#J14 takes up cause of Gilad Shalit in a bid to keep momentum

By: Liel Maghen and Aziz Abu Sarah

It is a custom in Israel that people will forsake their social rights or economic demands in face of any security concerns and terror threats. The right wing in Israel had successfully presented security concerns as a justification to maintain the status quo on social issues. Thus, in the general public, the military budget cannot be questioned or even debated. Therefore, despite the new social movement claim to work on changing the priorities in Israel, they decided consciously to ignore the debate about security in order to keep the movement popular.

Last week’s terror attack in Eilat and the rockets that came later pushed many Israelis back to their fearful state of mind. They quickly started to question whether they should continue the social justice protests. However, despite many calls to cancel the protests, it seemed that the activists understood that cancellation of protests might mean an end to the movement.

It became harder for the social justice movement to ignore the new reality of the southern border   rapid escalation of violence which pushed the movement toward new directions. For two weeks in row the social movement activists succeeded in keeping the momentum. But these two latest rallies were different from the ones that came before.

Last week protest in Tel Aviv was especially inspiring. The willingness of thousands people to come out and say “no” to fear and “yes” to change is no small thing. The protest was a challenge to the status quo where security is the ultimate argument. It challenged the notion that security is more important than striving for a higher living standards and social justice. Speakers highlighted that no security is worthwhile when social security is ignored. Other speakers spoke of their desire to build a state to live for with social justice platform and not only a place to fight and die for. One of the speakers boldly shouted that Sderot needs both social justice and peace.

Some  protestors and speakers chanted that the people want a cease fire, a few from Hadash party were shouting for justice in both Sderot and Gaza.

When an Arab speaker was heckled by  radical right wing activists, we wondered how the crowd would react. Would the movement bear  this provocation, or would it show a change in attitude?
The crowd shouted together that Arabs and Jews refuse to be enemies until the right wing activists went away. Facing down this challenge was the highlight of the evening for us. The protest as expected to have a few disturbing people, there will always be spoilers but the real test was the crowd willingness and ability to push those spoilers away.

This Saturday protest was even larger, about 25,000 people showed up in Tel Aviv. The numbers surprised the newscasters. Israel Radio predicted no more than 2,000 people. But the protest was also different in content. In efforts to counter accusations of betrayal for protesting while Israel is facing more urgent security issues, the protestors put together a very nationalist protest. They also brought to the front of the protest a new issue. Gilad Shalit. Noam Shalit, the father of the captive soldier, was one of the main speakers. Every other speaker talked about Shalit and the government’s inability to bring him back. Noam Shalit is perhaps the first speaker in these protests to publicly call for Netanyahu to resign, branding him as unfit to lead the country.

Bringing new political issues that are in the consensus of the Israeli public is a brilliant move to counter attacks on the patriotism of the movement. However, this will raise questions about other issues. In the same time some of these new issues might be in the consensus of Jewish public but not the Arab communities whom been doubtful about this movement from the beginning. It is likely that raising these new political issues will bring more complications to the organizers.

For now,  the social justice activists’ ability to bring thousands of people to the streets despite the security situation shows that this movement is changing priorities for some Israelis. Such success is crucial in order to put a real pressure on the government to take the demands of the protestors seriously. Perhaps what makes this success a benchmark in challenging the status quo is the ability to overcome recent media and government criticism of the protests.

The next weeks and months will bring more tests to this movement.  September and the Palestinian declaration of independence will bring tension and the Israeli government is likely to use the fear to end the protests. However, the social movement had proved that they can overcome these challenges and generate  hope that a real change in priorities is possible in the Israeli community.

Liel Maghen is a political science student at Hebrew University.