25 July 2011

And They Shall Dwell in Tents

student protester talking to media on rothschild street, tel aviv.  one sign in background says, "Bibi--come sleep with us!"
My initial impression of the students and artists who are sitting out on Rothschild Street in Tel Aviv, protesting the prohibitive cost of housing in the city, the center of the country, and the periphery, was to be warmly amused but underwhelmed.  Not that I expected an amazing power-point presentation when moving from tent to tent, from table to table, talking to people about their protests, but at least yesterday afternoon, things seemed vaguely, well, overly comfortable.  As if in a moment, when classes begin in the Fall, life will simply return to normal.  On the other hand, *that* people were protesting at all was generally taken as a good sign by people all around that this may the beginning of the core population of the country beginning to express its deep dissatisfaction with the normal course of events, which, in Israel, is generally delightfully though often exhaustively and frustratingly abnormal.

One group of artists was happily smoking weed and making pieces of folk art to sell to support the cause; others sat in the late afternoon sun, dazed a bit from days outdoors but cheery and optimistic about gaining strength on the road ahead.  There was one very enthusiastic group of young people encouraging participation in a kind of "built-it-yourself" movement in the Golan and the Galilee, sponsored by the Jewish Agency.  They were giving out cool bumper stickers. 

Our stop by the National Student Union yielded disappointment.  Several of us pressed them on what their demands were and since we had read, earlier in the day, an article by Dror Etkes in Haaretz decrying the problematic policy of the government subsidizing housing in the Settlements while neglecting an equitable arrangement within Israel's established borders, we were eager to hear what the student leaders had to say.  It seemed to us an opportunity to hear that some very serious and stark choices were implied in the structure of this protest and that what began with cottage cheese a month ago, moved to housing today, could one day soon be a larger fortification of views and positions regarding the overall direction of the nation.  "We're not getting in to 'left-center-right'," one leader said and his voice lacked passion.  "It's too dividing."  It made sense, in a way, given that only four days into the protest, there's wisdom in strengthening bonds and carefully arriving at a strategy for a way forward.  Still, after so many years of vocal frustration with leadership, we expected more.  One Bronfman Fellow picked up from the protest table one student's copy, in Hebrew, of Sir Isaiah Berlin's famous biography of Karl Marx, marveling at its cover.  The student retrieved it in a huff, walking away to his own tent to continue reading.  It was kind of funny.

My colleague Josh Feigelson sums up things nicely on his blog--positioning the experience as a call for more energized and visionary leadership--and making a link between the stalled budget and debt negotiations in Washington with a generally perceived failure of leadership here as well.

When we pressed the students on their demands, one leader pulled out his iPhone, took us to a link on Ynet and showed us another student leader throwing plastic cups at a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee.  Where's Abbie Hoffman when you need him?

Today, however, Haaretz reports on the beginning of an agenda that might possibly have the attention of the government:  all of a sudden a number of bills are being formulated, indicating that the issue has clearly tapped a nerve.  How it all plays out in the weeks ahead will be a matter of great interest.

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