Sunday, May 6, 2007

Notes from the May 3 rally in Rabin Square

Here are some impressions from the big May 3 anti-Olmert demonstration in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square.

1) The program began one hour later than the announced starting time of 7 p.m.

According to media reports, the organizers decided on the delay because people from outlying areas were arriving slowly. At previous Rabin Square events, whether of the Left or the Right, large numbers of demonstrators arrived in fleets of buses. Fewer buses were evident at this rally, which billed itself as a grassroots, non-political event.

2) People who arrived before the late start heard loudspeakers playing recorded music, interspersed with a live voice declaring repeatedly that the program would begin at 8 p.m.

The gathering crowd heard a recording of Bob Dylan performing his 1962 protest song "Blowin' in the Wind."

Other mood music included a recorded song by Shalom Hanoch, a great Israeli rocker who has performed live at peace rallies in the past. This evening they played one of his old songs, about a messiah who doesn't come and also doesn't telephone.

3) One reason a song like "Blowin' in the Wind" endures is that it doesn't purport to supply the answer. Such songs leave the answer up to the beliefs and imagination of the listener. So it was with the central message of the rally, that Prime Minister Olmert should resign. No speaker proposed an alternative to Olmert.

4) What made this demonstration different from others was the crowd's diversity. Members of opposing political factions shared the square. Young men wearing National Religious knitted skullcaps prayed in groups alongside secular Tel Aviv residents.

Also unlike some other Rabin Square crowds, this throng lacked the intensity that can come with commitment to a political cause. The one theme around which the crowd rallied---that Olmert failed in the Second Lebanon War and should resign---was not enough to keep people energized through two hours of standing and listening to speeches on the same message.

The only time the crowd seemed genuinely in unison was during a minute of silence for the dead of the Second Lebanon War.

5) Bereaved parents and army reservists did much of the speaking. They spoke pointedly and sometimes eloquently.

Speakers did elicit cheers and applause, but these came from parts of the audience at various times, and never from the entire crowd at once.

The closest the audience came to a display of vocal unanimity was when Eliad Shraga, a reserve paratroop officer who heads the Movement for Quality Government, exhorted them to act as judge and jury and answer whether Olmert was guilty. They found the Prime Minister guilty, of course, but the performance lacked spontaneity. It was nothing like what sports fans show when they disagree with a football referee's decision.

Cheerleading aside, the only words that seemed to evoke a genuinely spontaneous reaction were uttered by Meir Shalev, the novelist. He mentioned 40 years of occupation in a disparaging way, and some people in the northwest part of the square started booing. Later, the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria (Yesha) commented that Shalev's remark showed "his hate of settlers."

6) Someone I know refused to attend the demonstration. He said he did not want to help Benjamin Netanyahu become Prime Minister.

His meaning became clear from the scene at Rabin Square.

Dark-blue signs calling for "Elections now" were everywhere. They competed against the red-and-black logo that displayed the demonstration organizers' motto, "Bunglers, go home." Many members of the crowd wore dark-blue "Elections now" stickers on hats and shirts. Young demonstrators displaying "Elections now" signs took over the top of a Holocaust monument that dominates the southern part of the square. "Elections now" was clearly a message from the organized political Right.

7) Despite the "Elections now" infiltration, people did seem to be making a real effort to keep the non-partisan spirit of the demonstration.

Political parties refrained from displaying party signs, and few people in the crowd wore t-shirts with party slogans or symbols. No partisan politicians were invited to speak (unless you include Uzi Dayan, the demonstration organizer, whose Tafnit movement failed to win a Knesset seat in the last election).

8) It has become a tradition at Rabin Square to claim attendance figures that would make Pinocchio blush. As this rally began, the organizers announced that 100,000 people had arrived. Less than an hour later, an update doubled the number to 200,000. As the rally was ending at 10 p.m., they announced that the crowd had swelled to 250,000.

News reports set the total at no bigger than 120,000.

A walk through the crowd made it evident that the square did not contain more people than attended the big anti-disengagement rally in August 2005. At that event, Pinhas Wallerstein of the Yesha Council claimed 350,000 people were there but bumped the total up to what sounded like 600,000 as the program ended. A more realistic estimate set that total at no more than 120,000.

9) Ari Shavit of Haaretz wrote that "it doesn't really matter" whether 100,000, 150,000 or 200,000 people attended. He termed the May 3 event Israel's "first inter-tribal demonstration."

"It was the start of the uprising of the Israeli public against the unworthy elites," he wrote. By the time his article appeared, aides to the Prime Minister had already characterized the rally as irrelevant.

10) Before the program ended with the national anthem Hatikvah, pop singer Aviv Geffen performed his "Shir Hatikvah" (Song of Hope), a traditional closing number at big leftwing events. Its lyrics include an exhortation to "conquer peace and not the territories."

As the crowd dispersed, recorded music took over, with John Lennon singing "Imagine," his vision of a world at peace, without war and without religion.

If these songs offended National Religious members of the audience, they objected quietly. No booing was heard.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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