Yesterday evening, after my first Shabbat living in Tel Aviv, I joined 250,000 to 300,000 other people in the “March of Millions” at Kikar HaMedina. The Tel Aviv protest was one of several large protests held yesterday evening across the country, totaling some 400,000 to 450,000 people, demanding that the Israeli government readjust its agenda to dealing with socioeconomic and welfare problems which many believe to be the most pressing issues in Israeli society today.
The rally follows two months of widespread protest, largely in the form of tent cities which have cropped up all over Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and other towns across the country. Although the tents have been largely broken down and the daily protests have reduced to a trickle, last night’s rallies were meant to demonstrate that the demands of “the people” had not been silenced. Since I have addressed the basic substance of protesters’ demands in my previous post covering a recent poll of national priorities, I will not rehash them here. Rather, I will share my reflections from the rally itself.
As I was running a bit late for the march which began at 9 pm at Kikar Habima, I walked directly from my apartment to Kikar HaMedina, an enormous traffic circle/park in the middle of the city surrounded by high end shopping. On my way, I crossed Ibn Gvirol, one of the major thoroughfares in Tel Aviv, which had been completely shut down for the rally and on which thousands of people were already marching. I took the side streets up to Arlozoroff, another major street which had also been shut down, to Weizmann, which lead directly to the Kikar. All were full of people and positively packed by the time I arrived at the main rally site.
Although most of the people I saw were young, early 20s to mid-30s, there were plenty of parents pushing strollers, middle-aged couples, and at least a few senior citizens. The crowd appeared to be predominantly secular; I saw no more than one person wearing a kippah the entire evening, but this is not surprising given that the rally was in Tel Aviv soon after the end of Shabbat. So too, the religious sectors has largely stayed away from the protests with the haredim (ultra-orthodox) already largely poor but with considerable pull in terms of government subsidies and the national-religious seemingly suspicious of the leftist overtones of the protest organizers’ rhetoric.
That said, I did not come away from the rally feeling that any particular political agenda was thrust upon me. Yes, there were plenty of placards calling for Netanyahu’s resignation and demanding a more encompassing welfare state. The speakers spoke primarily in generalities: we are the new Israelis, we are the future, the people demand social justice, etc. But these messages bore very little resemblance to the kind of extreme leftist ideologies that some have attempted to paint the protesters of employing.
Mostly, I saw normal people who are frustrated with their current living situation and want to see “change.” Certainly the students in the crowd were among the most enthusiastic, belting out the chants and carrying the placards. One may also say that they have the greatest stake in the outcome of these protests: low wages, high housing costs, and weakened social services affect young people’s willingness to stay in the country, pursue their livelihoods, and strengthen the economy and society. For better or worse, they may also be the most likely to simply go back to business as usual when school begins again here in a few weeks’ time.
From the standpoint of people’s expectations, a majority of Israelis do believe that these protests will have an impact. In the July 2011 Peace Index survey, among the Jewish public, 13.4% strongly expect that the protests will lead to a significant improvement in the housing situation while 40.7% believe there are at least moderately high chances that it will. 33% expect moderately low changes and 11.8% believe that there is a very low chance that the protests will have any effect. Although only a bare majority expect significant change, enormous demonstrations like these serve as critical signaling mechanisms to those in power. If it ever was true, it is certainly no longer so today that security is the only issue on the minds of Israelis. Priorities in this sense may not have totally shifted, but they have definitely been reapportioned. Again, note the previous post on Israeli domestic priorities.
Even if the messages and demands of the protesters are heterogeneous and too broad in scope to be addressed entirely as a package, they are likely to have an impact. The governing coalition led by Likud has responded by setting up a commission which will soon be finalizing its recommendations to address the protesters’ demands. Although the leaders of the protest have dismissed this as a “stalling tactic” off-hand, it is indicative that these rallies are having an affect. So too will the messages of the protests, particularly if sustained beyond September’s upcoming test of a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence, have an effect on the rhetoric of political leaders in the next election, government and opposition.