In 1983, when news of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps became known, about 300,000 Israelis jammed the streets of Tel Aviv to protest their government’s involvement. It was a very big deal, thought to be one of the largest demonstrations of its kind in Israel’s history.
The protests for social justice on September 3 eclipsed all that, and then some.
When 450,000 Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, took to the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities, that amounted to about 6% of the entire population of Israel. Just put that into an American context: If 6% of our 307 million-strong population gathered to demonstrate for anything, that would turn into 18.4 million people on the streets. If such a gathering were a city, it would edge out Los Angeles to be second to only New York City in population.
It would be the size of Shanghai. Or Jakarta.
Let’s just pause for a moment to appreciate the power of this comparison. The Israeli protests were well-organized and peaceful, energizing a public thought to be either fearful, apathetic, or both. They brought together a swath of society under a still-nebulous umbrella of demands. As you’ll read soon in the Forward in a story by our Israel correspondent Nathan Jeffay, the protest leaders are asking for no less than a radical remake of Israeli society, while Benjamin Netanyahu thinks he can respond with just a tinkering around the edges.
There is no telling where this dynamic is going politically, and whether the social justice movement can be sustained. But those of us who watch from afar and care about the exercise of political rights in a democracy can marvel over what ordinary Israelis are doing and what they have accomplished so far. Just do the numbers.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and it has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.