The problem with the social justice movement

The city is home to some 400,000 Israelis. If you vandalize it, it probably means you do not truly love it and appreciate it.

July 3, 2012 23:36
Police arrest social justice leader Daphne Leef

Daphne Leef arrested 370. (photo credit: Courtesy Michal Grossberg)

In July 2011, a 25-year-old film student was forced to vacate her central Tel Aviv apartment where she had been living for three years because of major renovations being done in her building. So she went apartment shopping, and became vexed by the rental prices in Israel’s White City, which had doubled in the past five years. The young bohemian, with no army experience, opened a Facebook page and invited others to join her protest. She pitched a tent in HaBima Square in Tel Aviv and soon after, other protesters gathered in the streets around Rothschild Boulevard, Rabin Square and even Zion Square in Jerusalem, as well as other locations around the country.

The name of the young film student is Daphni Leef, and in 2011, she made Israeli history. However, while the social justice movement and last summer’s impressive tent city should go down in the books as the moment when the country’s youth left the societal system and from outside it, demanded change; this year’s attempted repeat did not go as smoothly. The mob became unruly, holding an illegal protest that blocked the streets, testing the limits of riot police and vandalizing buildings in the center of Tel Aviv.

The city is home to some 400,000 Israelis. If you vandalize it, it probably means you do not truly love it and appreciate it. And perhaps this is Leef’s problem to begin with: not appreciating what she has. After all, she is from the affluent Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem and Kfar Shmaryahu in Tel Aviv. She attended Tel Aviv University and majored in film. She is not from a poor neighborhood, does not have a poor family; did not immigrate to Israel in her youth. Instead she has had every opportunity those in the lower classes (whose position she seems to envy by her aggressiveness aimed at the government and fiscal infrastructure) do not; including attending a fine high school in swanky Ramat HaSharon, where her talent as a filmmaker was nourished.

This year, a Friday afternoon and Saturday evening spent on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv convinced me that the magic and dynamic energy of 2011’s social justice movement is not quite the same. This year, it lacked focus and was a cityscape painted in darker hues.

Last year’s protest made some good points and the movement had support from 85 percent of voters from the ruling Likud, according to a poll by Channel 10. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appointed a committee to brainstorm solutions to the country’s socioeconomic problems. Netanyahu announced a new housing plan, including special incentives for developers who build smaller apartments (ability to buy land from the Israel Land Administration up to 50% cheaper), student housing, rent-earmarked housing and plans to add some 50,000 brand new apartments to the country’s housing market over the next two years. However, the socioeconomic changes that the plan will make will take some three years to be felt, according to the finance ministry.

I spoke with protesters early on Friday afternoon. One protester, Yotam, 29, said that “The economic and political systems” are what is wrong with the country. He complained about the “distribution of wealth. We [Israel] are second on the list in the world with the biggest gap in equality of wealth. There is a connection between who runs the politics and the newspapers... the media. So what happens,” he explained, “is good, honest, hard-working people are struggling under the economic burden. There’s enough money in the country, but it is not being distributed right.”

He was, according to the interview, the middle-class victim of his government.

ANOTHER PROTESTER yelled into a megaphone, “Those with money... live.

Those without... die,” referring to the high taxes for young single people and comparably lower taxes for big businesses, and the low minimum wage.

However, the protesters said nothing about immigrants and foreign workers who live in South Tel Aviv in cheaper rental units. It sounded like the same jargon as last year, but this year there is a refugee crisis, and a real fiscal crisis in the EuroZone. What does Israel’s middle class have to be agitated about? One wonders.

On Friday afternoon, the local Tel Aviv government did not seem to allow demonstrating until riot police were prepped.

Saturday night, the protests drew thousands of demonstrators to HaBima Square near Rothschild Boulevard.

Movement organizer Daphni Leef, along with 11 other demonstrators, had been arrested there Friday and released by Saturday, in order to resume protests, according to Stav Shaffir, another movement organizer, who I spoke with briefly and who told me that Leef had returned to the scene for the evening demonstration.

At 10:00 p.m., protestors marched up Ibn Gvirol Street near Rabin Square, banging on percussion instruments, tin pots and anything they could get their hands on chanting, “The people want democracy!” There were brief moments of violence between protesters and the police.

Attorney Barak Cohen was lightly wounded by a police officer. He was followed down the street by cameras as blood dripped from his nose, staining his white T-shirt.

Another woman was shoved by an officer for trying to break through the barrier of riot police standing with arms locked. However, while police forces scrambled to make a border around the area, the mob was permitted to demonstrate.

At about 11:00 p.m., demonstrators broke into the Discount Bank on Ibn Gvirol, near Rabin Square. The mob entered the bank and slammed on the metal sheets outside the building.

There were police lined up behind the scene of vandalism, however they didn’t take any action.

As the crowd made its way down Ibn Gvirol Street, blocking traffic, a group of demonstrators held up a silver and blue tent – the symbol of the movement – and brought the tent inside Bank Leumi, trying to shut the door behind them. The crowd roared in approval. The police did not follow and the people were allowed to protest.

Later on, as I made my way out of the city toward Ramat Gan, I gazed down from an overpass as demonstrators blocked traffic on the southbound lanes of the Ayalon Highway; some were heading to the Alozorov train station.

Eighty-five arrests were made throughout the evening.

THE SOCIAL justice movement needs to realize that a change to the country’s fiscal paradigm is not an overnight process, but rather a sluggish shapeshift.

It seems as if a small sector of the country’s middle class is making demands that the rest of the country cannot fulfill. Perhaps the social justice movement is after all just really immature.

If the people want change they need to focus on just what it is that they want to change, and how they suggest these changes be implemented. Maybe they can blog about their demands and complaints about the quality of life in Israel, or they can vote for the party which they see fit to run the country – putting the democracy they have always lived with into effect, instead of creating anarchy. If worse comes to worst, move in with your parents. But don’t vandalize Tel Aviv and create a dangerous situation. Putting the lives of the police, civilians and themselves in danger is no way to go about demanding change.

We will not let the few speak for the whole. That is to say, this generation of Israelis is not just an angry and unruly mob. They are, for the most part, hardworking, wise and well-educated citizens.

Leef and her compatriots are giving her generation a bad name.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Israel.

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