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The largest protest in Israel's history – in which 500,000 people flooded public spaces across the country – has altered the fate of a nation. A new Israel is emerging, and the youth are ushering its arrival.

Protest for social Justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 3/9/2011.
A protester in Tel Aviv last night holds an illuminated sign reading "Good Morning."

The new Israel emerging will be a different place, a place in which citizens will fight for equal rights and equal opportunities for all of its citizens. A place in which the meek and the vulnerable will be given more of a voice. A place in which the middle class will refuse to be subjugated by the rich and powerful, or by special interests. And a place in which, eventually, Israelis will rise up not only against the domestic injustices that exist, but the geopolitical injustices as well (to be explored after the break).

This I believe.

High school students gathered in Rothschild for open lectures, Tel Aviv., 4/9/2011.
High school students skipped classes today and discussed social issues.

The new Israel emerging will be a tenacious place – a place in which people will no longer fear talking about and acting upon social and political issues. It will be a place in which the young will teach the stately exactly what it means to fight for dignity and justice.

Why do I think this? At last night's protest, Itzik Shmuli, an undergraduate student and one of the protest leaders, said this to thunderous applause before hundreds of thousands of chanting citizens from all walks of life and all ages:

"Prime Minister, we are the new Israelis...this square is full of people who love Israel, but want to move it in a different direction. We are the new Israelis -- we will not give up on hope. We will not give up until real solutions to all of this country's problems are solved."

Protest for social Justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 3/9/2011.
Protesters cheer as student leaders speak, with the sign reading "The State is Sick in the Head."
Protest for social Justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 3/9/2011.
A bust of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a sign reading "Residents of Jaffo are against house demolitions," referring to demolitions of houses in the West Bank belonging to Palestinians.
Protest for social Justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 3/9/2011.
Jews, immigrants and foreign workers march together holding a sign that reads, "Social justice for everyone!"

For updates on developments in Israel, follow me on Twitter @David_EHG

Daphni Leef is the woman who began all of this eight weeks ago when, unable to afford her apartment, she camped in the streets of Tel Aviv as an act of civil disobedience.

Leef has become the symbolic leader of this protest movement. She has become an icon. Last night, when she spoke, the crowd paid her tremendous respect. In short, her words matter at this stage more than any other Israeli protesting. And her words last night were very, very severe. She intimated that one of her personal struggles was against Israel's militarism, against the use of violence as a way to distract and silence the populace. In short, she accused the government of trying to play up violence as a way to shut people down. A bold, risky sentiment. A controversial one. And one that received thunderous applause.

Protest for social Justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 3/9/2011.
Daphni Leef speaking before hundreds of thousands last night in Tel Aviv.

Today, the protester leaders took down their tents in Tel Aviv and announced a new phase, a phase in which they would community organize and strategize on how best to effect the long-term political and social changes that they want made in Israel.

I don't know what tomorrow will bring, or how long the changes will take to arrive. But I know one thing: they will happen. For these new Israelis won't allow for anything else.

In the meantime, it's the images that remain. Images I don't want to relinquish.

Protest for social Justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 3/9/2011.
Protest leaders look on at a sea of people. Nearly 500,000 marched across Israel, which in the U.S. would approximate 19,000,000.
Protest for social Justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 3/9/2011.
Wearing a Netanyahu mask with a sign reading, "It's not you, it's me."
Protest for social Justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 3/9/2011.

Protest for social Justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 3/9/2011.

Protest for social Justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 3/9/2011.


Author's Note: Below is video of Daphni Leef's speech last night, with an English translation appearing after it:

Something massive, something huge happened this summer. Summer 2011 is the big summer of the new Israeli hope. This hope was born, like many hopes, out of a feeling of despair, alienation, inequalities that became impossible for all of us, inequalities that almost became impossible to overcome.

The Israeli society that stands here – and also, it’s important to note, also the Israeli society that chose to stay home this evening – reached its red line. And then it stood up and said: Enough! No more! You can cheat some of the people some of the time, but you can’t cheat everyone all the time. This summer we woke up and refused to keep walking with our eyes shut towards the abyss.

We are choosing to live. We are not invisible. If they only understand numbers, let us remind them that there are more than 7 million people here, and every one of these people has a heart. There was a sign on Rothschild that said: “Every heart is a revolutionary cell.” It’s true. Every one of us is the protest headquarters of one person.

This summer was a wonderful obstacle course. What hurdles didn’t they put before us? What didn’t they say about us? How they tried to break us up. The first thing they said about us was: spoiled brats. Sushi and nargilas. From this we learned that the automatic response of the publicly elected is to give not respect to our actions. Their first priority was to say – it’s nothing, zero, just a group of kids. At that point there was only the tent camp on Rothschild Boulevard. They called us vague and deluded. The result: tent camps began to be set up throughout the country. They had no choice but to understand that this was something bigger, something of our own.

My generation grew up with the feeling that we were alone in the world. It’s us versus the TV screen. That the other is our enemy, that he is our competitor. We grew up with the feeling that we are in living in a race we have no chance of winning, that we mustn’t rely on anyone else. They taught us that it’s either you or him. That’s capitalism – unending competition. The fact that this generation – the loneliest and withdrawn generation – stood up and did something is nothing short of a miracle. The miracle of the summer of 2011. There you have it – everything that we thought, all they taught us – was wrong! What happened here was exactly what needed to happen.

We were closed up each of us in his own cycle, a cycle of dissatisfaction, of a feeling of absurdity. And suddenly we began to talk, and more importantly: We began to listen.

So they called us the extreme left. They tried to define us. How on earth do they know who I am? How do they know who you are? Where do they get the chutzpah? The best answer to their assertions came not from me of from my friends, it came from the tent camps that sprang up in Hatikva neighborhood, in Jesse Cohen, in Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Shmona, Modiin, Rahat, Kalansawa, Jerusalem, Haifa, Bet Shean, Yerucham, and in tens of other places. All of us, the whole country, realized that there is no right or left – we are all servants/we all serve.

They told us – go to the periphery towns. What a terrible and condescending thing to say. What is that – “go to the periphery”? It’s something you say as if – there, there are no people. That there is a wasteland. Silence. And you know what? How lucky it is that they sent us to the periphery. Because we discovered there what we already knew – that this country is full of beating hearts. I went there and found friends for life.  

And anyway – what is that – “go to the periphery”? The State of Israel screwed over and continues to screw over its periphery systematically and methodically from the moment it was established. In education, health, infrastructure, housing, welfare, culture – to say “go to the periphery” is unprecedented hypocrisy. To talk of ‘periphery’ is to perpetuate the old discourse that cuts out human beings, that tells them: You are put aside. You are remote. Your needs are less important and your demands are worth less. This summer we proved to everyone that there is no such thing as periphery – we are all central! Every single one of us! We reduced the physical distance between us and we found out that it’s good that way, that we want to remain close. That they will no longer manage to distance us and to divide us.

And then came the security escalation. But even the missiles that fell did not ruin this protest. The opposite – they showed how strong and true it is. The fact that we didn’t fold then was, I’ve already said this, the most moving aspect of this protest. The time has come for the concept “Security Situation” to stop being a value and return to being what it is – a situation. And a situation that must change.

Missiles fell, and we were silent for a few days. We marched in silence. And then what did they say? They said that the protest was fading out. Instead of recognizing that it pained us that a million Israelis were living under the threat of missiles, that we were hurting for the people injured, killed, and whose houses were ruined. But instead of appreciated that we were with them, instead of seeing how our silence came from love, they said “the protest is fading out”. They tried to turn our solidarity into retreat.

The truth is, it was sad. How on earth does the government of Israel dare to make such an attempt of divide and rule? A government that abandoned its residents; that abandoned its elderly, its sick, its immigrants, its weak. How can is now come to us with such an assertion? Israeli governments have divided us for years, and when finally we come together, when we showed that we are not willing to carry on sitting in front of the TV, they said that we are not showing solidarity. We don’t show solidarity? Look at what’s going on here!

When they talk about security they come to protect human lives – how does that line up with the Israeli government’s policy of recklessness?

I’m 25 years old. What are my biggest memories of this country: the 2nd Lebanon War, the period of terrorism, friends who were killed then, the assassination of Rabin, Gilad Shalit. And that’s even without going into that I’m 3rd generation Holocaust survivor. This was my consciousness. Moments and memories laced with death, loss, pain, fear, and the feeling that everything is temporary.

At the demonstration in Afula I saw a sign: “For 31 days I have been proud to be Israeli”. I stand before you and I am now proud to be an Israeli for 7 weeks. I feel we are together building here our self-worth as a society. To say “I deserve” means that someone else also deserves, that we deserve. This summer brought with it many good moments and memories – of hope, of change, fraternity, listening.

A discourse of life has been created. It’s the most important awakening there has been here. We are not here just to survive, we are here in order to live. We are not here just because we have nowhere else. We are here because we want to be here. We choose to be here, we choose to be in a good place, in a just society, we want to live in society as a society – not as a collection of lonely individuals who each sit in front of one box, the TV, and once every four years put a slip in another box – the polling box.

We are here, not because we have no other land. We are here because this is the land we want. Without our even noticing, people have begun to return from abroad, suddenly there’s a feeling that something’s happening here that mustn’t be missed.

We’ve created  a new discourse here. This is the new discourse: We’ve replaced the word pity with the word compassion. We’ve replace the word charity with the word justice. We’ve replaced the word donation with the word welfare. We’ve replaced the word consumer with the word citizen. We’ve replaced the verb ‘to wait’ with the verb ‘to change’. We’ve replaced the word alone with the word together. This is the greatest thing that we’ve done this summer. I don’t know about you, friends, but it’s already irreversible. We’ll not agree to go backwards! We are striding forwards, to a better future, to a more just country. Social Justice!

We’re all of us imprisoned somehow in our social status, in our neighborhoods, in our religion, our gender. And then I realized that we’re not imprisoned – it’s that we’re imprisoning us! We all have an overdraft, but the overdraft is in the interest of the banks, it’s in the interest of the entire financial system of the state. They want to keep us constantly at a certain level of distress. Because where there is distress there is no hope, and where there is no hope there is no chance of change, and where there is no chance for change there is nothing to live for. But this summer, day after day, week after week, we went out to the streets and clarified not just to the government, but also to ourselves, that there is something to live for! The moment we realized this, the moment we began to think about a shared tomorrow, we all set out to freedom!

What will tomorrow bring? We’re all asking what tomorrow will bring. What will happen to the tents, what is happening with the protest, where next and what to do and all that. All this demand for the fateful day, for the victory photo, for the decisive moment – there’s no such thing, my friends. Was there one fateful day when the social gaps became unbearable? Did swinish capitalism mark a particular moment of victory? Can we put our finger on that one privatization too many? There was no such moment. There was a process. Likewise now there is no moment – there’s a process. This process of ours is just beginning now. We have demands of the government and its head because things must change.

If you are a resident of Yerucham – things must change.

If you are a child whose parents have no money to pay for your school trip – things must change.

If you are a pensioner or holocaust survivor – things must change

If you are a Gaza evacuee – things must change

If you are Bedouin – things must change.

40% of us are defined as “financially fragile”. That means that 40% of us can’t cope with an unexpected outlay: dental care for the kid, a burst drain, injury. We are all living on the edge, by the skin of our teeth, pushed to take out another loan, to need more, to save less. Our lives have become a financial war of survival, while the state abandoned our pensions to games on the stock market, and privatized more and more of the basic services.

You know what’s the worst phrase? The small citizen. There are laws against insulting a public servant, but there are no laws against insulting the citizens. And they’ve insulted us enough over the past few years. They’ve pushed us towards poverty, played with us, split us from each other. Don’t know about you, but I don’t like it when they laugh at me, and I don’t like it when they play me along.

The citizen is not small! The citizen is the largest there is! To be a citizen, a large citizen, and to understand this, is the greatest challenge that stands before us. The demands of this protest are exactly based on the understanding that we are not willing to be small citizens any more, consumers, we are not willing to be a target audience any more, just a sector, just a tenth. We will no longer hole up in our tiny bunkers and wage our war of existence alone.

That era is over.

From now on something new: From now on we are together. We demand change, and we demand to be part of that change.

We have begun a new discourse, a discourse of hope, of sharing, of solidarity and responsibility. I want to ask the Prime Minister, to ask all the politicians: Look at what happened here, at what is happening here – is this what you want to defeat? Is this something you are able to defeat? You are the People’s representatives. Listen to the People. This protest, that gave so much hope to many people – do you want to break this hope? Is that what you want? To melt down the hope? You will never succeed!

And after we jumped all the hurdles and all the spin didn’t succeed, what did they have left? To attack me. This thing started with one person who did something. I set up my tent on Rothschild out of a personal feeling of to be or not to be. A person very close to my heart, Alex, put an end to his life. He was a poet. He wrote that even if you have a heart of gold, you will not manage to change the world. Two months before all this started up, he couldn’t be here any longer, and he chose not to be.

How can a person like that, a dreamer and an idealist, feel that he no longer has a place in this world? If he has no place in this world then I suppose I have no place here either. And my heart hurt. My heart was broken. What kind of a world is it that has no room for dreamers, idealists, poets? What kind of world cuts them out? A world of poverty. Because all of us are dreamers and we all have the right to dream. To be poor isn’t only not managing to make it to the end of the financial month or to be homeless. To be poor is to be troubled by these things, fundamentally, to such an extent that you are not able to dream, to think, to learn, to hug your children.

So I started this thing. But just because I started it doesn’t mean it’s mine only. It’s not just my story, it’s the story of many people who stood up and started walking, stood up and began to do something. We all decided to be. We decided to be here. Here we are.

This summer we learned that we all of us have a place. That tomorrow will be what we make of it. We don’t need them to define us, we know full well who we are. And after this summer we know that it’s okay to dream. More than that. We understood that we must dream! To dream is to be.

7 weeks ago I was a 25 year-old who was struggling alone with her private dreams – to make movies. In the past week I’ve been attacked from all sides, and they almost managed to make me feel alone again. Don’t know about you, but I’ve just started my protest…

I’ll be here as long as necessary. I want to show Alex that yes, you can change the world, that everyone can. You only need to believe, get up, and do something. The responsibility is on each and every one of us. To stand up and move and talk and do and not give up.

In taking to the streets, we found home


Originally posted to Writing by David Harris Gershon on Sun Sep 04, 2011 at 07:49 PM PDT.

Also republished by Eyes on Egypt and the Region and Adalah — A Just Middle East.

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