Saturday, July 14, 2012

One Year Later: Israel's #j14 Social-Justice Movement

It was a year ago today that protest tents first went up on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. From that moment forward the massive social-protest movement has been known in the Twitterverse by the hashtag #j14 (the english letter "j" for July and "14" for the date). For Israeli tweeters this was a conscious aping of the Arab Spring, which used #j25 for January 25 (2011), the date the first major protest in Tahrir Square against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's rule.
In a sad commentary on the Israeli social-protest movement, the makeshift leadership of the social-protest movement split over matters big and small, and tonight Tel Aviv played host to 2 separate and competing protests. Everything in Israeli politics is fissile - it's like the old Jewish saying: "Put 2 Jews in a room and you'll have 3 opinions." Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could not have hoped for a better outcome had tonight's anniversary fizzled into a media sideshow.  A year ago, the Israeli news channels led their evening news with the tent protest, and covered the swelling movement with breathless excitement. Tonight, the evening news (as the evening began) placed the anniversary as the third story.
But then something completely unanticipated occurred. In the midst of one of the 2 protest marches at about 10 pm, a 50-something man distributed copies of a suicide declaration to bystanders, read it aloud, doused himself in a flammable liquid, and set himself on fire. Bystanders put the fire out, and the man was transferred to a hospital in serious condition, with 80% burns.

The man, identified as Moshe Silman, opens his letter by stating that "the State of Israel has stolen from me and robbed me, left me with nothing" and calls Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz "scumbags." In his letter, Silman claims he served in the Israeli Army and was a reservist but because of health conditions had lost the ability to work and had been abandoned by the social network of the Israeli state.
I am not sure, but I believe that this is the first act of self-immolation as protest in modern Israeli society. As a cultural phenomenon, it is a novum. This is only the second time in modern Israeli history that a protester resorted to self-immolation. In 2005 an opponent of the Gaza disengagement set herself on fire and died of her burns 9 days later (there was no video of her act). Now in 2012, echoes of the Arab Spring might be reverberating inside Israel. Will this culturally shocking act of political protest galvanize the #j14 movement, as did the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi serve to ignite the Arab Spring? Or will it be forgotten as an act of a madman, consigned to a news cycle and of no import?
It cannot be known. But the possibility now exists that the #j14 movement, which had initially been dismissed by opponents as a Yuppified "tent city of  nargilas and sushi," (on July 18 - 4 days into the protest - I had dismissed at as a non-event) has tragically inherited a symbol capable of energizing (and reuniting) the movement for the summer of 2012.
Now the wisdom of Netanyahu's 2 month-old kombina with Vice PM Shaul Mofaz is clear. Imagine for a moment if this protest had occurred 70 days before a domestic election?

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