By Yonatan Gur
TEL AVIV: Among the tents and posters which filled Tel Aviv’s famous Rothschild Boulevard this past summer, there’s a particularly prominent banner with the words “Rothschild, corner of Tahrir.” This is only one of the many similarities between the Square which has come to symbolize the liberation of the Egyptian people and events shaking up Israeli society and politics.
For example, the cry of the protestors filling the streets of Israel’s cities last Saturday night, “The people demand social justice”, is a local variation on the Tahririan slogan, “The people demand an end to the regime.” (Although I am convinced that many of the demonstrators in Israel are unaware of the similarities).
It is hard to ignore the timing of the widespread protests in Israel which erupted several months after the wave of revolutions that began in Tunisia and spread to many countries in the Arab world, revolutions that also inspired the mass protest movements in Spain and Greece.
The Israeli protestors’ agenda may be different to that of the Egyptians, as is the nature of Israel’s regime compared to the Egyptian state, but I have no doubt that without Mohamed Bouazizi — the Tunisian grocer who immolated himself and in so doing ignited the fires of the revolution — and without Tahrir Square, Rothschild would still be known as a fashionable but rather sleepy boulevard.
These ideological similarities should not be taken for granted. For most Israelis, the fact that Israel is situated in the geo-political sphere of the Middle East is nothing more than an unfortunate accident of history.
In the metaphorical apartment building where we all live, neighbors don’t greet each other in the stairwell, and certainly do not knock on the door requesting a cup of milk in times of need. Beyond the epic dispute between neighbors, many of those who live behind the door that says “Israel” are not interested in the people living on the other side of the wall. The spacious houses on the other side of this metaphorical street (i.e. Europe and the United States) are more appealing and we tend to think that we would have more in common with the people living there if only we could move closer to them.
Indeed, a significant proportion of Israelis view the fact that their state is situated in the stormy heart of the Middle East as a necessary evil, not just from a geographical point of view but from a cultural one as well. If we see ourselves as an integral part of the developing Western world — our feet in the eastern waters of the Mediterranean and our eyes facing Europe and the United States — then we also share the Western attitude towards the “other”, which includes the Arab world.
This is a crude generalization of course, but to a large extent the Arab world is not considered one that can contribute much to us as Israelis. It is not that Arab culture did not contribute significantly to Israeli culture for years, from the language to the food, music and cinema — but as in many other cases, here too reality is not enough to change deep-seated perceptions which frequently dictate an attitude of alienation and a sense of superiority vis-à-vis our neighbors.
And then came the Arab Spring and along with political revolutions and regime changes it could also hail the beginning of yet another small yet significant revolution, here in Israel. We do not yet know what the results of the recent social justice movement in Israel will be, but we do know that this summer can already be inscribed in golden letters in the history books about Israeli civil society.
To those watching from the outside, what might appear as obliviousness on the part of the protestors to the issues linked to the Occupation and foreign policy might seem strange and escapist, but the very fact that hundreds and thousands are taking to the streets on civil issues could indicate that Israeli society is becoming healthier and marks a deep perceptual change.
Another profound perceptual change will occur perhaps when we Israelis look back and analyze what happened since mid-July in the streets of the country. Then we will understand that one of the factors which launched this mass movement is the inspiring efforts by masses in the Arab world to stand up for what they believe in and change their lives. This is an opportunity to change our attitude to the geographical and human sphere in which we live.
Perhaps in the Rothschild corner of Tahrir we will find an opening for face-to-face dialogue, a dialogue that respects both sides, with the partners who share this piece of land.
Yonatan Gur is a member of Combatants for Peace and a journalist. He is currently in training to become a teacher. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).