Protest tent at Ben Yehuda & King George Streets, Jerusalem, 7 August 2011
I’ve seen something and I need to write about it. Now.
One crucial lesson I learned from the Egyptian Revolution is the importance of describing what you see as it happens. So often I found myself wanting to summarize, to lay a larger narrative over what I saw there, but as events evolved so rapidly, it was hard, maybe even impossible, to find that syncretic moment. Perhaps it was the consequence of experiencing historic events in real time with the training of a historian – my brain wants to stop and analyze when there just isn’t time for that.
So, this time I’m just going to observe. Fastly, furiously, in medias res. Analysis on the fly. I might not even edit (the horror!) Just going to get it out.
What do I mean by this time? I mean there’s something going on that it’s important for people to know about. This time means I am in a privileged situation again – one that I do not take lightly – of witnessing a social movement at its groundswell stage for the second time this year. One that is kicking off in a country that neighbors Egypt, where we all witnessed a historic revolution this year. But I don’t mean Libya. This time, there’s a movement in Israel and it’s real.
Saturday, Jerusalem, 6:45 am:
I arrive at my hostel exhausted from a red eye flight. To my surprise, my friend Eli (as will be the case for most people in this post, Eli’s not his real name), whom I didn’t know worked at the hotel, greets me with a huge hug and, “Too bad you weren’t here last night. The revolution started. Charlie Biton spoke at it.”
My jaw drops. So does my suitcase. Charlie Biton is one of the leaders of the Israeli Black Panther Party, one of the two groups whom I study for my dissertation. The Israeli Black Panthers were an early 1970s social protest party who addressed discrimination in housing, education, and income for Mizrahis–Jews who had come to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa. They elected Charlie Biton to the Knesset (Parliament). I’m here in Jerusalem in part to do a follow up interview with Charlie about his life after the Black Panthers and some political changes he’s made since then. That just got more interesting.
Eli says that some media are saying 300,000 people were out in Tel Aviv and 20,000 in Jerusalem on Saturday night. The state denies that it was that many, saying more like 200,000 in TA. Even give or take that 100K, that number of people at one event is incredible in a country as small as Israel. (Update: My friend Emily Cronin (@emrocro) tells me that 250,000 people is 1/24 of Israel’s population, the equivalent of 12.5 million Americans.
Saturday, 8 pm:
I meet my friend Daniel, an activist and writer, at a teach in at the tents in Independence Park. There is a camp set up there that among other things faces the U.S. Consulate. The event consists of singing followed by a panel discussion among 4 community leaders, including an ex-Shas politician and a former Black Panther, Reuven Abergel.
There are 3 tent camps in Jerusalem right now:
Independence Park: A diverse mix. Around 70 people at the event last night. This includes a coalition of single mothers who protested yesterday morning at 7:30 am, thinking it was likely they would get arrested (they did), but hoping that they’d be released in time to pick their children up from school (they were). Also there are some dissidents, some Ashkenazi (more on this term in a minute) leftists, and a large number of Mizrahi activists, including Reuven, who spoke for a while last night. When he finished, many in the crowd chanted his name.
There was lots of Q&A, idea sharing. Daniel suggested that they start using synagogues to gather and motivate people to get involved. Given the critical role that mosques played in the Egyptian Revolution, this seems wise. The idea appeared to go over well with those gathered last night.
The small park at the corner of King George and Ben Yehuda streets: almost all Ashkenazi. I swung by it yesterday and it was a mix of older men and young men and women activists manning tents over different issues, with a children’s garden set up in the back.
Sacher Park: Jerusalem’s largest park. The group there is supposedly almost all Mizrahi. I’m headed over there today to check it out.
Saturday, 10 pm:
Daniel, his friends Sarah and Ariel, and I head out from Independence Park for waffles. All three of them are excited for what is happening in Jerusalem. They are also nervous for what’s to come. They tell me that there is a significant change in consciousness taking place right now. It’s exciting, but it’s also uncertain as it’s on a scale that is unprecedented within Israeli society.
They realize the Palestinian question could divide them. As could the question of who they are protesting for, particularly given the large wage gaps between the mostly-Ashkenazi middle class and the persistently working-class Mizrahi. Ariel knows she has legitimate concerns regarding her position with the state- she can’t afford the cost of living here, neither she nor her parents own property, and she doesn’t see any improvement on the horizon. I understand where she’s coming from with regards to cost of living. I paid the equivalent of $900 USD a month to live in a small room the first summer I came here, and that was the cheapest option I could find at the time. Dan and Ariel have significant concerns about their futures, about whether they will be able to find stable jobs and support families in the long run. But they aren’t graduating university students. They’re in their early 30s.
Ariel says that she knows she’s middle class and that there is a working class with far deeper issues than her own, so she’s feeling a sense of what she calls “classic Ashkenazi guilt.” It seems like one of the issues that will affect the success of this movement is whether protests will accurately represent a broad spectrum of concerns without it fracturing too quickly. So far it seems that coalition hasn’t yet happened, but it’s still early days.
Ariel fears that Netanyahu will declare war on Palestine in September. Why September? This could likely give Netanyahu support to flex his military muscle. God only knows how the region would respond to this given all of the transitions that are taking place-or are being fought against-right now.
Later Dan tells me that Ariel speaking openly about this is a good sign – that it shows a changing consciousness about the state. People are starting to talk more openly about what they see as the state’s strategic use of security concerns and militarism to distract people from domestic issues. There has always been dissent within Israel, but the strength and the articulation of it seem to be developing and changing rapidly.
I read yesterday that some believe activists are strategically avoiding discussion of Palestine in an effort to build ground support for a mass movement right now that would also potentially tackle settlement issues and relations with Palestine. I understand the reader may be skeptical at this point, but I’d caution us against the tendency to judge a group of people based on the actions of its government. These issues are in fact being discussed in small groups but it’s early doors. My friends described a palpable, but latent tension at the protest in Jerusalem on Saturday night – they said that people can’t yet say everything that bothers them. It’s not yet safe for that and it’s unclear if and when it will be.
One thing that I think we can do (we being you, me, and the rest of the people who have been interested enough to read this post in its entirety) is to be careful to differentiate Israel the state from Israelis the people. Many of the people involved in this movement are second and third generation immigrants who see things differently from their parents, or whose parents have issues of their own with the state. I’m not saying this is representative of everyone here – I can’t gauge that from my vantage point – but I do know that there is a lot more diversity of thought and opinion here than what generally gets broadcasted on the international media stage. I’ve seen a lot of it in the past 24 hours.
I asked Dan if the Arab Spring was being talked about much. He said it’s in the back of everyone’s minds. In his words, “heat travels. Even if you’re in a really insulated building, heat can seep through the wall that separates you from the next room.”
I really don’t claim to be an expert here, as there are huge questions and issues afoot. But this is far too much of a right place, right time situation (one which I appear to have a knack for) that not to write seems irresponsible.
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Tags: Biton, black panthers, Israel, Jerusalem, protest