The Israeli Protest Movement's Greatest Challenge

For five encouraging and enchanting weeks, the mass summer tent protest movement for social justice has dominated the Israeli headlines.

Until Thursday, August 19th, when an extremist group in Gaza, the Popular Resistance Committees, decided to launch an attack on the southern border, killing eight Israelis. The attack was a challenge to the Israeli government, to the Palestinian Authority leadership, to the Egyptian authorities trying to maintain control of Sinai, and even to Hamas.

For the Israeli protest movement, the attack punctured the momentum that had been building up, with every weekend producing new, creative ideas for how to move forward.

The main event on Saturday evening was supposed to be a mass protest opposite the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, demanding a change in national economic and social priorities. Given the unexpected violent developments in the south, and the mourning over the loss of life, obviously all the weekend protest demonstrations had to be cancelled. Instead, it was decided that a torchlight March of Silence would held in the streets of Tel Aviv, to express solidarity with the victims of the attack, and to reaffirm the determination of the protest movement to continue the struggle.

On Friday morning I went to the Rothschild Blvd. tent encampment "command post", and was assured that the activists have no attention of giving up – the struggle will continue, despite the call by Deputy Minister Ayub Kara (Likud) and others that the activists should fold up their tents, since now was a time for the nation to come together to face the new security crisis. Kara is a "Druze Zionist", holier than Pope, whose hyper-nationalistic positions can sometimes make even Netanyahu sound moderate.

As usual, I wandered around the tents, encountering much newly creative graffiti. The most innovative idea was a big, stand-up mirror, with the phrase "The Face of the Revolution" written on it with a blue marker. Anyone who stands opposite the mirror sees themselves, and written below are the words "You and I".

Heading out, I ran into Prof. Nissim Kalderon, and complimented him on his article on Y-Net, the website of Yediot Ahronot, in which he said that for years we in the Israeli peace movement had failed to move the masses, and this younger generation had succeeded. "Maybe they know something that we didn't," and we should respect that, and not try to impose our agenda on them. "Do you know what the key expense used to be for Peace Now rallies?" he asked. I didn't, and he said "the ads in the newspapers! And notice, that all that has happened this summer, took place without a single ad! Only Facebook and e-mail communication!" The power of social media.

From there I headed to Ozen Hashlisheet/The Third Ear, the hip video/CD/performance center for cinema buffs, which also hosts Israeli singers. Popular singer/songwriter Rona Kenan was launching her new album with a free performance, and hundreds of her mainly young fans gathered to hear her. Rona is the daughter of journalist Amos Kenan, who fought in the 1948 War for Independence, the protagonist together with Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein in the first film depicting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, "Arab and Jew", made by award-winning documentary filmmaker Lionel Rogosin in 1974. Rona said that she hesitated about going ahead with the performance, given the tragic violence and loss of life in the south, but since her songs are anyway rather melancholy, she decided that the show must go on. She opened with the title song of her new album, Hamra'ot V'nichitot (Departures and Arrivals), which begins with the line "Good news and disasters…this time something exploded…" And she concluded with her well-known Mabul (Flood, the English version is called Earthquake), with the line "we'll survive the flood," with much of the audience singing along with her, in whispers. One of the tent protest organizers called out from the entrance – "Rona, tell them that there's going to be a March of Silence tomorrow evening," and always ready to give her time in defense of democracy, human rights and peace, she repeated the message into the mike.

On Saturday evening about 10,000 people gathered at Habima Square near the tent protest headquarters at the end of Rothschild Blvd., and marched silently through the streets of Tel Aviv, carrying flaming torches and a mixture of makeshift and professional signs, with police motor-cycles with bright blue headlights leading the way and making sure that the traffic wasn't interrupted. "Make Welfare Not War", "The Protest Will Continue", "There's no Personal Security without Social Security", "Tycoons Beware, the Poor are Coming", "Single Mothers from the Hatikva Quarter Demand Social Justice", 'The March of Silence – The Pain belongs to all of us, the Protest belongs to all of us", "Bibi there is a state outside of Tel Aviv", a big red heart with the slogan "Identifying with the South", a bi-lingual sign in Hebrew and Arabic – "Needed – Public Housing", "Peace for All" with Jewish, Christian and Moslem symbols, "Only Together will we Overcome", "Social Justice for All", "Revolution! 7 Million People are Waiting for your Reply Bibi", "Bread, Work and Peace", "We won't let terror win, continuing with the protest!" "Barak, wipe that smile off your face. We're staying in the streets," and even a sign held up by Rabbis for Human Rights, "Solidarity with the people in the south and in Gaza."

For a moment, when the march reached the corner of Ben-Yehuda Street, named after the reviver of modern Hebrew Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, I heard a bystander shout out "Death to the Arabs!" This, despite the fact that earlier in the afternoon/evening the Israeli soccer season had started, and Wiam Amasha, the Druze striker from the Golan Heights whose family declares allegiance to Syria had scored a record four goals for defending champions Maccabi Haifa. And the lone goal scored by the opposing team Maccabi Netanya was scored by young Israeli Arab striker Firas Mougrabi. Obviously this guy isn't a fan of either team, and he was quickly silenced by the silent marchers.

Still, the challenge facing the tent protest organizers is great. The terrorist attack in the south was a gift to Netanyahu and his colleagues, who want security to become the main item on the national agenda to deflect pressure from the mass social protest as September draws near.

Hopefully the current round of violence will end soon, for all concerned on all sides of all of the borders, and hopefully the leaders of the protest movement will find the determination and creative energy to maintain and continue the struggle.