Scale of social justice protests surprises experts

Social movements expert says protests are "a revolution from a generation we thought was unable to make a revolution."

August 11, 2011 03:19
4 minute read.
Tens of thousands demonstrate throughout TA, Sat.

tel aviv saturday demonstration_311. (photo credit: Channel 10 News)


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The way social movements expert Professor Tamir Sheafer of the Hebrew University tells it, most political scientists had given up on the younger generation.

“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 said.

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Tel Aviv city clerks attempt to clear vacant protest tents
Settler leader visits Rothschild tent city in solidarity

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.

“This is 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.

He 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 causes.

“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.”

The real 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 media’s support.

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.

With movements 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 something.

“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 common.

“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 true.

But the media’s scrutiny can also bring a social movement to its knees.

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.

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