Reporter's Notebook: Power to the people... but slowly

Spend a night at Jerusalem’s tent city and you’ll see the inner workings of grassroots democracy up close.

August 10, 2011 04:26
4 minute read.
General Assembly of Jerusalem Tent Protest

Jerusalem Tent Protest 311. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)


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It was past midnight and I’d pretty much had my fill of democracy. I came to experience the general session of the Jerusalem tent protest, a nightly event that draws hundreds of people and has even created its own sign language to express support, opposition, or to encourage speakers to stop digging and get to the point.

Democracy in action is a beautiful thing. But giving the people an equal share of power, well, it just takes a really, really long time. Approaching 1:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, I was so stuffed with love and patience for my fellow man that for a moment I could see the allure of an absolute dictatorship.

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I’d been sitting in the small amphitheater in Gan Hasus (Horse Park) for more than three hours: first, to hear secular and haredi interpretations of social justice and Tisha Be’av (“Do you see what we did? We closed Jaffa Road on Shabbat without riots!” cracked the haredi rabbi). The lectures were followed by “open mike” time, when anyone in the community could get up and speak for three minutes about their thoughts on “free love,” sharing intimate personal stories or rambling ruminations.

The evening’s theme of free love was chosen as a reaction to the biblical idea of baseless hatred, the cause of the destruction of the Temple.

The open mike was continually being interrupted by a drunken 51-year-old woman who shouted “Organizers of the Nation! No more politicians!” and an emcee who kept chastising the audience for loudly applauding instead of using the specific hand motions that expressed support.

Finally, after activists had shared everything from embarrassing moments captured on YouTube to admonishments to appreciate the small acts of love in life, leader Itai Gutler read the movement’s new mission statement, a two-page document putting forth the visions of the movement as it goes forward.

We broke into groups to voice our reactions to the document, which will eventually be presented to the media and the government.

Our group discussion was hijacked by two vocal students in their 20s who traded barbs over whether the document should be specific or general, as others tried to interject their opinions on whether education should be higher on the list than housing, whether Arabs needed a separate request for social services or should be grouped with weaker populations, or if the protesters, like the politicians, had a responsibility to continue their activity after the tent city was finished.

I was relieved when our discussion leader, clad in a Mickey Mouse shirt and a Bedoin-style scarf draped across his shoulders, deemed our list of suggestions sufficient and broke up the meeting, so I could go set up my tent for the evening. I chose a bad day to sleep over in Jerusalem’s tent city: Because of Tisha Be’av, or so the organizers claimed, the place was deserted.

Only 10 percent of the 40 or so tents in Gan Hasus were inhabited, though the early risers on breakfast duty insisted that between 40-50 activists still sleep there each night.

After the general session, the park emptied out and there was nothing to do but go to bed to the sounds of a lone oud/darbouka duo jamming on the side. Sleep was interrupted frequently by a group of haredi teenage boys, who arrived at 4 a.m.

from the Western Wall in search of drugs, and having found none, instead decided to stay for a philosophical discussion with the female darbouka player.

But the session, now one of the central events in the daily schedule of the tent cities around the country, was one of the most colorful meetings I’ve ever attended. The plus side of experiencing this type of grassroots democracy is the plethora of eccentric people concentrated in one place, who are given free rein to express themselves in front of an audience of hundreds of people.

“When we lost the Temple, we lost the living room of the Jewish people,” said one speaker, comparing the sacrifices to communal barbeques and the incense to other materials that produce fragrant smoke. “There are two things you never want to see how they’re made: hot dogs, and laws,” said another speaker.

It was a dizzying feeling to think that points brought up in our discussion would be raised at a regional meeting, then a national meeting, and the very words drafted by our group could end up on a final document placed on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s desk. That equality and proximity to power doesn’t happen every day. Except in the alternate universe of Jerusalem’s tent city, where it happens every night.

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