Taking Change into Our Own Hands

Published on Haaretz

A week after 400,000 people turned out for Israel’s largest protest since the first Lebanon war, and the week before the Palestinian request for UN recognition usurps all the headlines and politicians’ rants – a torrent of activity signaled the next phase of Israel’s summer of protest.

The “1,000 Tables” event took place last Saturday night in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art plaza, with a small group discussion about fixing our social policy at each of the 475 tables. There were parallel events scattered around the country. My wife and I joined eight strangers at table 140, and spent two hours connecting the dots from personal experience – draconian rent hikes, underfunded schools, disappearing benefits, the struggles of immigrant friends – to the agenda of the protest.

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If the event lacked the rush of the rallies, there was a subtler pleasure in thinking out loud with an attentive circle. And for the first time in the protest process, as the table talk wound down, we were invited to poke into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I found a special poignancy in a predominantly although not exclusively leftist crowd exercising zen-like self-control in refraining until that point from addressing the issue that occupies most of our political minds.

If the protest leaders have given the conflict a wide berth because of its toxic divisiveness, it’s hard to argue with the tactical if not moral logic of the fact that the 10 people at our table managed to glance past the Green Line without breast-beating or demagoguery.

The not exclusively left-wing qualification is significant, because outside Tel Aviv the table talkers were apparently not mostly leftist. Even in the big city, the willingness to suspend discourse on the moral calamity of the occupation until the end of the evening allowed other people to join the conversation. These included middle-aged centrists and the 25-year-old contemporaries of Daphni Leef and Gilad Shalit, who have little recall of Oslo’s optimism but clear memories of Rabin’s assassination, the second intifada, missile attacks, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead.

“1,000 Tables” was only one of a multitude of real-time and cyberspace efforts to keep the talk and the momentum going. If there has been a reluctance up to now to question the movement’s agenda – the protest leaders seemed to be working some kind of magic and nobody wanted to pop the bubble – we are now seeing so many initiatives specifically targeting social policy issues from different factions (Tel Aviv protest leaders, the student union, activists from the periphery, independently organized efforts ) that it is impossible to keep up. Colleges hosted seminars on the protest, foundations debated the role of funders in supporting the next round of the protest, and TheMarker’s Israel 2021 conference featured protest leaders and politicians alike. The situation is increasingly decentralized, and chaotic, but perhaps in a good way.

So why did all these people show up for a Saturday night policy chat instead of going to the movies? Why have scores of professors and researchers on the Yonah-Spivak committee volunteered for hundreds of hours of unpaid labor to beat the Trajtenberg deadline? Why have NGO veterans from the Coalition for Affordable Housing to Community Advocacy to Shatil and Sikkuy – to name a few – been running themselves ragged to explain policy alternatives to the curious?

Clues can be found in the final, climactic rally, which became a family affair. We brought our 14-year-old twin boys and our 8-year-old daughter because we wanted them to witness history, but more specifically, to experience public dissent as a natural part of democracy. Throughout the crowd, protesters used cell-phone cameras to create personal visual records, to capture the wave of humanity coming over the bridge from Ramat Gan, and to document poster messages (“Even the tent was paid for by my parents”; “Bibi go home the gas is on us” ), stretching arms high for aim-and-click aerial shots or low for family snaps.

My daughter was photographed at least five times by passersby, as she slept on my wife’s lap. It was as if we were overcome by collective anticipatory nostalgia and would need to show later that we had really been there. By documenting our own protest and acting as if the rally was a historic turning point, we hoped to guarantee that it would really become one.

There is finally an audience motivated to challenge socioeconomic decisions – ranging from the middle class, whose real income has declined in the past decade despite Bibi’s much-touted economic growth, to the working poor who question why two incomes is not enough to escape poverty and the single mothers who can’t even dream about it, to the Arab communities who wonder if they will ever be treated as equal citizens and not suspected as enemies.

Momentarily setting aside our intractable bickering over the conflict with our neighbors has allowed us to snap out of a 15-year coma. (And we sure can’t afford more than a moment. ) After being told for years that our government leaders had no recourse but to adopt Thatcherite policies leading to diminished health care and social services, apartment prices with no relationship to our incomes, and privatization without question or oversight – we have discovered that it’s all a bluff. For much of our socioeconomic reality is the result of policy choices, not divine edict, and we have the option to set different priorities.

Thousands of the 400,000 citizens who took to the streets have now taken the trouble to begin to learn what those choices are. We want change. We want the government to listen, and to act. And we are finally beginning to take action ourselves.

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