Tel Aviv — One year after Israel’s social protest movement was born, activists are battling over its soul.
Throughout June, protestors once again started to flow into the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday nights. They all claimed to be reviving the demonstrations held weekly last summer, when tent cities proliferated all over the country. But it quickly became evident that this time, there were very different ideas among the protestors about what their demands should be.
When a dozen disgruntled young Tel Avivans set up the first protest tents on July 14, 2011, they initially called for affordable housing and lower cost of living. But within days, there developed an ever-growing number of interpretations as to what should fall under the banner of “social justice.” The excitement of a successful movement, one capable of bringing nearly half a million people to the streets, overwhelmed any fine parsing of the differences between these various visions.
But that was then.
More than a year has passed and the government has offered a few concessions to improve social welfare — though far fewer than protestors hoped for — and the cause, which today is promoted by numerous different activist groups all claiming the legacy of the original movement, is even more fractured.
For many, the struggle has taken a patriotic turn, and the rallying cry has become not just equal rights but also equal responsibility, in the form of national service for all men, including Haredim and Arabs who are currently exempt. On July 7, with the government deliberating over what to do when the law exempting Haredi men from army service expires later this summer, some 25,000 people staged a social protest in Tel Aviv where the key demand was a universal male draft. “Frustration about lots of Israelis not doing national service is part of what brought people out onto the streets last year — it just wasn’t translated as a clear demand, so we’re doing so this year as an important part of the social protest,” said Idan Miller, head of Common Denominator, the activist group that organized the event.
Others say that the movement must expand in a different direction — by calling for an end to the occupation. Just as Saturday demonstrations were being revived in early June, a group of activists staged a rally entitled “No Social Justice Without Ending the Occupation.” It attracted 2,000 people, and since then a schism has emerged between protestors on this issue.
“You can’t have social justice for just 7 million people who are Israeli citizens — you have to take everyone under Israeli rule into consideration,” Nir Nader, a leader of the anti-occupation protesters, told the Forward.
The schism between protestors has become most acute in the weeks since June 30, when, during a 10,000-strong Tel Aviv demonstration, 2,000 of the more radical protestors split off from the rest. The breakaway group accused the demonstration’s organizers of placing too much faith in the establishment. At the renegade demonstration, protestors chanted slogans calling for an end to the occupation, and the most common chant was “peace, equality and social justice.”