Gearing up for the second wave

Social-protests this year will focus more on real poverty, less on the erosion of the middle class, organizers say.

Social justice protest 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Social justice protest 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Last week, more than 75 people crammed into the small Salon Shabazi coffee shop in Nahlaot in response to an appeal launched through Facebook to initiate serious discussions about the plans for this summer’s social protest. The massive reaction – from various organizations, as well as individuals not affiliated with any group – and wide age range of the participants gave the organizers the answer they were waiting for – that a desire to take action was in the air.
It was immediately decided that a large outdoor demonstration would take place on Saturday night (May 5) at Hamashbir Square, with former MK Charlie Biton, the last veteran of the Black Panther movement to advance the rights of Mizrahi immigrants that pervaded Jerusalem in the 1970s, as the head speaker.
Jerusalem seems ripe for the next wave of protests, say some of the most prominent among the protest movement’s leaders. “But this time we have to make sure that things do not dissipate before we achieve a real change,” stresses city council member Merav Cohen of Hitorerut B’yerushalayim, one of most active groups among the protesters.
With Independence Day behind us and Jerusalem Day around the corner, we have already experienced a few heat waves announcing the advent of summer. That is the perfect time to look for signs that Jerusalem residents will once again see parks turning into tent camps and rally venues. In other words, will we see another wave of protests and, more specifically, will it be like last summer or different? And perhaps even more interesting, is the protest movement in Jerusalem reaching a turning point? Are we about to see a different kind of protest as some of the militant factions claim? And if so, where will its particular character and mode of expression lead the city’s protest movement?
The groups participating in the protest have met to discuss the character the movement’s events will take this summer. The groups range from radical to more established organizations that work within the system and the proposals on the agenda are as varied as the organizations.
Tent cities, sit-ins on major thoroughfares or at the Knesset and large demonstrations are some of the ideas that have been suggested for this summer’s protests.
Among some, there is a strong feeling that last summer’s events were too “nice,” and that this year the movement should be more assertive.
In Jerusalem, most of the agendas the movement wants to highlight are related to poverty rather than the middle-class problems protested last year, but a clear battle plan has not yet been outlined.
“People here will demonstrate because they literally don’t have a roof over their heads, not because the rent in some nice neighborhood has been raised high,” says Idan Pink, a tour guide in her 30s, who is one of the most radical voices that emerged from last year’s protest.
“While people in Jerusalem appreciate the solidarity, they feel that in order to solve the problems they face – lack of public housing, lack of employment, lack of support for their children’s education, they have to conduct their own struggle.”
According to Hama’abara, one of the most radical groups that took to the streets and parks last summer, Jerusalem’s protest movement is indeed different. And if that wasn’t clear enough last year, things will not be the same this summer – not only in terms of whom the protest represents but mainly through its goals and paths to achievement. While in Tel Aviv the social protest on Rothschild Boulevard represented mainly students and the middle class, Jerusalem has the hard core of the struggle against the establishment (like the Black Panthers) and a concentration of the most underprivileged communities, such as haredim, Arabs, elderly immigrants from the former Soviet Union and residents of the poorest neighborhoods. Not that these elements cannot be found elsewhere as well, but they are more numerous in Jerusalem than in the rest of the country.
Jerusalem also has a large number of the country’s new socioeconomic class (according to National Insurance Institute figures and the NGOs here) – the working poor. About 25 percent of the capital’s residents live below the poverty line. While these figures are not new, a considerable change has taken place here recently and openly manifested itself last summer.
“People are no longer willing to remain silent and accept their situation,” says Pink.
Pink is not alone. The feeling that families without housing solutions, working parents who cannot feed their children properly and “that things are not the way they should be in general” seems to be paving the way not only for a new protest but also for one that is organized in a different manner. Some of the activists even believe that this time, things may go further, including some violence.
On the local level, almost every group or organization that has been working for the past few years to promote every aspect of social justice is involved to some degree in the programming of the next protest wave. For the moment, it seems that every group is more or less ready but is waiting to see what the others do. Large, wellorganized organizations like Hitorerut B’yerushalayim, Yerushalmim, New Spirit, Community Advocacy, as well as smaller ones and newly formed ad hoc groups, are trying to advance their views of what should be on the agenda of what they are calling “the second wave.”
BASICALLY, THERE are three major trends in the city’s protest movement that are focused on three major issues.
Housing, be it affordable housing for young families or public housing for needy families, is lacking a viable solution. Employment is sorely lacking for college graduates, haredim, Arab women and people over 50. On the issue of the high cost of living, there is not much difference between Jerusalem and the rest of the country, except that here again, the number of residents living below the poverty line is higher, hence the problem is more acute.
Dissatisfaction about these three issues is prevalent among three particular segments of the population, although they try to work together as much as possible. They are students; single-parent families with no housing solutions; and Hama’abara, a group of young people who are employed but have aligned themselves with a small group of single mothers to promote the right to squat anywhere until the state provides a satisfactory solution to the lack of public housing.
Hama’abara remained long after the rest of the protesters pulled up their tents with the onset of winter. “I really don’t understand the idea of resuming the protest after the winter,” says Shimon Nehama, 52, a single parent of two daughters, who is unemployed and has lacked proper housing for years. “Our protest is not a trend; it’s not something we do when it’s warm and pleasant outside. It’s our real and very difficult life here.”
Nehama, Vicki Chen, Maya Zadurov, Ovadia Aharon and about 35 others were among the last to leave the tent camp in one of the parks when they accepted Mayor Nir Barkat’s proposal to help them by financing six months of rent. The six months end in June, and though Nehama and his friends admit that it was a reasonable solution for the winter, it was not meant to be a permanent solution. The group of young radical activists who joined Nehama and his friends stayed with them for a while in two places where they squatted (until the police evicted them) but remain adamant to continue to fight.
“This struggle is not only for us personally,” says Nehama. “We want to bring about a change in Israeli society. We cannot accept that while we are sleeping in the streets with our children, the state has empty buildings that we are not allowed to live in. In fact, we don’t call it squatting, we call it liberating. We liberate empty buildings by entering them.” Pink, who is a driving force in the group, says that the feeling of being fed up with the situation is mounting, and although she sees a big difference between theirs and the students’ protest, “it is important but not representative enough.” She points out that Hama’abara has added the Mizrahi aspect, which she believes was lacking in the students’ activity.
“Protest is important and necessary,” says Barbara Epstein, founder and director of Community Advocacy, an NGO that works to empower citizens, especially women, to fight for their rights. “But protest has to end in political change, otherwise it doesn’t really lead to substantial change.”
Epstein recalls that such a change occurred with the Black Panther movement. Even though it took some, time, political change did come about as a result of the protests.
Epstein explains that in her view, after the Black Panthers came the Yom Kippur War, and the elections following the war brought the Labor Party back to power, but in fact the huge demonstrations then predicted the radical political change that finally came in 1977.
“We need to see if this is what is in store for us this time, too,” she says.
One such step can perhaps be found in the rising interest of a large group of young residents within the framework of a political party.
Martin Vilar, formerly the assistant to city council member Rachel Azaria, is the leading candidate for the position of head of the Young Leadership of the Labor Party in Jerusalem.
Vilar, who works at Bema’agalei Tzedek at the newly created desk for the rights of employees of private companies, is not the first to choose a political party to promote his social vision. Before him, Esti Kirmayer, in her early 30s, married with two children, ran for the position of secretary of the Jerusalem district’s Labor Party. She won, thanks in part to the support she received from a large number of youth who believed that the Labor Party was the right place to promote their vision of social justice.
In last summer’s protest, Vilar was one of the leaders behind the protest at the Menorah Park camp site, which held daily assemblies and roundtable discussions almost every evening. Not surprisingly, Vilar and Kirmayer are now among the organizers of resuming the protest in the capital.
Yerushalmim, led by Azaria, is focused on specific issues connected to the protest. “We are busy organizing and focusing on the young families here,” she explains. “Of course, we are part of the larger picture, of the general movement of the protest – housing and cost of living and lack of solutions for the young generation – but we are dedicated to the bulk of our constituency, which are the young and productive families, educated people who cannot make it, who need answers to their particular problems: affordable housing, education, reliable and efficient public transportation, playgrounds, affordable tuition for kindergartens and so on. But, of course, we are a part of the whole movement.”
Merav Cohen, a former ally of Azaria’s on the city council, paints a similar picture. Her party Hitorerut B’yerushalayim, which represents the youth who have decided to remain in the city after graduation and turn it into the best place to live, is interested in solutions to make this plan effective.
“Jobs, we need more jobs and more facilities and support networks for the young generation who want to stay here,” she says. “We’re aiming at those who study, work, but cannot afford a house here nor find decent employment and try hard not to give up their efforts to stay here. The state owes them a proper answer. We are here, together with other organizations, each one in a niche that fits their concern, to once again get the government’s attention.”
In the background, there is tremendous support from the New Israel Fund, through the Shatil branch, which works closely with all the major entities concerned with the protest movement. On May 17, all these organizations and groups will march in Tel Aviv, one of the first outdoor initiatives developed by Shatil for this year.
MOST OF the groups and organizations are working in close collaboration with the people of Shatil, who have been active over the years in repeated attempts to bring about changes in the social situation, such as the protest of single mother Vikki Knafo in 2003 and the various demonstrations against the lack of public housing. Shatil provides a network of support, such as logistics and public relations, but the major task remains in the residents’ hands and capacity. Here again, there are variations and nuances in the character of the protest process. While Shatil will never encourage any organization to break the law or disregard legal procedures, there are other groups, such as Hama’abara, that will never ask for an official permit to demonstrate, in principle. Staff members of Shatil, in Jerusalem as well as in other cities, especially on the periphery, work with the various groups and associations to develop the strategy of the protest movement, always one step in the background and never instead of the citizens protesting. After all, Shatil employees are citizens themselves.
“Last year, the students ultimately dropped us and went back to their homes and studies,” says Nehama, “so it’s not that we don’t want to do things with them anymore, it’s just that we are careful this time.”
Nehama and Pink confirm that while they are not against any joint effort, they do not want to blur the fundamental differences between the various groups.
“It’s not only a problem of public housing or lack of jobs or the high cost of living,” explains Pink. “We believe that we have to fight for a better society for everyone. Out of this better and just and egalitarian society, each one of us will find the solution to his or her own problems. That is why for us, the struggle that we initiated last summer hasn’t stopped for one day – we had to adapt it to the conditions on the ground, but we never went home to rest until the next summer.”
Says Cohen, “It is clear that we are not going to remain quiet in the coming months. It’s all bubbling below the surface, but not for long. In fact, it has already started. We are participating in a march in Tel Aviv on May 17, with all the groups and organization from across the country. But for us, most of the events will be in Jerusalem. We are getting ready. We work with all the groups together. This summer will be critical in shaping the future of our society.”