J14: Initial thoughts on final rally

A week of anticipation and seven weeks of breathtaking national energy wrapped up – for this phase – with a massive rally in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Hamedina attended by roughly 300,000 people and over 100,000 in other parts of the country. An hour before, families streamed down the streets and people kneeled on the sidewalk with signs and magic markers, with cars picking their way through. There was a giddy feeling that the city belonged to the demonstrators.

The speakers were excited but brought no real surprises: the lineup was a combination of the by-now-usual suspects and lesser-known figures from other tent camps and social groups. The first speaker was Itzik Shmuli, head of the Student Union, who this week openly declared his intention to segue into a political career; the last was Daphni Leef, the 25-year old who pitched the first tent and sparked the movement, and has remained mostly about symbolism and rhetoric, rather than substance. In between were representatives of the tent camps and the movement, around the country, a figurehead of the protests following the Yom Kippur war, a young woman oncology resident who will resign this week along with many of her colleagues in protest against intolerable salaries and conditions, a fiery young leader of the Hit’orerot (Awakening) movement in Jerusalem and musical interludes (Dag Nehash easily beat out Ha’yehudim for quality).

After seven weeks of basically having one long argument, and many critical thoughts about what, where and how this movement is going, the following is a short list of my observations from the evening.

1. Itzik Shmuli, head of the Student Union used the term “the new Israelis” at least half a dozen times in his speech. Guess what name to expect for his party? Up to now, “B,” has come to represent the movement, and it too looks like a future party symbol. This is a reminder that the movement from the start involved diverse social circles, with different approaches to change. At present, my guess is that there will be two new parties to emerge from this movement, and the existing National Left movement has been very involved all along. That makes potentially three new parties in the next elections.

2. Comparing the people at the rally to the folks on Rothschild on the very first night of the protest, I noticed a markedly more articulate sense of what they’re asking for. A 64-year old woman named Miki, with four grown children, had come from the tony suburb of Ramat Hasharon to say that for her, a victory would mean “free education from at least two years old (or lower), making nanny costs tax deductible for working women, and affordable housing to be made available based on actual economic status and not the number of children [thought to favor religious communities],” and a large political social movement to replace the religious parties in government. Another 61-year old man, Haim, who lives on a moshav, hoped for change not for his children but for his grandchildren: education from age zero to after the army, accessible health care for all, and affordable housing.  Only one – a 16-year old named Yam who came with her family – expressed victory in terms of “Bibi won’t be Prime Minister anymore.”

It does seem that after the summer of calling for a revolution, J14 is not at all clear that it wants a regime change now, and might be more focused on getting current and future governments to learn the meaning of accountability – as part of the “change of culture” that is a frequent demand.

In fact, I do not think elections ought to be held now. Like in Egypt, new parties will not be prepared, will have no infrastructure or platforms. Unlike Egypt, in Israel, that means we would most likely just get a new mandate for the old regime.

3. There is simply an abyss dividing the Israeli economic discourse from the American one. The most prominent new signs, chants, and messages in this rally were: “expand the budget!” A group of adorable youth movement teenagers got on the stage with a huge model of a chocolate cake to illustrate that “we are not fighting for crumbs of the budget, we are talking about expanding the cake.” Together with the unrelenting demand to bring back the welfare state, this is an unapologetic cry for a social – if not socialist – economic approach; hopefully someone will take care to update it for the 21st century.

4. There was almost no representation of the needs of specific sectors, other than perfunctory messages about the unity and solidarity of all different groups in all regions of the country. Arab speakers or issues were glaringly absent in this final demonstration.

5. There was particularly powerful applause for educator Amnon Rabinowitz who gave detailed demands to invest in public education, end the cultivation of private education at the expense of public schools, provide education for the youngest ages and place greater emphasis on values as part of the curriculum. Indeed, in every survey I have conducted over the last few years, education has come out as people’s top priority – higher than security, higher than the economy and higher than social gaps. Yet I am still waiting for the day when this finding determines voting behavior more than security.

Ultimately the demonstration ended on a gentle, not frantic note, which I hope will be a sign of morphing into a new phase of civic action, consumer protests, detailed policy demands, and very critical thinking that goes much deeper than a tent stake.

As for my personal goals – I’ll be happy if the conversations that started between unlikely interlocutors – religious and secular, Tel Aviv and Ofakim, Arabs and Jews, politicians and citizens – continue and people actually learn to listen. I’ll be happy if the new sense of empathy for those outside our immediate circles remains; I’ll be happy if it extends beyond the first concentric circle and keeps going – even beyond our borders.