My Word: On protests and Putin

Police and protesters alike should keep in mind that popularity and force of numbers are one thing; sheer force is something else entirely.

Demonstration against police violence 390 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Demonstration against police violence 390
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
A friend recently gave me a copy of a photo of my first act of civil disobedience. It was taken sometime in the mid- to late- 1970s. I’m not sure of the exact date, but the location is clear: Outside the Aeroflot offices in London’s Piccadilly. I was part of a group who stopped rush-hour traffic one evening in an effort to draw attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry. It was one of many demonstrations and rallies I attended on behalf of the refuseniks who wanted to emigrate to Israel but were not permitted to leave by the Soviet authorities (or to practice a Jewish lifestyle while they remained in the Communist state).
During this period, I learned several important lessons, not only about democracy but about life in general.
In particular, I recall a friendly policeman who made helpful suggestions about where to stand outside the Soviet embassy one Sunday afternoon.
He seemed slightly different from his colleagues, perhaps with a posh accent in a class-conscious society, and we started chatting as we waited for the vigil to start. He told me that while studying economics at university he had realized that job security was going to be hard to find in the future and the best way to ensure employment in the long run was to join something like the police, armed forces or civil service.
When my friends began to plan ever more daring acts of civil disobedience, I pointed out that the British police were not our enemy and we should not turn them into our foes.
It was the Soviet regime we should be fighting, not friendly British bobbies.
As a group we had a few selfimposed rules (or maybe they were imposed by the society in which we lived): The first was “no violence” and the second that if we were removed from a certain spot by a police officer we should not resist and not try to return. It was “civil protest” with equal emphasis on both words.
When I reached the age of 18, I implemented my own right to freely move from England to Israel and my attention turned to other issues, although when I lived in a nearby neighborhood, I would often get a kick out of seeing Natan Sharansky taking a stroll on a Shabbat afternoon (usually, Jerusalemstyle, in the middle of the almost traffic-free side streets).
The recollections of violence-free rallies past came flooding back last weekend as the so-called social justice activists clashed with police in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
I also felt mixed emotions on seeing Russian President Vladimir Putin feted in Israel – on the one hand, happy that there is contact at this level between the two countries; on the other, acutely aware that his record on human rights (including his treatment of journalists) is distinctly rooted in his Soviet past. Similarly, Russia’s support for the Iranian and Syrian regimes bodes no better for world peace than its Cold War policies of old.
I even thought of that pleasant, prophetic British policeman and hope he has worked his way up through the ranks to a decently paid and satisfying high-ranking job.
In all fairness, several of the demonstrators facing the Israel Police last week were carrying signs with the rhyming slogan: “Adoni hashoter, ata shaveh yoter” (“Policeman, sir; you’re worth more”). I feel sorry for the police officers, ironically forbidden by law from protesting their own poor conditions and salaries. The economy being what it is, they don’t even have job security.
The face-off started with a modest demo on June 22, attracting a small crowd whiling away a Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv in what was meant to be a feel-good, back-inaction rendezvous for Daphni Leef – star of last summer’s protests – and the friends she mobilized mainly through Facebook.
However, things quickly got out of hand, as they so often do when police meet protesters who don’t have the necessary permits.
It was Leef’s arrest, and the footage of her being roughly handled by police, which directly led to the much larger, and uglier, Saturday night demonstration.
Friday’s strongest image was of Leef’s bandaged arm and her friends’ bruises. Saturday produced pictures of shattered bank windows and the blocked Ayalon Freeway. If police had been edgy at the start of the weekend, they felt they were pushed over the edge when faced with an unusually violent demo, in Israeli terms. I hope things haven’t deteriorated by the time you read these lines.
The issues have now stopped being the concerns of the middle class unable to keep up with the cost of living and focus on police brutality, democracy, and squatters’ rights.
By June 25, the demonstrators were disrupting a Tel Aviv City Council meeting, which had to be abandoned in a move that proves that protesting freedom of speech by shouting somebody else down doesn’t always work. Some artists announced they would boycott the city’s White Night culture fest.
What these protests have to do with the price of cottage cheese (the extraordinarily Israeli impetus for last year’s initial protests) beats me. This is more angry mob than social action. The leaders seem to have had a crash course in provocative protests, with the emphasis on the “crash.”
I was not surprised to read a report by the Post’s Ben Hartman on June 22 about the meeting between international social protest activists and their Israeli counterparts.
Matt Renner, an Occupy Wall Street activist and development and communications director for independent news organization Truthout, told Hartman that like Israel’s J14 social justice movement, OWS passed the stage of nationwide encampments, in favor of smaller meetings and workshops to discuss how to keep the protest progressing and bring about societal change.
Asked what he thought he could learn from the Israeli movement, Renner said, “If you can get 500,000 people on the street in a country of seven million that’s a great accomplishment, and that means your message and how you expressed yourself worked – so I’m here to learn from that.”
But, of course, you’re not going to get half a million people on the street if they think the protest leaders are exploiting them as much as “the system.”
The violence – on both sides of the barricades – is disturbing. Municipal authorities and police cannot deny protest permits without good cause; and the demonstrators cannot disturb public order by pretending to answer to some higher unnamed authority.
Tel Aviv prides itself on its tolerance, pluralism and cultural nightlife. It was sad to see these sacrificed on the altar of ego. Without revealing how I voted in the last elections, I need not point out that Daphni Leef’s name or party did not appear on any of the ballot slips.
Nobody democratically elected her to speak on their behalf.
There’s nothing civil about anarchy and nothing democratic about trying to change an elected government through violence.
Police and protesters alike should keep in mind that popularity and force of numbers are one thing; sheer force is something else entirely.
That’s possibly the most important lesson I could learn from studying the art of civil protests – and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.