

Daunted by the deliberation of suffering sweat-induced insomnia versus the risk of switching the A/C on and then falling asleep before switching it off, I decided to leave the house instead. I found myself ambling in the direction of the tent city in the park opposite the train station on Arlosoroff Street. About 40 tents are gathered together under the trees, a weak homage to the hundreds that lined Rothschild Boulevard this time last year. Even though it was 4 a.m., a few of the protesters were awake. Were they also awake because of the heat, I wondered? They insisted that no, the heat didn’t bother them; The shade provided by the trees more than sufficed. For a brief moment, I considered moving into tent city and saving on electricity bills.Either that or convincing the tent denizens to take to the streets for an air conditioning protest. Can’t the electric company cut us some slack by taking into account that it is nigh impossible to survive without A/C and therefore it wouldn’t hurt to subsidize summer bills a smidgen? With a 15-percent hike-up in tariffs this year, I doubt that the electric company is going to provide a sympathetic ear. But perhaps Shai Agassi will.

He’s turned cars from gas guzzlers into electricity eaters. Can’t he now use his smarts to turn electricity-eating air conditioners into solar-powered devices? This would also curb the power cuts that have been spreading across the center of the country.

My thoughts were interrupted by the loud crunch of metal hitting metal – the unmistakable sounds of a car crash. We turned to see that a police car had embedded its bumper into the side of another car, right in the middle of the busy junction.

Luckily, no one seemed to be hurt.

Within seconds, a couple of other police cars had joined the fray, erecting a makeshift wall around the scene of the accident. One protester standing next to me snorted, “Typical. It’s so obvious that the police car is responsible for the crash, yet look how quick they are to cover up their mistake.” I asked him why it was so obvious that it was the police’s fault. After all, we hadn’t actually witnessed the lead-up to the crash and it could just have easily have been the fault of the civilian car – perhaps he ran a red light? The protester shrugged and said simply, “Because it’s always the police’s fault.” He continued by saying that the responsibility for the violence at last month’s protest also rested entirely on the shoulders of the police force.

In an attempt to change the subject, I struck up some small talk with the protesters.

Where was the protest headed, where did they live when they weren’t squatting in tents on prime real estate, what were their occupations, I asked them. I marveled at the difference between this year’s tent-dwellers and last year’s. I quickly learned that many of this year’s were more like holiday-makers than harbingers of change. Hailing from Tiberias, Haifa and even as far as Dimona, not a single tent-dweller was actually a resident of Tel Aviv. Neither did any of them seem to have gainful employment.

Every day, they wander the streets of Tel Aviv or hang out in their tents, spouting rhetoric about the government over coffee and cigarettes.

We chatted about the Million Man March that was scheduled to be held that Saturday night. One man said that if the protest didn’t attract 200,000 protesters, the cause would be doomed. I told him not to hold his breath. I said that people like me, your average Tel Aviv resident, had been turned off from the protest because of factors such as the apparent lack of direction and the violence that ensued at the last one.

Indeed, the protest managed to attract only a few thousand. A lack of consensus between the protest leaders – whoever they might be – further meant that there ended up being two marches taking place at the same time in Tel Aviv. One of them managed to draw only a few hundred protesters. The other, lead by Daphni Leef, garnered a few thousand more – still a far cry from last year’s march. The protest did receive the headlines the social justice activists were hoping for – but for all the wrong reasons.

Moshe Silman, 57, set himself on fire in front of the cameras after distributing a suicide note stating that the government “had robbed him of everything.”

Needless to say, I was shocked and dismayed at this tragic turn of events. I read many posts online, ranging from wellwishers to people who were angered by the government’s indirect responsibility for the downfall of a man who had been drowning in debt. Others claimed that the social justice movement had become little more than a gathering for nihilists and anarchists whose only goal was to spark social pandemonium. But was this really the case? Meanwhile, back at the sweltering ranch, I remembered why I joined last year’s march. How could it be that I, along with so many of my friends who have at least one if not two university degrees, can never dream of buying an apartment without help from some external source, such as our parents? I decided to walk to the tent city again to see if someone there could provide me with some hope about the social-justice movement.

When I arrived, people were yelling at each other left and right. They had just returned from yet another march, in which protesters had chanted “We are all Moshe Silman!” One middle-aged woman wagged her finger and decried the fact that the property tax rate in Savyon is lower than in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Another woman promised to dedicate 10 years of her life to this cause; after all, these things take time. But after a decade, she vowed, perhaps she too would end up like Moshe Silman.

I chatted with a physiotherapist from Hod Hasharon who afforded me a glimmer of hope that the movement hadn’t been hijacked by nihilists. I told him that I was saddened by the direction that the movement had taken. A poster lay discarded at my feet. It read: “Government of Israel, Housing Ministry, National Insurance: We will not forget and we will not forgive.” I told him that slogans like this, along with the inevitable comparisons made between Silman and the Tunisian youth who sparked the Arab Spring with his self-immolation, not only turned me off the movement, it made me sick to the point that I wanted nothing to do with it. To abuse Holocaust slogans or to compare Israel with brutal Arab regimes is downright disgusting. He agreed wholeheartedly and told me that ultimately, change has to begin on a micro level, among our family and friends. We have to learn how to consume less and become a more active society.

Too many people are passive and choose to stay at home and be fed garbage by our TV stations instead of going out and speaking to others.

Just then, another man joined our conversation.

“That’s it,” he said. “There’s nothing left to do. We’ll wake up tomorrow and nothing will have changed – we’ll still be in the same dung-heap.” I told him not to give up hope. He shook his head.

“The only way forward now is violence.That’s the only thing the government will listen to. Dialogue has proven itself to be a failure. The only march I’m willing to join now is one that will burn government buildings.”

Sickened by what I was hearing, I said goodbye to the tent city forever. The following morning, I read that the National Insurance Institute building in Ramat Gan had been sprayed with graffiti that read “Price tag for Moshe Silman.” The entrance to the building had also been torched. With each word I read, my social-justice proclivities turned to ash.

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