Social Affairs: Back for the summer

Social justice protests are back, but with a violent start, disenchanted media, and a lukewarm public, what form will they take?

Demonstration against police violence 390 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Demonstration against police violence 390
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Unlike Israel’s scorching summer weather, the summer protest movement continues to be difficult to forecast. Many expected the protest movement to die out completely or make a well-publicized return on its first anniversary on July 14 before exiting into the humidity of mid-July. Last Saturday, three broken bank windows, 89 arrests by police and crowds of thousands of mainly young Israelis running wild in the streets of central Tel Aviv started the workweek with a clear and unmistakable siren call that the J14 protest movement is back.
But what form will the protests take this summer? Though it may be too early to say, the movement appears to be smaller, angrier, and less willing to hold out and wait for government promises of change they can believe in. Also, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai has made it clear that he will not tolerate a single tent on Rothschild Boulevard, leaving activists without the beating heart of last summer’s protest movement and searching for new ways to galvanize supporters and keep the movement at the top of Israel’s daily agenda, while also dealing with a local media that is less supportive and a prime minister that is stronger than ever atop a 94-seat coalition.
Last year, Prof. Yossi Yonah of Ben-Gurion University was one of the central figures in the “alternative Trajtenberg Committee” created to draw up a new socioeconomic policy distinct from the committee headed by Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appointed to examine solutions to Israel’s social needs.
Yonah said this week that while the numbers of protesters is far lower than it was at the peak of last summer’s protests, there is also a greater frustration among the public.
“I think that today while the numbers of protesters is lower, there is a very deep feeling of frustration among the public and also a feeling that the government defrauded them, because they understand the issues better today than they did before.”
He added that protesters felt last year that they could just wait for the government to answer their demands, while now they believe the government dismissed the protest movement altogether, and see that nothing has changed over the past year. Yonah said these feelings, along with the police tactics used over the past weekend against protesters, have “brought out the fury that we saw on the streets Saturday night.”
Yonah said that the movement doesn’t need to bring hundreds of thousands of protesters out to demonstrations to effect change, saying that the issues will be brought to the public awareness even without the show of force in the streets.
Last year, in late August, nearly a month and a half after the protests started, Sharon Gal of the Channel 10 program Economic Night held a combative interview with protest leader Daphni Leef, in which he asked her why she didn’t serve in the army or do national service and whether her privileged upbringing means she can’t understand the issues facing the Israeli middle class.
While Gal received some criticism for the interview, it was the first time that an Israeli journalist took such a confrontational tone with Leef, who was at that point one of the more famous public figures in Israel.
This year, it took almost no time for Gal to butt heads with a prominent leader of the movement, hosting activist Alon Lee-Green on his show Wednesday night in a segment in which he also highlighted how the New Israel Fund is helping fund social protest efforts.
During the segment, Gal showed a Facebook post to which Green responded with the word “inshallah” (“god willing” in Arabic) to a claim by MK Miri Regev that protesters wanted to turn Rabin Square into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and showed a clip of Green expressing opposition to the occupation of the West Bank. Green, an activist in the left-wing Hadash party who at age 19 organized a protest by employees of the Coffee Bean chain in Israel, said that the interview showed how the media and the country’s leadership “are always looking for a leader, in order to tarnish everybody through highlighting one person. But there is a very wide range of people from all different backgrounds that are working on this issue of social justice together.”
Green also said that the media tends to focus on the more provocative or interesting aspects, such as the vandalism or public disturbances, “and misses the message, which is that we’re fighting for education, welfare and equality.”
As opposed to last year, Green, who is one of the more prominent faces of the movement’s current phase, doesn’t appear to show the same sort of neutral, universal approach to the day’s political issues.
Gal’s interview with Green is in some ways indicative of what Shuki Tausig, editor of the prominent Israeli media watchdog website “7th Eye,” said is the media’s approach to the protest this time around.
Tausig said the media is now covering the protests in a much more critical way than last year, when, at least initially, most Israeli news outlets were swept up in the protest fervor, at times blurring the line of objectivity.
“While the Israeli media is not a monolith, the overwhelming majority of the media is dealing with the protests very negatively as opposed to last year. Most of the media, especially the print media, has launched a strategy to ignore the protests as much as possible and when no it’s longer possible to ignore them, to speak about it negatively.”
One possible example of the negative approach was the front cover of Yediot Aharonot the morning after Saturday’s protest, which showed a picture of a protester breaking the window of the Bank Hapoalim on Ibn Gvirol Street under the headline “The protest loses control.”
Next to the main photo is one of protest leader Daphni Leef striking a sly pose as she smokes a cigarette, above an op-ed by former Prime Minister’s Office official Yoaz Hendel titled “They crossed a red line.”
Tausig said the order to play up the negative aspects of the protest has come from the owners of the media outlets and the highest editorial strata because the protests are focused on the very tycoons and moguls who own many of Israel’s media outlets.
Tausig said that during last year’s protests, “there wasn’t just very sympathetic coverage, the coverage was also very heavy,” adding that the writers and editors “identified with the protests; they’re of the right age, living in the right city [Tel Aviv], working in the right profession, mainly in their 20s. They perfectly fit the core center of the protest movement.”
Tausig said that this year there is a struggle going on between the lowest-level reporters and editors with the higher-up management, adding that he has been told personally from a number of journalists that stories they had written and laid out on the protests had been scrapped due to editorial decisions from above.
“Blowjobs are NIS 100 and sex is NIS 220, that’s how they make their money,” said “Rafi,” a middle-aged homeless man pointing to a far-off group of shrubs at Woloslewsky Park next to the Arlozorov train station at 1:30 a.m. on Thursday morning.
The Tel Aviv Municipality is offering the park, a wellknown gay cruising spot, as an alternative camping site to Rothschild Boulevard, where Huldai has been unbending in his opposition to the setting up of a protest camp.
By Wednesday night there were about 15 tents at Woloslewsky next to the corner of Namir and Arlozorov, with an additional five empty tents on the corner of Menachem Begin Street. Rafi said that he and all of the other half-dozen people at the campsite are homeless, in between half-serious inquiries about whether or not the Jerusalem Post reporter is a police officer or wearing a wire. He and two other friends were staying up all night in shifts to ward off the thieves who he said have been targeting the tents.
While the natural setting is verdant and expansive and a cool breeze runs through the rather remote park at night, the stillness and the random single men milling about in the bushes help create an environment that is somewhat threatening and makes it understandable why activists have been in no hurry to accept the municipality’s offer to set up camp here.
The ghost town that is the Woloslewsky campsite runs in stark contrast to where the Rothschild tent city was at this point in the protest last year. Largely due to its location in the heart of central Tel Aviv, the campsite was a pulsating, vibrant destination with late-night discussions and jam sessions running into the early hours of the morning. Without the Rothschild tent city incubator, the protest movement will have to find a different focus, one that should be in keeping with what former Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Councilman for the Ir L’kulanu party, Bar-Ilan Prof. Noah Efron says is the transition from the movement’s “charismatic” phase to a less romantic one of organizing and day-to-day politicking.
“Last summer was like falling in love and this summer is like figuring out how to have a relationship,” Efron said, adding that the euphoria of the first days and weeks of last summer’s movement were met by the government that was “only willing to pay lip service to it. Ultimately even the things the government declared it would do at the end of last summer it hasn’t done.”
Efron said that activists have toiled over the past year to translate a mass, charismatic movement into a bureaucratic one, and that despite the difficulties of making such a transition, he sees reason to be encouraged.
Efron said he believes that the movement still garners the same level of overwhelming support it enjoyed last summer (in fact, a poll released by Haaretz this week found that 69 percent of the public supports the renewal of the protests), but not the same willingness for large numbers of people to go out into the streets, saying that instead there will be smaller groups of more intense, more frustrated protesters.
The former councilman said that one of the concrete changes that have occurred has been at the municipal level, where in some 30 cities there are people who spent last summer in the tent cities who will be running in municipal elections.
While last summer trafficked in euphoria and breathtaking scenes of hundreds of thousands of Israelis marching through city streets, Efron said the current phases will be defined by a patient and deliberate push for change and not an overnight upheaval brought by street protests.
“If you stop viewing this as we’re going to topple the government and put in something different and you start to look at it in terms of two years from now and four years from now, I think there’s really good reason to think that we’re already seeing that change is on its way.”