Three years ago, Daphni Leef, Stav Shaffir and a dozen of their Facebook friends pitched tents at the end of Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, an act of political street theater that sparked the social protests. The anniversary arrives almost unnoticed, overshadowed by the kidnappings, murders, missiles and bombs of the past month. From today’s vantage, with sirens sounding, the summer of the protests assumes a sepia aspect of penny nostalgia. 2011 was a pretty summer of young idealism; 2014 is an anxious summer of adult reality.
All the more so because, three years later, it is hard to know what, if anything, the social protests actually accomplished. As Sever Plotzker, one of the few journalists to note the anniversary, wrote in a Yediot column called “A Protest without Results”:
“”the onset of summer, brings with it our longing for the 2011 protests, and raises the question, did those protests achieve anything? Did they change the face of Israel? The generally accepted answer is: the situation got worse, our prospects darkened, our fears and dangers just grew. Three years ago, a mini-euphoria ruled the day. …In the summer of 2014, reality is different.
Plotzker is right that during the past three years, the mood of the country has grown more despondent. He, like many others, sees in our collective despair proof that the protests failed. If so much seems so lousy, it must be that the hopes the protesters offered were false. If the protests had worked, we would feel better. If we feel worse, the protests must failed.
This conclusion seems more logical than it is, in actuality. Rather than demonstrate that the protests accomplished nothing, our enduring gloom in fact shows that the protests changed Israeli society in ways that matter.
Here’s why. Political despair deepens when the gap grows greater between the lives we lead and the lives we want and believe we deserve. But this gap can grow for either of two opposite reasons. It grows when the lives we lead become more dire. Equally, it grows when we want and believe we deserve more than in the past. Despair increases when things get worse; despair also increases when we become convinced that things can, and must, be better. Despair grows when we can’t imagine things getting worse; equally, it grows when we can imagine things being better.
It was in this second way that the protests of 2011 became engines of today’s disappointment, and this is their greatest legacy. The ideals that found voice in the protests – that people who worked deserved to live with dignity, in a decent home, with enough food and good schools for their kids – are the ideals against which many of us measure our politicians today, and find them wanting. Our disappointment grows from our gnawing sense that the country is not providing us with what we deserve; our notion of what we deserve is the notion a great many of us forged together in the protests.
Such disappointment is a necessary first step towards political change. I am now a member of a cooperative store in Tel Aviv, that took shape in the tent camp on Nordau Boulevard, where I live. My daughter has just completed a year of national service before enlisting, part of the largest cohort in the country’s history of kids donating a year of their lives to the country, ahead of donating two or three or more to the army. Koach la-Ovidim, has unionized thousands of workers since the protests. New Knesset bills limit the rapacious salaries of bank CEO’s and debate raising the minimum wage by almost a third. After a generation when privatization and a growing chasm between the rich and the rest of us seemed like the arc in which Israeli history inevitably bends, the trends are now seen as a reality that must be changed. This change, in part, is a product of disappointments that took shape and found expression in the protests.
And there is something more. It is rarely remarked, but no less true for that, that there has been something beautiful in the summer of 2014, awful as it has been: an all-hearts-beat-as-one solidarity. Don’t get me wrong. No one would rather the bombings continue than that they cease. The fear and anxiety and danger we all experience are all real enough, so too the disruptions to our lives, and the concern that our kids, at the very least, might retain tomorrow some imprint of today’s trauma. But still, there is something lovely about the feeling that, for once, Israelis of all sorts share a single fate.
It is in this that the summer of 2014 most closely resembles the summer of 2011. The social protests, for the two months they flourished, briefly produced the sort of solidarity we today experience in shelters could be achieved without rockets. And, of course, they left us disillusioned when the solidarity they produced diminished as the tent camps were evacuated with the arrival of the fall, distraught once again that the Israel we have is growing ever more distant from the Israel we want and need.
This gnawing sense of the gap between the Israel we want and the Israel we have is the greatest legacy of the social protests. But it is not a sign of failure. Our enduring dissatisfaction has already produced more change than we usually recognize and, in the fullness of time, will lead to still greater change. In fact, the despair that we feel at the gap between the vision of July, 2011, and the reality of July, 2014, is our best reason for hope.
It is not lost on me that, with Israel under blanket attack and on the attack in Gaza, marking the anniversary of the social protests seems like an indulgence. When the cannons sound, diffident muses fall silent. It may be worth remembering though, perhaps especially at this harsh and anxious moment, that we fight for Israel in many ways. What began three years ago today will, in the end, be of no less lasting importance than what is happening now.