Comment: From Rothschild to Zuccotti, similarities continue

Protesters in Tel Aviv and New York tapped into feeling that middle-class lifestyle dead.

Occupy Wall Street 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Occupy Wall Street 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since protesters took to Zuccotti park on September 17, it has been difficult to ignore the similarities in the development of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and the “J14” justice movement that swept Israel over the summer.
In both cases, a central tent city in the country’s cultural and economic center inspired ordinary people to set up dozens of copycat campsites across the country, all using the same egalitarian rules of dialogue and sign language-based method of communication.
Both tapped into a very authentic, grassroots frustration among mainly middle-class, educated youth who expressed an anger at what they say is an economic system growing more unequal by the day.
Both also faced very similar criticism, mainly from the right. In both cases, the movements were criticized for lacking clear leadership and a well-defined set of demands. Both developed as an organic casserole of grievances that multiplied and eventually began to encompass a cornucopia of left-wing grievances dealing with issues of “social justice.”
As opposed to OWS, J14 was a media darling from the moment Daphni Leef and a handful of friends set up tents on Rothschild Boulevard on July 14 this year. In the Israeli case, the initial media love-in faded after around a month or so, and by the time municipality clerks began clearing tents on Rothschild on September 7 (after promising protesters they had until the high holidays to evacuate) many journalists covering the tent city movement had begun to see it as a dead story at best, a nuisance at worst.
At the café across from the main tent city on September 7, among the crowd of Israeli journalists one could feel a palpable sense of relief that their days of fishing for “color” and insight between the tents and drum circles of Rothschild was finally coming to an end.
In the case of OWS however, media attention was slow to arrive, and the eviction appears to have come while the movement was still garnering massive media attention, even without the mass protests of hundreds of thousands that typified the J14 movement.
In both cases, a local mayor of national prominence allowed the protest to carry on for a certain amount of time, until finally sending in the police, citing complaints by locals and public safety risks.
In the case of the Rothschild tent city, the eviction and the sleight of hand way in which it was carried out turned the protesters ire towards Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. The eviction was followed hours later by a protest at city hall in which dozens of demonstrators were arrested and injured, in the movement’s most heated protest so far.
The coming days will indicate whether or not the strong-arm tactics in New York will make Mayor Michael Bloomberg the target of protesters’ anger as well. In the Tel Aviv case, one was left with the impression that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would be none too disappointed to see the local mayor cast as the villain in a nationwide protest movement, and if Bloomberg becomes the villain of OWS, Wall Street financiers – who have until now been the target of protesters’ anger across the country – will breathe a sigh of relief.
Both movements have been and will continue to be a Rorschach test of sorts in that most observers see in them what they were predisposed to see. Leftovers from the Israeli or American left have seen these movements as the return of the glory days of protest of their youth, and the right wing in both countries saw spoiled youngsters with a deep envy of the rich, and in pressing need of “showers, jobs and a point,” to quote far-right American pundit Ann Coulter. Coulter would easily find a kindred spirit in the Likud’s Ayoub Kara, who famously called the Rothschild protesters “sushi eaters” and “nargila smokers.”
Regardless of the differences they may have, both movements very clearly tapped into something, even if that something remains rather unclear.
Both sprouted from a powerful feeling among many of this current generation in the US and Israel that the dream of a middle-class lifestyle is dead and the game is fixed. A protest based on such powerful yet unclear sentiments will not be erased by the eviction of tent cities, but also won’t bring about social change by relying solely on street theater and urban campouts. Those who are looking to bring about real social change – be it in Israel or America – should embrace the need for strong leadership and clearly itemized demands pursued through real political organization.
Both should also be prepared for the long haul, tents or no tents.