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The Most Relevant Day in the Year
by Rona Segal
HE First of May 2005 met Tel Aviv at a moment in its history when the city is lethargic, confused and tired. Asma Agbarieh of the Workers Advice Center (WAC), moderating the event in the plaza of the Cinametheque, called out from the platform: “A little more energy, friends! There’s a feeling here as though we’ve gathered for nostalgia. But the First of May is not that. This is the most relevant day in the year!”
Such, though, is the situation in Tel Aviv: those who most need defense don’t know they need it, and those who come to demonstrations are precisely the ones who, socio-economically speaking, are still “in good shape”: they don’t have to worry about being fired, but if necessary they can always find something else, in marketing or media maybe, or as artists – at least for the next ten years, until stepped-up privatization eats into the middle class. A dozen Palestinian construction workers from one of the WAC teams came after work, standing out as the only ones present who earn with their hands.
On the fence around the plaza were 56 posters made for the occasion by Israeli and Palestinian artists. (The immense work of initiating and organizing this display was done by Cheb Kammerer, Orit Soudry and Nir Nader of Bamat Etgar, which co-sponsored the event.)
The posters were outstanding. Almost all related to a written text, pulling the viewer into it – a tactic derived from the graphic tradition of the socialist poster. David Reeb used the text “Topple the wall” (cover of this issue). Ronen Idelman wrote, “Free Tali Fahima” (below). Ranya Akel sewed a piece of pita bread, quite literally, onto an empty flour sack, on which was written in Hebrew and Arabic: “The big mills.” Daphne Kaplan presented two photographs. One showed an elderly demonstrator holding a sign with the words, “I am Arieh Gil. Romanian worker. Gross 3600 [shekels].” The second showed a Russian woman from a Personnel Company mopping a gym floor; on the wall behind her was a banner: “What shall we do for a better Israel in 2020?” Whoever took time to examine these works already knew, in essence, what one needed to know. But whoever did not had only to listen to Assaf Adiv, WAC’s National Coordinator, proclaiming from the stage: “WAC organized this assembly today – the First of May 2005 – because we believe with all our hearts in certain basic principles that were ground to dust in recent years by the globalization of capital. At a time when many who raised these flags and these principles in the past have dropped them, there is a need that someone should lift them again. WAC is proud to stand up today and say openly, without qualification: The red flag exists! The working class exists! The struggle for organized labor exists! The trade union exists! Solidarity among workers exists! Unity between Arab and Jewish workers exists! Socialism exists!” (For more posters, see pp. 12-16.)
Dr. Roy Wagner of the Workers Hotline (Kav la’Oved) listed one abuse after another, asking each time, “Is that work (avodah) or slavery (avdut)?” The audience, at first reluctant to break its passivity, murmured, “Slavery.” Wagner continued, “When the government says, ‘From handouts to work,’ what they’re saying is, ‘From handouts to slavery.’ When the government says, ‘A dynamic labor market,’ what they’re saying is, ‘A dynamic slave market.’ The government wants hungry workers. The government wants workers who don’t have any alternative. The government – what is it? An arm of the big bosses. They want workers who – when trampled on, cheated, exploited – will say, ‘Thank you, sir’ and be silent. The government and the big bosses don’t want workers at all – they want slaves.” When Wagner returned to his list of abuses, asking each time, “Work or slavery?” no one in the crowd held back.
Among the speakers were Shevy Korzen, Executive Director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, and Dr. Yitzhak Saporta, a founder of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow. Turning to the banner above the stage (“Jobs, not Charity!”), Saporta said that the demand for jobs is not enough. “We demand work that pays a living wage. The problem is that in Israel the workers are poor. Did you know that 42% of the poor children in Israel come from families that do have an employed breadwinner? We are talking about the right not to live in poverty! These aren’t radical words. These are basic rights.
“The first of May,” Saporta went on, “is a time to remember the historical struggles of workers who fought against the 14-hour work day. That’s what they want to bring us back to! Our struggle is for a society without poverty.”
The last speaker, Nir Nader of Bamat Etgar, pointed out the poster of Ariel Yannai, one of the 56 on display. Yannai presented an old photograph showing the league of Soviet artists, all peering at the picture’s future viewers with eyes full of fiery determination. Yannai wrote beside it: “Malevich, Lissitzky, Kogan, Iudin – I looked into their eyes and thought, ‘This gaze no longer exists.’” Nader made bold to claim that it does, and the people in the crowd glanced at one another, looking for eyes that had not been obscured by the fog of the bourgeoisie.
Asma Agbarieh arose to announce the closing performance by rock singer Yaheli Sobol, but the singer was being interviewed. “We’ll wait,” she said – but found herself asking, “In the meantime, would you like me to sing you the Internationale in Arabic? I’ve always dreamed of singing in front of an audience.” And Agbarieh sang, quietly at first, then in a deep, earthy voice, with complete concentration, filling the plaza of Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque with the familiar notes of the workers’ hymn but in Arabic. This unplanned performance, backed by the crowd (each in his or her own language), was the moment, for many, when the meaning of the day came home to them: the singers understood that they are part of a struggle – that the first of May is not just a holiday, nor a gloomy relic, but a day to gather energies to fight for a year worth living. The look in Agbarieh’s eyes as she sang could not be mistaken: it was the look in the eyes of Malevich, Lissitzky, Kogan, and Iudin in the photograph on the poster of Ariel Yannai.