Two young people who caught my eye in the endless stream of people in Tel Aviv last night were wearing proudly wearing t-shirts with the slogan "Revolution!" stamped on the front. No busses, no organized political mobilizations, just endless streams of people, marching in the heart of Tel Aviv – near the heart of the Israeli military-industrial complex – the Kirya (Israeli Pentagon), the huge office and apartment towers, with the three Azrieli Towers looming in the distance. 100,000 people in Tel Aviv alone, 150,000 throughout the country.
They were mainly young, secular and Ashkenazi, but also groups with signs representing South Tel Aviv, the Hatikva Quarter, Jaffa, all predominantly Sephardi neighborhoods. And Russians proudly carrying signs in Russian proclaiming that we are here too. And some young Ethiopian girls, whooping it up. And Arabs from Jaffa, even a smattering of ultra-Orthodox Haredim. Someone was carrying a placard which looked like the ghost of Che Guevera. And someone else wore a t-shirt with a picture of Gandhi on the back.
The predominant slogan was "The people demand social justice!" And periodically, a loud rumbling cry emerged from sections of the crowd, like a wave – people simply feeling their strength and empowerment.
"Look at this" said Rany Trainin from Kibbutz Beit Nir, whose son lives in Tel Aviv and has been involved since the beginning. "This will be a formative experience for this whole generation of young people". I passed by writer/critic Dr. Nissim Kalderon, mumbling to someone near him the phrase "critical mass". And Haaretz commentator Ari Shavit, exchanging observations with Peace Now's Yariv Oppenheimer. And there was Helen Danan, one of the original Black Panthers from the 70s from Morocco, looking for Charley (Charley Biton, another one of the original Panthers.) The kiss we shared was not romantic, but a reflection of the energy generated by this unexpected phenomenon.
I didn't go to the first rally/march last Saturday night, July 23rd, because 1) I was exhausted after an intense week; and 2) I thought this was a generational matter - more for my son Adi's generation than for mine. Well, my Palestine-Israel Journal (PIJ) colleague Prof. Dan Jacobson did go - with the excuse that he was accompanying his daughter and giving her support - and he was overwhelmed. Tens of thousands of young people - marching in the streets, calling for change - calling for social justice and a welfare state - he hadn't seen anything like that since Sabra and Shatila in 1982.
We both agree that this protest - which began barely two weeks ago when a young woman named Daphne Leef put up a tent at the edge of Rothschild Blvd. near the Habima Theater and sent out a Facebook message calling on friends to join her - has grown into a very powerful, nation-wide phenomenon, and the most serious challenge to Netanyahu's regime and political philosophy.
When young people are saying they are worried about their future, can't afford apartments, can't afford to raise a family, when students are saying that we are concerned about the future of Israeli society, about the collapsing social safety net - when there are big signs calling for social justice, a welfare state, social solidarity - Netanyahu's privatization, reduce the taxes and the bureaucracy and let the free market do its thing just doesn't cut it.
On Friday morning I spent an hour and a half at the tent city on the recently renamed "If I were a Rothschild Blvd" (play on the Hebrew version of "If I were a rich man" from Fiddler on the Roof"), and to paraphrase Bob Dylan - Something is really happening here, and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Bibi (Netanyahu).
I have never seen anything like what I saw on Rothschild Blvd. Tent after tent, stretching on both sides of the blvd from Habima Square almost reaching Allenby Street - endless graffiti signs, beginning with "A whole generation demands affordable housing" to humor like "Even Adam Smith is turning over in his grave", a free first aid center provided by Rabbis for Human Rights, free clothing for the taking, art courses, yoga, free food and water, signs against Bibi and the tycoons, young individuals, couples, and families, camping out, tents where writers tell stories to children, music everywhere, lectures - many aspects of the 60s counter-culture, what Abbie Hoffman called "The Woodstock Nation" combined with grassroots militant activism, a "Revolutionary Theater" which shows Michael Moore's "Capitalism - A Love Story" every night, the National Student Union is behind it, The Kibbutz Seminary Student Union, the Sapir College down in Sderot, quite a few Israeli flags, one on the corner building with tears dropping down, a smattering of red flags, I can go on and on.
At the corner of Ben-Zion Blvd and Rothschild Blvd there's a "Struggle Headquarters" (Mateh Hama'avak). One of the people staffing it asked me if I defined myself as middle class. Well, I said, deteriorating middle class, and I added that I would have once called myself working class, but these days almost everyone wants to define themselves as middle class - since less than 5% (1%?) are really upper class, and no-one wants to admit to being lower class.
This really is a revolt of the young, highly educated middle class - which if it sounds familiar, is the same profile as the core of the protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo. I'm sure that whether it's conscious or unconscious, there is a clear connection between what is happening around us - the "Arab Spring", and what is happening in the sweltering summer heat of Tel Aviv.
It is the younger, highly educated Israeli generation, expressing great concern about the future of Israeli society, and taking their fate into their own hands.
Right now they are focusing on the economy, and on the call for the preservation and expansion of the social safety net – good education, public health, social welfare services, affordable housing, jobs, and the growing gaps between the wealthy and the declining middle class, etc.
Soon the connection will be made between these demands and the exorbitant sums being spent on settlement activity and defense spending. The fact is that when a small group of settlers came to the tent city and suggested that they solve their affordable housing problems by moving to subsidized housing in West Bank, the reaction of the young protesters was a combination of laughter and derision.
It's hard to predict the outcome, the long-range implications, but this protest movement is the most encouraging phenomenon I have seen in a long time.