Israel's 'Occupy' movement struggles to get its groove back
Israel's social protest movement is struggling against divided leadership, a stronger government, and the perception that last summer's protests accomplished little.
Inspired by Arab Spring protests, they captured Israeli hearts and minds last summer by setting up a tent city on Tel Aviv’s main boulevard and leading hundreds of thousands in peaceful demonstrations across Israel to lobby for a redistribution of the economic pie.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, as Israel’s version of Occupy Wall Street returns to the streets for a second summer, it is struggling to get its groove back. A "million-man march" has been called for July 14, but their leaders are divided, the city has banished their symbolic encampment from the city center, and there’s a perception that they achieved few tangible results despite the buzz last year.
"Last year, the protest movement was based on a fad," said Yoav Yishai, an economics student at Tel Aviv University as he marched through blocked off streets with thousands of protestors on June 30 in Tel Aviv. "Because last year nothing happened, it is hard to think [the demonstrations] will have the same impact as last year."
The organic growth of the tent city on Rothschild Boulevard last summer inspired Israelis, shining a spotlight on frustrated but engaged youths.
The encampment attracted curiosity seekers and spawned solidarity tent cities around the country, which enabled the protests to dominate the media agenda for several months. By highlighting Israel’s high cost of living and the yawning gap between the upper and lower classes, the demonstrators struck a chord with middle class Israelis beyond the confines Tel Aviv’s liberal European Jewish elites.
But this year it is still struggling to gain attention and traction. Noah Fisher, a visiting activist from Occupy Wall Street, said the Israeli and US movements face similar challenges.
"The American dream has hit a wall and the Israeli dream has hit a wall," he said during a protest last month says. "When you go about changing a system on a structural level you don’t get results in a week."
At its peak the protests drew some 450,000 Israelis into the streets and put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the defensive. But recommendations for reform by a government-commissioned committee headed by noted economist Manuel Trachtenberg are so far largely unimplemented. Some protestors' sense that the government ignored the demands has spawned a more confrontational atmosphere.
Last week, police manhandled the movement's figurehead, Daphni Leef, when she tried to set up tents on Rothschild boulevard. A day later a march turned ugly when thousands of demonstrators clashed with police and vandalized banks, prompting dozens of arrests and accusations by government ministers that the protestors are "fringe anarchists and communities." The protesters accuse the police of sparking the violence.
"We are not violent, but we are very angry,’’ said Yossi Yonah, an economics professor at Ben Gurion University who spoke at a rally Saturday night. "The government is impervious. It tried to fool us for the last year.’’