Sunday 11 September 2011

Israel's Half Million Man March

It started with a call for a million Israelis to take to the streets in a demonstration that would serve as the culmination of the social protests that have been taking place for the past two months.  For a country with a population of only 7 million, this was always going to be a tall order.  Ultimately, the call for a "million man march" to protest against economic hardships, struck a chord with enough people to mobilise more than 400,000 people.  This, in itself, was a record number of demonstrators that have ever attended a protest in the history of the State of Israel.  The equivalent in the USA would see 22 million people coming out to protest, and the equivalent in the UK would be more than 4 million.  I doubt very much that these numbers could be seen in demonstrations.

The social protests have the sympathy of most Israelis, including those who are not living below the breadline in the way that so many people are.  This was in evidence last Saturday evening, when many of those who took to the streets were not necessarily struggling to pay their monthly rental.  The notion of social justice impacts all aspects of Israeli society, and does not only affect those who are coping with financial difficulties.  Services such as health and education are provided by the government for all sectors of society, and have been used even by those who could afford to pay separately for private services.  Until now, the government-funded services have been of sufficiently high quality to satisfy all sectors of our society.  For me, this has been one of the most pleasant aspects of Israeli as a country, and one which contributes to one of the flattest societies in the western world.  There is nothing more pleasing than to see the rich and poor of the country receiving the same level of medical treatment and education, all provided by the government out of tax contributions.  Although this has been the case in Israel to now, the quality of services provided by the government have deteriorated in recent times.  This has contributed to all Israelis feeling the need to come out in protest to demonstrate their dissatisfaction at this situation.

It is true that many of those in the upper income brackets are able to buy these services privately.  Private schools and health centres have begun to appear in recent years to satisfy this demand.  I feel that a great deal is lost in the process.  It is not only the fact that a two-tier system arises where the wealthy can buy what they need, and those who are in tougher financial circumstances are forced to take what they are offered.  For me, it is also the connection that one sees at schools and medical health centres between different sectors of our society that will be lost.  This will serve to enlarge the wealth gap that is already making itself evident in Israel.  I feel that this lost connection will be harmful to Israeli society.  In this respect, I was heartened to see the number of people who took to the streets, and to note that they were not only restricted to one sector of society or another.  It is a credit to the event organisers that they succeeded in appealing to so many different Israelis, and managed to entice them out of their homes to demonstrate their displeasure to the government.  All ages of the Israeli people could be seen together, including men, women and children of all ages including those in pushchairs and on the shoulders of their parents.

One of the most surprising aspects of the demonstrations, was the good atmosphere in which the gatherings were held.  At the main event in Tel Aviv's Kikar Hamedina which attracted almost 300,000 people, a stage was constructed on which some of Israel's biggest names in music and entertainment appeared during the course of the evening of protest.  Not only did this demonstrate their identification with the important cause, it also lent something of a party spirit to the event.  So, while anger was in evidence against the government's seeming lack of willingness to engage with the protestors and their cause, there was also a great spirit in evidence when the entertainers took to the stage.  Once the show was over, everybody returned quietly to their homes without any major incident or violence.  The traffic may have been heavy, but crowd never got out of control, and always remembered the reason that they had come out on that evening.

I could not help comparing this event to some other protest events that have taken place around the world in recent months.  The protest events in countries around the Arab world comprising the Arab Spring all resulted in violence and deaths or injuries initiated either by the protestors, or the authorities against which they were protesting.  The recent riots which took place in London got completely out of control, and resulted in extensive damage to personal property affecting many hundreds of people.  In contrast to these events, we saw real democracy at work.  The rule of law was exercised by both the protestors as well as by the authorities, while people were afforded their democratic right to have their say.  There could be no greater display of mutual respect of personal and social rights, than was seen during the course of this protest.  Israel is a stronger country for having experienced these demonstrations.

The protest movement has decided to take down their tents, and move to a different phase of negotiation and lobbying to bring their demands to fruition.  The fact that the tents will not be visible on the streets any longer does not mean that the protest is not continuing.  Whether or not their aims are ultimately achieved, it would be safe to say that Israel will not be the same country after the protests of the summer of 2011.  These protestors have forever changed the face of Israeli politics, protest and demonstration.  They have also unwittingly chosen an excellent time to demonstrate this.  It could not be more stark how the Arab spring and the Israeli summer have contrasted each other.

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