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Shaping a Just World

13.08.2021

From Tent Cities to the COVID-19 Protests

Part I: Two Social Protests in Israel from the Eyes of the Activists

The ‘Tent Protest’, begun on July 4th, 2011, was the largest socioeconomic protest in Israel’s history. From a small tent set up by a group of young people on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to protest housing prices, tent cities sprouted in dozens of cities across Israel. These encampments maintained practices of direct democracy, allowing citizens to discuss their daily problems. Over the course of the protest, which lasted for about two months, hundreds of people demonstrated and demanded a welfare policy under the slogan ‘The people demand social justice’.

The protest in Israel began in the midst of unrest and social struggles in the Middle East and in western countries. Citizens in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and other Middle Eastern countries began fighting against their countries’ dictatorial regimes. In Greece and Spain, where many citizens were severely harmed by the financial crisis of 2008, widespread protests of a democratic nature emerged against the austerity policy. The worldwide awakening was one of the Israeli struggle’s sources of inspiration.

The ‘tent cities’ and demonstrations ended six weeks later. The protest led the government to adopt several specific changes in social policy, but it also had broader implications. It was a transformative experience which cultivated social and political awareness, especially for Israeli youths, and developed a platform for the emergence of diverse social initiatives, both local and national. It also directed public and media attention to the Israeli public’s increasing adversities following decades of promoting a neoliberal economic policy.

Nine years later, multitudes of Israelis have once again hit the streets. This time, the protest began following the Israeli government’s poor handling of the socioeconomic crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic: self-employed people left without a safety net, salaried employees who lost their jobs, and civil servants who demanded that their work conditions be adjusted to fit the new situation. This protest joined another protest – the one demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu step down due to being suspected of criminal offenses. About a year later, government in Israel changed hands and Netanyahu left office, but the newly established government does not promise the public significant socioeconomic changes.

Four of the 2011 protest’s leaders speak about the protest that changed their lives, the similarities and differences between the protests, and what advice they would give demonstrators and protest leaders. The conversations with them were held in June 2020, when the protest formed during the COVID-19 outbreak was yet in its initial stages.

“I felt that we were going to change the country”

Amnon Rabinovitz (36) is a project manager in educational innovation, former teacher and head of ‘Ziv’ Junior High School in Jerusalem. During the 2011 protest, he was one of the leaders of the protest encampment in Jerusalem, where he’d come after being invited by Daphni Leef, who had initiated the protest encampment in Tel Aviv. “Daphni sent an email, and we said – there’s something cool going on here”, he says. Rabinovitz was hyped. “Before the ‘One Million’s Demonstration’ that marked the end of the protest, I had the feeling we were going to change the country. We wrote a new constitution. At the demonstration, I was the second one to go onstage, I gave the speech about education. I was sure a real welfare state was about to be established here, that there would be real change in education.”

Roee Neuman (36) is a media consultant. During the 2011 protest, he was a member of the group ‘The Eight’ which led the protest on the national level, and the protest’s spokesperson. “Our first demonstration was attended by around 20 thousand people. We never even thought that was going to happen. Dana Berger, an Israeli singer, went onstage and started singing Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talkin' ‘bout A Revolution’. It was at that moment that I realized we were doing something awfully big. Everyone was together, singing together, we could feel the masses of people. We didn’t realize what was going on, but we realized something was going on.”

Shiri Klar (39) is a community coordinator at the Municipality of Rehovot, a member of Rehovot’s Social Justice Community and a member of the Dror Israel movement. In 2011, she was one of the leaders of Rehovot’s protest encampment. “Our encampment was the fourth-largest in Israel. It had all the city’s diverse populations – students, young families, the elderly, Haredim, Ethiopian Israelis. People discovered one another, found hope in togetherness. Before that, everyone had been feeling guilty of their own plight, and so alone.”

“Through many conversations and study sessions we held, we realized there was a system in place that was dragging us all down. The encampment had a leading team, and every day we held a tenants’ meeting where we made decisions together. We had with us at the encampment three families who were entitled to an apartment under public housing but were not given it. They stayed there until Passover, when the municipality found a solution for them in the form of assistance with rent, until their problem could be resolved by the Ministry of Housing.”

Osama Amer (37) is a juvenile probation officer in Safed and resides in Peki’in. During the 2011 protest, he was active at the Haifa encampment. “People from all over the city and the area started coming by the encampment little by little, day after day. In a few days, a group of men and women was formed and we began getting to know one another and splitting up into action teams. It was very impressive how, in a short time, from being perfect strangers, we got to putting on something big.”

“I also have fond memories of the democratic circles we would have in the evenings at the encampment. That’s not what we called them, but that’s what they were. We’d bring up the issues that arose over the day, and the schedule for all the coming days. It was a platform that gave everyone a chance to express their position and opinion. Some issues were put to a vote and decided by the majority, whether it was the decision of whether or not to enter into negotiations with the municipality, or where we were going to hold our next demonstration.”

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