The latest Saturday night demonstration has come and gone. Over the past few months I have attended almost all of the protests. To the social protest movement protests, I usually came as an observer, but to the protests for equality of the draft demonstrations, I have always gone as a full fledged participant.
The turnout tonight was relatively small, no more than 5,000 people. And the feeling in the air was more of defeat when compared to last year’s sense that anything is possible. Furthermore factions had developed with one group disrupting the demonstration, believing it had become too “establishment.”
Unfortunately, it was all too predictable; the combination of a social welfare movement that could not focus and a governmental system that is virtually impervious to public opinion made this outcome almost inevitable. It was clear to me from the summer’s first protest that the social protesters lacked focus. Of course, those who were protesting the fact that the haredim are not drafted were not lacking such focus. Their goal was clear as was seen only a few weeks ago: that same square in front of the Tel Aviv Museum was totally full, with at least 30,000 people in attendance, if not more. That was a mere several weeks ago, when everyone thought that meaningful change was possible.
In retrospect I guess that was a naïve belief. The current political system seems incapable of bringing any change to bear in the draft laws. The actions needed were clear and obtainable and the overwhelming majority of Israelis supported then. However, those factors were clearly not enough to effect change if that change might endanger ‘politics as usual’.
Events of the past week were more disheartening than ever for the demonstrators. As a result of their activism, they had hoped to achieve a larger social welfare budget. Instead, they were stunned this week by both an increase in the regressive VAT and by cutbacks across all ministries – except for those ministries controlled by feared coalition partners like Shas.
It is often said that it is better to try and fail, than to not try at all. It may be that that is sometimes true, but I fear that might not be the case now. My concern is that people will become even more disillusioned, with a sense of helplessness and a belief that there is nothing they can do. As a nation, we cannot allow that to happen. We cannot allow our democracy to be limited to once-every-four-years votes for politicians who appear incapable of acting according to the will of the people.
Israeli politics is at a strange place: the popularity of Prime Minister Netanyahu has plummeted and many in the nation are unhappy. Yet they seem to be growing increasingly silent. If the people had believed that the demonstrations would help, there would have been a million people in front of the Museum last night. But the people are discouraged and so they did not come out to voice their feelings. They oppose so many of the policies of the government, yet their voices seem muted. Because they perceive that the system is unresponsive to those voices, they are slowly becoming still. They are coming to believe that the current political system offers no alternatives and no real choices. Yet the streets have offered no solace either. It is uncertain what our future holds, but one thing is clear- last summer, there was a sense that anything is possible and today the feeling is diametrically opposite. Change seems further away than ever. The feeling of the day seems to be the reverse of the American political slogan – it’s now “ No We Can’t.”