The value of demonstrations

July 19, 2008 at 3:10 pm Leave a comment

Sometimes nothing else

will work

By Ralph Dobrin

In recent times there have been mass demonstrations that changed the course of history. Some were for the good of humanity. Others led to catastrophe. During the mid-thirties thousands of well-meaning people in Britain, concerned about the onset of yet another terrible world war, demonstrated against the nascent anti-Nazi policy. Quite possibly these demonstrations had a bearing on the British policy of appeasement at a time when Germany was still not powerful enough, and could have been controlled. 40 million lives could have been saved.

On the other hand, during the nineteen eighties, anti-communist demonstrations in some of the communist-bloc countries of Eastern Europe ultimately had an effect and today over a dozen former communist regimes have been transformed into democracies.

There is probably no other country in the world that needs internal public activism like Israel. I am not talking now about Israel’s tricky relationship with Arabs. Much of the news and commentary that is disseminated about the subject is based on falsehood (just like the good British folks who demonstrated in favor of the Nazi regime during the nineteen thirties). No, I am talking about the general national mood of the country at this time.

As I write this blog it is 10th July 2008. Mr Ehud Olmert as the Prime Minister, is the most unpopular premier in Israel’s history. Not only did his decision to wage a full-scale war on the Hizbollah Terrorist Army, turn into a ridiculous (from Israel’s point of view) stalemate, his working relationship with many of the members of his inflated cabinet are not good. Also he is in the midst of ongoing police investigations and legal battles connected with unethical behavior going back decades.

But he is not the only public figure that doesn’t bring honor to his position. His finance minister has been indicted on charges of embezzlement. His deputy prime minister used to be the justice minister, but had been thrown out of that job because he was indicted on charges of sexual misconduct. The former President is in the process of being charged with rape! This is all part of a large list of misdemeanors perpetrated by other public figures.

Over 30 % of the population lives under the poverty line while the fat cats keep getting fatter.

Meanwhile, it seems that Israel’s enemies are getting stronger by the day. Iran is on the threshhold of acquiring nuclear weaponry. Israel’s future as a living state is in doubt.

Clearly Israelis are not happy. Indeed, most are bitterly disappointed with the way things are going in their country. Yet they stay at home and bury themselves in front of the TV or computer screen.

The present unworkable governing system will continue until the politicians are forced to change it. But they won’t because that might endanger their status as parliament members, with the perks that entails. So things keep getting worse and worse.

So, why aren’t people demonstrating in Israel? After all, most Israelis usually don’t take any bull from anyone. Yet they are continuously taken for patsies by their government. This has been going on for generations. Now and then there is a spate of demonstrations – for better wages by certain (usually privileged) sectors of the workforce, a revamped education system or better conditions for the handicapped. For two years at least there has been no demonstration for better government, for reform, or against military shortcomings. And nothing is happening right now  that would suggest the shaky situation that Israel is currently in.


Just over a year ago there was a massive demonstration against Mr Olmert at the Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Speaker after speaker promised that there would be no let up in the demonstrations until Mr. Olmert stepped down. Amazing – all those promises, so dramatically voiced turned out to be totally empty words.

Anyway, the other day I wondered what it would be like to stage a demonstration against Mr. Olmert and his government by myself. Maybe others would join me. So I prepared a poster and proceeded to Terra Sancta, near Mr Olmert’s house in Jerusalem.  The placard read in Hebrew: “Not only Olmert, but also the negative norms of our politicians and society must go – wake up before it’s too late.” In Hebrew it has a more convincing ring to it.

I stood on the pavement, holding the placard aloft, but Terra Sancta is not really a good spot to demonstrate because the cars come up two-lane Gaza Street which turns into four lanes at that spot, which means that the drivers have to keep their eyes on the road. After about half and hour I felt that my poster wasn’t getting optimum attention, so I moved on to Paris Square not far away. There, things changed dramatically. It seemed that every fourth or fifth car or pedestrian responded positively as I stood there. People nodded encouragingly, smiled, made a thumbs up sign. One man threw his arms in the air and shouted repeatedly in Hebrew: “If only it could happen.” 

After a while I began to feel somewhat self-conscious, standing there by myself and exhibiting the sign to hundreds of passing eyes that gazed at me.  So I crossed the road and proceeded down Agron Street on the side of Independence Park. I was in for an even more amazing response. As I marched in the direction of the Old City, along the side of the road, hundreds of  cars were crawling upwards in a long traffic jam. I kept brandishing the placard and almost every person in that traffic jam saw me. It seems that a guy striding with a placard is more impressive than one just standing in one spot, and the reactions were even more lively than before. There was some honking, many people waved. A few stuck their heads out of the windows of their cars and shouted stuff like: “You’re so right,” or “Well done.” “We’re right behind you.” Pedestrians were also walking up and down the road and many nodded their agreement when they saw the poster.

By the time I reached Mamilla near the Old City, I felt that I’d been in the public eye for too long. It got to be a bit too much for me, so I headed home, nevertheless quite elated that I had presented a clear message and that literally hundreds of people had seen me in a relatively short time and had quite clearly responded. This has made me feel that the time is indeed ripe for the people to take to the streets and demonstrate against our pathetic government, its structure, procedures and norms, and also against ourselves as an overly self-indulgent, apathetic society, in need of far more general integrity, that is about to lose everything that we have built up in the last hundred years if we don’t wake up – NOW!

If you ask if I helped change anything during my little promenade, my answer will be very little if indeed anything. One doesn’t change things by an isolated demonstration. It has to be a loud, ongoing campaign, staged in as many places as possible throughout the country. Posters have to be intelligently worded and created. More and more people must become involved. The media has to be drawn in and helped to cover the subject extensively and soberly. It must become the in-thing – the idea of Israel’s transformation into the great little country that we all want to see and that is going to fulfill its promise as a real, secure  haven for the Jewish people where life is good for everyone.

I am talking about staging demonstrations as well as processions. I believe that both can be effective. They have to appear in every part of the country. Loud, colorful, optimistic, positive, not too banal, short catchy phrases on the placards and posters, avoiding vulgarity or any political slogans. Indeed, there must be absolutely no connectionwhatsoever with any political figurehead, party or functionary.

But people in Israel must be encouraged to join in – people from all walks of life. It must not be thought of as politically, religiously, socially, economically or professionally sectarian in any way. It must become the in-thing to be an active part of.

Israelis, one generation ago, were probably among the most dynamic people in the world must snap out of  the insular, apathetic, negative and defeatist attitudes that have taken root in the last decade or so.

I’ve now sent out newsletters to hundreds of people in Israel, calling on them to join me in daily demonstrations and processions, saying that  I am not just talking about Mr Olmert. Like my poster said: : “Not only Olmert, but also the negative norms of our politicians and society must go – wake up before it’s too late.” Mr Olmert’s demise is only the beginning!

Hopefully, this can be a vigorous turning-point for the change in Israel, that is so very desperately needed.

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