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The Rothschild protest: Israel's "1905 revolution"
by Assaf Adiv
On Asher Schechter's Rothschild – A Chronicle of Protest (Hebrew), Published by Kav Adom – HaKibbutz HaMeuhad, 2012, 309 p.
n the summer of 2011, Tel Aviv was boiling over. Anyone taking part in the events and demonstrations organized by the Rothschild tent protest movement couldn’t help but feel that a new force was coming into being. The immense energy that exploded on July 14, with the arrival of the first tents, was amplified exponentially by enthusiastic and sympathetic media coverage. The electrifying protest, with its many colorful characters, sparked the flame of the first internal revolt against the Israeli establishment. Under the surface of the protest, however, power struggles and intrigues were taking place.
Asher Schechter’s great achievement is that he manages to take this complex beast apart, thereby giving insight into its various factors. In his book, Rothschild – A Chronicle of Protest (so far in Hebrew only), Schechter puts forth a high-resolution, detailed description of events, one that at times creates the sensation of invading the privacy of the main participants. The danger of such writing, penetrating the intestines of the protest movement, is the loss of the overall picture. One runs the risk of missing the vision, the thought, and the soul in exchange for the large number of photographs depicting scar tissue.
Nevertheless, the book constitutes an important contribution to our understanding of this unique and vital movement, which is doubtless but a forerunner of things to come. Schechter writes with great emotional fervor, out of a profound sympathy with the protest and its leaders. His choice of Daphni Leef as the figure symbolizing the protest, for all her strength and weakness (an in-depth interview with Leef is featured at the end of the book), reflects his deep understanding of and insight into the founders of this movement.
In the Afterword, Schechter writes rather pertinently about the protest’s critics, those who reproach it with not being unified, being too right-wing or left-wing, too militant or too “nice.” All of these, he claims, fail to understand the primary message that the protest sought to deliver: the protest is not “a definite set of demands to lower housing prices; it is an idea, a concept, a call to action. From its inception, the protest was a tidal wave rushing towards a target, not knowing what would happen when it reached its destination” (p. 209).
New energy and confusion
The first part of Schechter’s book describes a brave and creative bunch that hasn’t the slightest idea of the kind of momentum it’s destined to acquire. Not one of the ten Tel Aviv youths who, together with Leef, were discussing her proposal to set up a tent on Rothschild boulevard— in protest against an establishment that had sold Israel to the tycoons—had the expertise to lead a movement hundreds of thousands strong.
The public support and more importantly the friendly media coverage were the jet fuel that propelled the protest to the headlines in just a few days. Anyone who has ever taken part in an attempt to organize a public demonstration knows that media “buzz” can make or break such an initiative. In this instance, the “buzz” was more like media frenzy engulfing all media channels, including live TV coverage from the start. Within days, thousands were joining the movement. The first demonstration, expected to assemble only a small number of people, was attended by about 20 thousand. The second saw that number grow to 100 thousand, and the third and largest of them all saw almost 400 thousand people march the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities.
Through Schechter’s vivid and dramatic descriptions, one cannot help but feel the surge of energy that took place throughout these events. And yet, his narrative also describes a state of confusion and lack of direction from the very get-go. The sympathetic media coverage, in his view, was a honey trap (p. 299). The media’s portrayal of the protest as a matter of consensus, and the emphasis it placed on it’s being a new phenomenon that was neither left-wing nor right-wing, made it hard for the movement’s leadership to project a revolutionary path to match the spirit of the street. From his description of the discussions among the leaders, it is clear that these were talented and earnest people who stumbled into a situation that made it impossible for them to lead, because they lacked political vision, experience and inner resources.
At this stage of the game, tents were being set up all over the country, and the protest movement was clearly becoming the center of Israeli political life. This was a perfect natural environment for a wide coalition among various social organizations which joined the charismatic Rothschild "gang" in the attempt to share their spotlight. The two strongest and most significant factions in this coalition were the Student Union, under the leadership of Itzik Shmuli, and “Dror Israel” [“Israeli Freedom”], headed by Pesach Haupster. The book does not contain a description of the role played by Dror Isael – a movement that affiliated with the Israeli Labor Party. On the other hand, the dispute with Shmuli is given much weight, offering insight into the dynamic that came to typify the movement.
While the movement was undergoing this growth in scope and reach, after two weeks of intense activity, Daphni Leef found herself on the brink of utter exhaustion. Sleepless nights, constant demands from the media, unrelenting pressure from various factions and activists to take the stage during protests – all these led Daphni and her depleted colleagues to “willingly relinquish” themselves into the hands of more experienced activists who had joined the Rothschild leadership forum, assembling every evening at the Café Swing. These were three left-wing activists who had already gained a certain status in Tel Aviv after running for city council in 2008 as part of a campaign called “Ir LeKulanu” (“A City for All of Us”). Thus it came to pass that Sharon Shahaf, Alon Lee Green, and Noam Hopshtater became responsible for delineating the path that the protest would take from late July 2011 onwards.
The “Ir LeKulanu” group makes a retreat
The differences between the Rothschild "gang" and Shmuli were apparent from the beginning. The dispute reached its climax in anticipation of the largest and most significant demonstration that would take place in Tel Aviv on August 6. Shmuli insisted that this was not the protest of radical left-wingers and anarchists from Tel Aviv. This was the struggle of the salt of the earth, and therefore the demonstration had to end with the singing of Israel's anthem, HaTikva. Daphni Leef, Stav Shafrir, and their colleagues opposed the suggestion. Shafrir argued that the anthem tells 20% of the Israeli citizens – the Arab population – that they are not welcome here.
The argument was finally settled by Sharon Shahaf, who took command over the Rothschild group. “You think you’re more left-wing than me just because you cry over these things?” she told Shafrir. “We want to make it official, it’s us again the government, and no one can say that we represent some esoteric group of extremists if we sing HaTikva at the end.” This discussion was just a small part of the debate which included questions like: What should the slogans be? Should we call to bring down the government? Who are the singers we want to bring? In the end the more central Zionist line of Shmuli prevailed, and the open-minded, democratic tendencies of the Rothchild gang were pushed aside.
With hindsight, one of the leftist "guides" - Alon Lee Green - expressed regret over the line taken in this demonstration. “We made our biggest mistake during this demonstration, whereas the street was far ahead of us in many respects. The protest signs on the street were far more radical than us. This was the most powerful moment of the entire protest and we needed to take advantage of it to say as loudly and clearly as we could: 'Down with Prime Minister Bibi.' The role of leadership is to be avant-garde, to lead the troops, not to follow a step behind – and in this case we were a step behind because we were afraid of people calling us left-wing” (p. 98).
However, this late insight does not change the fact that at that critical moment, Green’s group pulled the protest backwards. A year later, at the June 2, 2012 demonstration, it was once again Green’s coalition – this time with Haupster and “Dror Israel” – that pulled an Arab speaker off the stage for fear of being labeled left-wing. In light of all this, it is no wonder that today Stav Shafrir finds herself in the “Avoda” (“Labor”) party besides Shmuli, while the rest of her friends are scattered all over the political map. We cannot discount the possibility that under a different leadership we could have found the Rothschild gang still leading the protest outside the establishment and against it.
The Trachtenberg Committee breaks up the protest
The establishment of the Trachtenberg Committee is described in the book, and rightly so, as a critical test of the protest movement, and the Trachtenberg report receives a lot of weight. Schechter recognizes the establishment of the committee as what it was – a powerful political manipulation engineered by Netanyahu as a means of dissipating the force and influence of the protest. The fact that Itzik Shmuli chose to appear before the committee and cooperate with it, while the Rothschild group boycotted it, proves that Netanyahu’s manipulation succeeded in splitting the protest.
The Trachtenberg report, published in late September 2011, was an attempt to bribe the middle class and separate it from the poor. Professor Trachtenberg’s wiliness, in combination with the protest movement’s political weakness and the conservative nature of some of its leaders, finally led to its retreat and dissolution. The tents were the first to go – a development both expected and inevitable. Shortly after, the Rothschild gang broke up, and the important movement that it had mounted evaporated.
The missing Arab side
Among the factors most detrimental to the protest and its potential is the fact that the Arab population remained completely passive, even after the volcano on Rothschild. This absence of Arab activists from the protest that was supposed to be “everyone’s" prevented the formation of a new Jewish-Arab collaboration. Such an alliance could have allowed the Rothschild gang and the dynamic, non-institutional factions of the protest to develop their democratic agenda. The presence of authentic, on-the-ground activists from the Arab towns and villages would have made it very hard for right-wing and other agents to spread their racist propaganda, and the conservative influence of Shmuli and Dror Israel could have been successfully neutralized.
This fantasy of a radical Jewish-Arab social movement is missing from the book. Like the Rothschild gang, Schechter too is a product of the new Tel Aviv: very radical, revolutionary in many senses, but not attributing enough weight to the Arab side of the equation. Accordingly, his interviews with Arab activists take up a very marginal place in the book.
In the tradition of the revolutionary movement, the term “1905” serves as a codename for the attempt at a democratic revolution in Russia, which despite its failure was seen in hindsight as the dress rehearsal for the 1917 revolution, which brought down the Tzarist regime. In this respect, Rothschild was our 1905. It may not have been a real revolution, but this was an unprecedented effort by a popular movement that showed us what things would look like when the revolution did finally occur. Mainly, it showed us that there could be a revolution here, in Israel. Schechter helps us understand what happened and why. He purports to give us answers to the question – why did the protest disappear? He see himself, justly, as a chronicler of the different forces within the movement. When, in the future, more young people like Daphni Leef and her fellow activists decide to pick up the ball where it was left and run with it, Schechter’s book can serve as a fine foundation for learning the lessons of this first crack at revolution.
- Translated from the Hebrew by Avital Tsype