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Can Israel’s protest movement move anything?

If Israel's social protests are to achieve anything, they will have to relinquish the unfocused 'Occupy' model and learn from the American Tea Party movement

Last summer, many hoped that the social protest movement had brought about a new day in Israel. Finally, people were tired of the corrupt way things were done. Finally, they would no longer stand by and have their needs ignored. Finally, scores would come out into the streets and protest. Alas, last summer came and went. After one final protest in October, the movement went into hibernation for the winter, (maybe thinking we live in Alaska or Siberia, rather than the more temperate Tel Aviv or Jerusalem). Last night the protesters returned. Their timing was largely a response to the newly minted uber–coalition.

Unfortunately, after attending last night’s rally, it became clear the movement had not learned any of the lessons of the failures of last summer. In fact, just the opposite was true. It seems they learned the wrong lessons, and in fact they were deepening their mistakes.

In the United States, two clear models of protest have developed over the past few years: the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Tea Party movement has been an unparalleled success; the “Occupy” model has accomplished little, if anything. What are the differences between the movements? There are three main differences: First, the Tea Party has clear and understandable goals. Second, the Tea Party decided that if it was to bring about the changes it desired, it needed to get involved in the political process. Third, by electing members to office, the Tea Party has developed a cadre of leaders. Now, if we look at the Occupy Wall Street movement, we see the opposite. Occupy is a movement with very broad goals. It is a movement that refuses to become involved in the political process. It is a movement that has no distinct leaders.

'There were clearly few, if any, right-wingers in the crowd.' Protesters hold a placard denigrating Netanyahu and members of his government (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90)
'There were clearly few, if any, right-wingers in the crowd.' Protesters hold a placard denigrating Netanyahu and members of his government (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

Last night it became very clear that whatever leaders exists in Israel’s protest movement have decided to model themselves after the Occupy Wall Street movement, and not based on the playbook of the Tea Party. From the moment I walked into Rabin Square I came across a series of tables for different groups with a united theme, declaring, “We are part of a larger movement of protestors throughout Europe and the United States.” There were clear references to the Occupy Wall Street movement. When one of the organizers tried to sign me up for a planned “March of the Million in July,” I asked her to tell me the goal of the march. Her answer: “Whatever you care about.” I gently tried to suggest that that plan was a recipe for failure. I shared my opinion that unless the movement had clear goals, it was unlikely to succeed. The woman argued back that the goals were less important than the act of protest. I begged to differ. Finally, she walked away, stating, “People like you are the problem, always fighting about the goals, and not uniting to protest.”

The next disappointment occurred when the program began. The MC announced that it was to be a different type of rally, with not one, but many stages. There were multiple groups, and a diverse audience. As a number of the protestors waved political banners (mostly from Meretz), the speaker implored the crowd to put down their placards, since “this is not a political rally.”

He continued: “This is not right, or left, but a protest of the people.” The only problem with that statement was that, other than a group of kids from B’nei Akiva, who were cleaning up after having seudah shlisheet in the park, there were clearly few, if any, right-wingers in the crowd. Finally, here’s what may have been one of the most naive statements made by a speaker from the podium last night:

What is different about this rally is that there are no leaders. You are the leaders. Every citizen is a leader.

Israel desperately needs a strong protest movement, especially in response to the political action of last week, which has left a very large percentage of the Israeli public disenfranchised and unrepresented in the government. However, it seems the leaders of this protest movement, (as appears to be the case with the leadership of the Occupy Wall Street movement), either had very poor history teachers, or slept through history classes (one often leads to the other). Historically, protest movements succeed when they have clear leaders and goals, and a political agenda of either influencing the political process or replacing the political leadership. Without these three elements the protest movement will be relegated to an interesting side note in Israel’s history, instead of a movement that really made a difference.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary.