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Ha'am Doresh Tzedek Hevrati: Israeli Social Protests, 2011

The cost of living in Israel has, in recent months, become a central issue here, taking a back seat only recently to the bus bombing in Eilat that killed 8 Israelis and the upcoming Palestinian appeal to the UN for statehood. It’s an interesting state of affairs when, across the Middle East, we’ve seen protests and popular uprisings against corrupt governments choking the resources and capital of their countries; in Israel, the protest isn’t that we’re being oppressed ideologically or politically, but financially.

It is expensive to live here. Even in Arad, a tiny desert town in the Negev just south of the West Bank where I now live (I’ll get to the move later), a box of cereal might cost 6 or 7 dollars, and your average beer at a bar is 6.50 — and that’s for a Goldstar. How I will survive that latter figure, I honestly don’t know.

The question is, though, did Israel ask for this? The nation’s been pushing to keep up with the West, and has largely succeeded, for decades. Israel is no longer the scrappy underdog nation it was from its inception up through the late 1970′s and into the 80′s. Rather, it is an industrialized country specializing in the high tech industry and filled with, at least in its metropolitan central region and up north in Haifa, well-educated professionals — the realization of a dream to be rightfully judged alongside European nations; the gem of the Middle East, a bastion of flashy modernity.

And in capitalist, thoroughly modern nations, things cost a lot of money. Life ain’t cheap. So a small part of me had to ask, when I plunged myself into the midst of a 300,000 person-strong protest in the middle of Tel Aviv last on September 3, “Isn’t this just a wee bit contradictory?”

And yet, the answer, I believe, must remain ‘no.’ Or, rather, ‘yes and no.’ The great thing about capitalist, thoroughly modern nations is that, while free markets and free societies do allow competing prices to rise, they also allow people to freely protest whenever the wish and, at least peacefully, however they choose. In Israel, they choose to do it big.

I wrote earlier about these makeshift tent cities that sprung up around Tel Aviv this summer. That movement quickly spread around the country, and eventually even to the Bedouin, who, conveniently, already live in tents. That was a joke, but the movement did spread, as did the sentiment: enough is enough, this free market is maturing too rapidly.

There’s anger in this movement, but with a positive, hopeful and, at times, almost sarcastic spin. This isn’t the land of burning effigies, just burning passions.

Last weekend’s rally, spearheaded in Tel Aviv but with mirrored marches in Jerusalem, Haifa, Be’er Sheva and elsewhere, carried an almost carnival-like atmosphere. We were nervous about a terror attack, sure, but not about Israeli-on-Israeli violence or looting. I was sitting on Rothschild, the street where it all began, eating a burger at Moses when the marchers started to mobilize. At first bite, they marched in clumps. By the time I finished that beautiful burger (seriously, try one next time you hop to Tel Aviv), the tiny flow was a steady stream, pooling at the end of Rothschild into a roaring river — streets across the city, including Ibn Ben Gabirol, where Tal and I joined the march, were shut down to traffic, making way for thousands upon thousands of Israelis to march towards Kikar Hamedina, a gigantic traffic circle that became an unspeakably huge sea of faces and the homemade signs carried above them.

The most popular slogan of the protest, Ha‘am Doresh Tzedek Hevrati, translates roughly to “The nation pushes for justice for its people,” and it was sung, chanted, shouted by children and adults and wild twenty-somethings carrying drums and drinking beers and dancing through the streets, a wonderful, colorful, musical parade. The medium didn’t outshine the message, though. From one third story mirpeset (balcony), a guy dressed as Benjamin Netanyahu held puppet strings attached to another man on the street — painted white atop stilts, dancing wildly like his every movement was controlled from above.

As we approached Kikar Hamedina, we were on sensory overload; lights flashed, chants were booming and bodies — leisurely spread out, singing and sipping drinks while marching across the city — were packed together tightly, the sticky night air squeezed out between them, pushed into the Tel Aviv sky. People climbed trees to see; others didn’t care for a sightline to the stage. Simply being there, in this vast circle of 300,000 people caught in a complicated, often frustrating love for Israel, was more than enough.

I was somewhere in the middle, and so we found a spot on the outside edge where we could see the giant screen broadcasting each speaker and band that hit the stage. Tal translated for me, and each speaker, including Daphne Leef, the Tel Avivi who pitched the first tent this summer, spoke with this enraged and hopeful energy. To be frank, it sounded like the speeches of the civil rights activists I learned about years and years ago — angry, but positive. I couldn’t quote her myself, so I’ll steal from the NY Times, which reported that Leef said the night was “nothing short of a miracle — the miracle of the summer of 2011.”

When the crowd became too much, we stole away to a side street and watched the scene. Chanters howling into the night; wide-eyed lovers of all that is subversive; camera-toting folks who just longed to be a part of something; even the (maybe foolishly) brave parents pushing strollers around, sure to tell their kids in a decade, “Yes, you were there.”

And yet, when the rally let out a few hours later, every restaurant, every shawarma stand, every bar lining the clogged-artery streets that lead to the heart of Kikar Hamedina was packed with Tel Avivis enjoying the very expensive items they’d just spent hours passionately protesting. A contradiction? Sure. It’s a land full of them, I’m learning to accept that.

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