It’s remarkable what a little bit of vandalism and police violence can do. For
months the social justice movement has lain dormant, save for a demonstration
earlier this month that saw a few thousand Israelis march through central Tel
Aviv, all to scant media coverage.
That protest was notable largely for
the absence of Daphni Leef, who skipped out in favor of a personal engagement.
In the preceding months, Leef had largely been eclipsed by protest leader Stav
Shafir, and other than appearances on conference panels had not remained the
visible protest leader she had been over last summer.
rally for social justice and against police brutality (and the prime ministers,
the tycoons, “the system,” and so on) will be remembered mainly for five
shattered bank windows and the images and video of police strong-arming
protesters. It has already been deemed the relaunch of the summer protest
movement – now in a newer, angrier and more aggressive mold.
at Saturday night’s protest that ran off the rails, one must first look back at
Friday afternoon on Rothschild Boulevard, also in Tel Aviv.
demonstration started like any number of gatherings through the long winter and
sluggish spring of the social justice movement that captivated much of the
country last summer. A small happening of mainly familiar faces delivering
informal sermons to a long-converted crowd. Leef had advertised the gathering on
Facebook during the week, saying it was time to bring your tents and return to
the square, but by midday Friday only a small crowd of around a hundred people
had heeded the call.
With all due respect to Israel’s largest-ever protest
movement, Friday’s gathering did not initially appear to be a news story. The
small number of reporters and cameramen present milled around in the scorching
heat waiting for police to carry out arrests so they could get pictures and call
it a day, as protesters headed down Rothschild Boulevard’s pedestrian walkway
toward Habimah Square carrying two tents above their shoulders like golden
calves, to hearty applause from the short-lived campsite.
out of control not long after that, with city clerks yanking tents from the
hands of activists, followed by shoving matches and arrests by YASSAM riot
police of 14 protesters – including Leef, who was thrown to the ground and
roughed-up on the way to a waiting police van.
After her bandaged arm
heals, Leef might consider sending Yarkon police subdistrict chief Cmdr. Yoram
Ohayon a bouquet of flowers. By arresting Leef at Friday’s protest, Ohayon
thrust her back in the spotlight as the undisputed leader of the social justice
movement, or at least the movement’s current incarnation. They also made a
serious news item out of what was not a significant story before Leef was thrown
into the police van. At that point, the press realized they had to stay put,
running after YASSAM officers separating protesters from camping
Without Friday’s arrest of Leef, Saturday’s demonstration would
not have taken place, and without the violent scenes from Saturday night the
next round of furious street protests would arguably lack the fuel to bring
large numbers out into the streets.
Though the shattered bank windows and
the blocking of the Ayalon Freeway were unprecedented, the protest on Saturday
night largely fit the script of illegal Tel Aviv
Protesters without a permit hold an illegal
demonstration, blocking the street as a large contingent of police look on. In
time, one can watch and feel the police losing their patience with the
theatrics. Eventually, the order is given to clear the street and police move
in, making arrests as cameramen (most of them amateurs) swarm in all directions.
Police report the number of arrests, activists post pictures on Facebook and the
The protest bought to mind one I attended last September
outside the Tel Aviv Municipality. Like Saturday’s protest, it was an impromptu
act of rage directed at Mayor Ron Huldai, who had sent municipal workers to
clear out the Rothschild tent city despite a vow to wait until after the High
Holy Days. Police made dozens of arrests as protesters rushed the entrance of
the municipal building, throwing eggs and carrying a tent aloft. Like Saturday,
the protest was followed by charges of police brutality and
Both on Saturday night and that September afternoon, neither
the crowd nor the cause appeared to represent the middle class, cost-of-living
concerns that had captivated the nation over the summer on 2011.
protests, the two most violent since the movement began last July, revolved
around issues of police brutality, freedom of speech, democracy, public vs
private space and squatter’s rights, or at least however these issues were
defined by those present.
It’s also worth mentioning that while police
did use a large measure of force against activists and in a few cases were
caught on film punching and choking detainees, the level of violence was not, in
my opinion, something that would shock those familiar with police crowd control
tactics in North America or Europe.
Closer to home, it was far from the
violence shown against Palestinians next to the security barrier in the West
Bank, or by police quelling haredi riots in Jerusalem or evicting settlers in
the West Bank or in Gush Katif. Although it should be noted that in those cases,
the protesters typically use more violent means than those used by the
demonstrators running wild Saturday night in Tel Aviv, most of whom did not
appear to be resisting arrest or posing a danger to police.
at the banks and the cartels of the Israeli business world is very real and
well-founded, I couldn’t help but think of that afternoon last September and on
Saturday night that something was being lost in the drive to express rage at the
police and at city hall. What was being lost appeared to be the rather vanilla
call for relief for the Israeli middle class, replaced by street theatrics that
play into the hands of those looking to see such a consumers’ movement
On Saturday night, I found myself asking the same question that I
had after the city hall protest last year or after any number of small exercises
in “street blocking for social justice” over the past several months. What is
the goal? What is the purpose? And how does this look to the critical mass of
middle class Israelis outside Tel Aviv, who made a gesture by a 26-year-old Tel
Aviv film editor become a nationwide phenomenon?
The answer is still unclear,
just as unclear as how long anger at police will carry a movement that had long
ago fallen off the front pages.