Social protests show decline in public interest

Reporter's Notebook: "We’re not on a high when tens of thousands come and not down when fewer show up," says Itzik Shmuli.

Social justice picture 370 (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Social justice picture 370
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
If Saturday night’s “unity protest” at the Tel Aviv Museum was meant to be a make-or-break show of force, the future may be bleak for the social justice movement that celebrated its first anniversary last month.
At the entrance to the plaza, hundreds of “Enough!” placards lay undisturbed, as the easily navigable crowd numbered only a few thousand, days after a widely unpopular series of government budget cuts and tax hikes was reported.
The night highlighted the well-publicized schism between the protesters at the museum rally and those who took part in the protest march from the Habimah Theater to the government complex on Kaplan Boulevard. Those at Habimah slammed the museum demonstration as a “campaign rally” for the Labor Party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, and called on the public to boycott Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shafir, saying both have forsaken the cause of social justice to pursue their budding political careers.
Two moments stood out during Saturday night’s rally at the museum; a crowd of a few dozen counter-protesters from the social justice march that set out from Habimah tried to disrupt the rally, calling speakers “Bibi [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu]’s collaborators.”
At one point they shouted down disabled attorney Karin Alharar, who sat in a wheelchair as she read a speech from the plaza floor in front of the stage.
Other than that disruption, the most notable moment came when a man in a Batman suit scaled the scaffolding and appeared on stage, spreading his cape wide before he was taken off by security.
National Union of Israeli Students chairman Shmuli sounded an optimistic tone on Sunday, saying that “over the past year we’ve learned that this is a continued struggle.
We’re not on a big high when there’s tens of thousands of protesters at the rally and not on a down when only a few thousand come.”
Furthermore, Shmuli said the movement is devoted “to bringing about a change in Israeli society, not only to bring people out into the streets. Protests are a means but not the goal.”
When asked why the protests were no longer able to muster the crowds of hundreds of thousands that came out last summer to call for change, he said, “I think that we should look at summer 2011 as a historic event and we don’t need to always look to try to repeat this event, but to take this energy of last summer and apply it to the changes that people want to bring about.”
The split among the protesters appears to pit more establishment types such as Shmuli, widely seen as pursuing a future political career, possibly in the Labor Party, against those holding illegal street protests and calling for a total upheaval in the Israeli economic system.
Protester Shir Alony, who took part in the march to Kaplan Boulevard, said the museum rally “was an election rally for certain parties, and the other rally was focused instead on the social issues that affect our society all of the time.”
Alony said the rally at the museum “was an exploitation of the movement,” and that Shafir and the other participants are no longer part of their struggle.
Protester Uri Ophir criticized the museum rally’s call for universal service, which he said is part of efforts “to draft weak sectors; the Arabs and the haredim, and to advance Yair Lapid’s political career,” while the march to Kaplan “was devoted to a more radical cause of social change without pursuing personal political goals.”
When asked if the movement is better served by a greater sense of unity among protesters, Ophir said, “I am in favor of cooperation both in the long term and the short term with all types of groups, but this particular group I don’t believe is devoted to the same causes that we are. Our ideologies don’t resemble one another.”
What both sides appear to agree on is that the protests are only a means to an end, and that the movement still lacks a clear leadership or political party to which to anchor itself.
“Demonstrations are no longer the way to accomplish change, or not the only one.
People must go out and meet people, talk to them, and encourage them [to believe] that things can be changed,” said activist Yonatan Levi, driving to Eilat on Sunday as part of a weeklong cross-country trip in which activists plan to meet disaffected Israelis.
Levi said the wider public that supports the social justice protest movement has been neglected over the past year by the core of activists living in Tel Aviv, a situation the movement must remedy if it is to succeed.
“The protest has been focused on itself for a long time, and we think it’s important to reach out again to the wider public,” Levi said.