Emotions ran high during Tel Aviv’s “black night” social justice protests on Thursday, but as police and private security stood down, demonstrators showed no signs of turning violent.
Workers for private security company gather late afternoon on Rothchild Boulevard before annual Lyla Levan (white night) evening of culture and partying. In the end security personnel provided no resistance against demonstrators storming the official music stages organised by the Mayor’s office.
Activists scramble to assemble tents, the symbol of the social justice protests, in a highly-charged atmosphere at the “Ha-bima” end of Rothchild Boulevard. Just last week police reacted with a heavy-hand to the re-emergence of the movement, arresting and roughing-up protesters attempting to put up tents. This time however the police were almost completely absent. The signs read: “also for us, the night is black”.
As soon as the protesters began to unfurl tents, a media scrum quickly developed with both national and foreign outlets at the ready. The Israeli media has been far less sympathetic to the social justice movement this time around, with instructions from on high to provide the demonstrators with less coverage. Demands have also been made that journalists approach the story with a more critical eye.
A singer part of the official lyla levan festivities waits anxiously as the large and noisy social protest march nears her stage. In some cases the protesters verbally confronted the performers for their role in the municipality event but all such encounters were good-natured and ended peacefully.
The same white night singer is visibly unimpressed as protesters, members of the media and interested onlookers swarm her performing area. As the march progressed from stage to stage, most of the official musicians were keen to placate the demonstrators by playing along with them to the popular chant of “ha-am doresh tzedek hevrati” (the people demand social justice).
Protesters breeze past a solitary member of the private security team at one of the barriers separating the musical performance area from the rest of the street. Below the company name, his florescent vest reads “bitachon” (security).
The red flags of a variety of communist and left-wing affiliated movements were present throughout the march. Here they are prominently displayed in front of tents carried aloft by protesters along their route. At one point however some leaders tried to demand that the red flags be taken down. The social justice movement is sensitive about appearing too partisan or overtly left-wing, but this year it appears its more enthusiastic members are less concerned with being apolitical or “politically correct”.
Young restaurant-goers at the popular “Moses” chain on Rothchild look down at the demonstrators amassing below them. One of the popular chants of the evening included the words: “Tzu me’hamirpeset, ha-medina co’esest” (Come down from your balconies, the country is angry).
The most visible extent of the limited police presence on one of Tel Aviv’s biggest nights of the year. While the protesters were still clearly enraged after the violence of the previous Friday afternoon and Saturday evening, the sheer lack of police and their complete passivity meant that there was no repeat of the ugly scenes from last week. The magav border police, who are usually deployed in the territories, were also not present on Thursday night.
An activist of mizrahi Middle Eastern-Jewish background starts the traditional ululating sound of celebration common in Arab and Middle Eastern cultures. One day prior to the demonstration, ultra-rightist Member of Knesset (Parliament) Michael Ben Ari from the National Union party characterised all the social justice protesters as spoilt, wealthy ashkenazi European-origin Jews from the affluent parts of Northern Tel Aviv.
As demonstrators walk in the middle of busy Allenby street, they momentarily surround a couple in an expensive-looking convertible car, shouting social justice slogans and making defiant “V” signs. While Israel is not a poor country, according to one global inequality index, it is one of the most unequal states in the world in terms of wealth distribution, closely matched by the United States.
Also in attendance at the demonstration were MKs Nino Abesadze of the centrist Kadima (left) and Dov Khenin of the left-wing Hadash (right). Ms. Abesadze, who described her relationship with former Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon as “special” is an outspoken advocate of the peace process and the social justice movement, and was highly critical of Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz’s decision to join the Netanyahu government, calling the move “Bolshevik”. Khenin on the other hand is one of the leading MKs of the only joint Arab-Jewish party in the Knesset, considered to be beyond the pale for most Israelis. Likud MK Ofir Akunas accused Khenin of personally organising the violence and anarchy which took place the previous Saturday, culminating in the smashing of windows of several Israeli bank chains.
Protesters temporarily block the main Allenby road near Shuk HaCarmel market. After a great deal of honking by Shirut taxi vehicles, it became apparent that the obstruction was merely a token gesture as the protesters allowed traffic to flow freely again after just a few minutes.
A young Israeli sits down in the middle of Allenby Street in front of one of the tents of the protest, blocking the road to traffic. “The main problem facing the country is that the economy is controlled by seven or eight families”, he told me. “The state needs to focus on providing adequate housing, healthcare and basic welfare for its citizens”, he said.
Where the social justice movement goes from here is anyone’s guess. But if one thing is for sure, there is bound to be more conflict between protesters and the authorities this time around, as the protests enter a new and more defiant phase in their campaign for socio-economic change.