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Youths Looking for Hope

Youths Looking for Hope

Adam Keller

Occupation Magazine, 11.11.08

The Meretz Party came up this time with an appropriate slogan: `Israel is looking for hope` - seen on the small green round stickers which its activists spread out among the crowd, and in big signs hanged all around the Rabin Square. The youths thronging the square on the night of November 8 - a bit less in number than in the Rabin Memorials of previous years, but still counted in the tens of thousands - had clearly come looking for hope, a commodity in short supply at the Israel of November 2008.

The people at this Tel Aviv commemoration rally for a murdered leader could only envy those at the Chicago rally whose scenes were fresh in everybody`s memory following the announcement of Obama`s victory four days previously.

There was little reason for jubilation indeed with Binyamin Netanyahu all too likely to win the general elections due three months ahead and racist thugs rampaging on the West Bank hills and in the alleys of Acre, with police and army showing little inclination or ability to seriously tackle them, and an Israeli Obama nowhere to be seen. (`But the American Obama also appeared quite suddenly. A year ago, nobody would have dreamed he could do what he did` an Israeli girl living in Los Angeles, who came here on a brief homeland visit, assured her Tel Avivian friends.)

`This square is an oasis of sanity` proclaimed Daliah Rabin, the martyr`s daughter, from the stage. Peace Now had the prepared numerous signs reading `Stop the settler violence!` and `Their violence - our responsibility!`. And the Movement of Working and Studying Youth, whose members in their distinctive Blue Shirts were seen everywhere, had conspicuous `Yes to Peace - No to Racism!` banners. At the entrance to the Memorial Tent which they had erected on the square two days in advance, a leaflet was distributed: `On November 4, 1995, we were small children - some of us not yet born. Still, the terrible image of a murdered Prime Minster is stamped indelibly on our hearts and minds. We are dedicated to uphold what Rabin lived for and died for: a ceaseless quest for peace, struggling for co-existence, believing in the equality and the inherent value of all human beings`. (Older activists can still recall times when Yitzchak Rabin stood for far less pleasant things, and point to some blemishes even on his last years as a peacemaker - but the Rabin Myth, as is the way of myths in general and martyrdom myths in particular, has clearly developed a strong life of its own.)

It was, however, the hand-painted signs reading in English `Obama, make peace now!` which would draw media attention. And none of the Israeli speakers could draw anything like the enormous applause granted to James P. Hoffa of the American Teamsters Union. Not for himself (Hoffa is completely unknown to most Israelis) nor for his rather bland oratory - but because he was introduced to the audience as Barack Obama`s personal emissary and because when he mounted the podium the face of the US president-elect was briefly shown on the giant screens scattered all across the square.

Shimon Peres - whose long-standing and not always harmonious association with Rabin entitles him to a regular slot in these memorials - spoke now in his role as President of Israel, a post carrying prestige but little actual power. His main point was a plea for `The other part of Israeli society` to come and attend next year`s Rabin Memorial, so as to `unite against the forces of violence and anarchy`. A hopeless call - since very few right-wingers have any inclination to commemorate the initiator of the Oslo Agreement, and though the `respectable` settler leaders might issue some faint condemnation of their `hotheaded youngsters` - in fact they consider the threat of violence as the surest way of preventing Israeli withdrawal from the Biblically-hallowed territories of `Judea and Samaria`.

Defence Minister Barak`s rhetoric was less conciliatory. `These violent settlers are no longer `a few stray weeds` as they were called ten years ago. They are a dangerous cancerous growth which must be rooted out, for our survival! I here and now pledge to work for peace, yes work for peace - in deeds, not in words!`. He did get some applause - not very enthusiastic, though. As Nahum Barnea remarked in the following day`s Yediot Aharonot: `Barak`s record is well known. No previous Defence Minister has done so little to confront the violent settler gangs, or invested so much futile efforts in negotiating with making rotten compromises and giving in to their most outrageous demands, in order to avoid any violent confrontation.`

As Barak and his aides feared, Foreign Minister Livni got considerably more applause. Her failure to form a government coalition after the resignation of PM Olmert did not discredit her in this milieu. In fact, refusing to give in to the religious Shas Party`s veto over any negotiations on the issue of Jerusalem had increased her standing among these staunch secularist doves. She further got the crowd`s sympathy by speaking as a penitent former Likud member. `I have not been in this square on the night when Rabin was murdered, I did not vote for him - but still, he WAS my Prime Minister`.

Proclaiming herself still emotionally attached to the whole of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River - she was brought up by parents who were both veterans of the fervently nationalist pre-1948 Irgun underground - she also stated the indispensable need to give up the Palestinian-inhabited part of this land, so as `to achieve peace and keep Israel both democratic and Jewish`. She carefully refrained from any specific delineation of territorial concessions.

(Two days later, Livni would hastily distance herself from Olmert when the outgoing PM - kept away from the podium of this rally, and having little if anything to lose - made explicit references to the 1967 borders and to giving up Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem.)

The reception of Tzipi Livni on the Rabin Square tended to confirm the conclusions of commentators and opinion pollsters: Left-wing and `Left of Center` Israelis would much rather see her in the PM`s office than other of the candidates available - obviously, far preferable to Netanyahu, and also far far preferable to Barak, who manages to arouse aversion even among much of the Labor Party`s traditional electoral base. Still, she has not so far managed - and is unlikely to achieve in the few months left until the elections - any decisive groundswell of true popular enthusiasm.

Conspicuously absent from the podium were any of the slightly more radical speakers such as writer David Grossman, who on the memorial rally of two years ago delivered a scathing and penetrating speech (`The entire leadership of this country is hollow, hollow, hollow, with nothing to offer`). As the Ha`aretz headline would proclaim on the following day, Grossman was already on the verge of allying himself with various dissident ex-Laborite doves such as former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg - to either launch a new political party or join with Meretz and possibly reverse this party`s flagging electoral fortunes).

With all these speeches going on, voices blaring over massive loudspeakers and speakers` faces many times magnified on the screens, various groups and movements and parties and sects were scrambling to make the most of this opportunity - the best in the entire year - to reach a mass audience potentially receptive to their ideas.

It had proven quite difficult this year to get people from the more radical organizations - Gush Shalom, Women`s Coalition for Peace, Coalition Against the Gaza Siege - to take part in this activity. `Come to the Rabin Festival to hear Barak speak? Not me!` But we are not coming to listen to the bastards of the podium, we come to speak to the audience, these are the people we have to reach!` `Oh well...`

Even so, a considerable number of activists tirelessly circulated in the audience and manned stalls and tables - distributing leaflets, stickers, brochures and banners, selling magazines and t-shirts and elaborately carved pins and some books, in a big medley of themes and sounds: `Each one of us alone is powerless, acting together we can change the world` / `Join us for human rights, social involvement, grassroots democracy, environment protection, poverty elimination, freedom, social justice, public health, animal rights` / `Are you a leftist? Prove it, join Peace Now` / ` The violent atmosphere and blurring the boundaries of democracy have made it possible for a Prime Minster to be assassinated. And we now have a violent atmosphere and a blurring of boundaries, more than ever!` / `Go on a West Bank tour - see the separation of roads for Israelis and Palestinians, the settler sewage contaminating the Palestinian fields and groves` / `The Organization for Democratic Action, presents Asma Agbaria Zahalka for Mayor, for equality and coexistence between Jaffa and Tel-Aviv for uniting and organizing the workers.` / `Speaking of political murder - more than two hundred cancer patients died in Gaza because the State of Israel refused to give them permits to leave the Strip and get treatment which could have saved their lives. They died as a result of a political siege, imposed for political reasons - to overthrow a government elected democratically by the Palestinian voters. Is this not political murder, too?` / `Your candle, Yitzchak, is still burning. Before he was assassinated we were indifferent, we though we could stand aside and just let things happen. And the violent extremists made very terrible things happen. Peace would not come unless we work for it, with all our will and might!` / `Bring Gilead Shalit back home, safe and sound. Any price is worthwhile - time is running short!` / `This photo album presents the 41 years of Israel`s occupation and oppression of the Palestinians in a comprehensive way never seen before. Tonight available for a special reduced price!`.

There was a heated debate around the stall placed by a group calling for enforcement of military conscription and `a crackdown on shirkers`. `There are at this moment several girls in the military prison because they refused to join an army of occupation. Would you leave them to rot in prison forever, just because they have a conscience?` `Yes I would, they are lazy shirkers!` `Me. I don`t have so much against people like that, real idealistic people. I am more against the religious who want war but want somebody else to fight in it`; `Can I offer you this brochure about possibilities for voluntary social service to those exempted from military service?`

A father picked up the Gush Shalom round sign and placed on the front of his nine-years old daughter shirt. `You see, Vered, this is our flag, the Israeli flag in blue and white. And this with the many colors is the flag of the Palestinians. When you put them together, it means you want peace between us and them.`

The other Gush Shalom sticker, - a big red one reading in Hebrew `Ein Li Ah Mitnahel` (`I Have No Settler For A Brother`) aroused both enthusiasm and opposition. `Hey, that`s a swell slogan! Can I have some more of them?` `No, I don`t agree with you. This is going too far. You are really calling for a civil war with the settlers!` `No. not civil war. We want them to feel that the Israeli society disowns them, that they are no longer part of `The family`. This is exactly the way to discourage them, make them give up. Civil war will only happen when they feel strong!`

The upcoming municipal elections were very evident. Everywhere could be seen adherents of Tel Aviv mayoral candidate Dov Khenin - the Communist Knesset Member who managed to gain the support of many non-Communists - even some prominent Likud members from the south Tel Aviv slums - forge a formidable coalition of social and environmental activists and present a serious challenge to Tel Aviv mayor Huldai.

The incumbent mayor himself - widely accused of representing real estate interests and making Tel Aviv too expensive for young and poor people to live in - was given the podium as `the host of the rally` and wasted this opportunity with a particularly colorless speech.

End of the rally - as every year, marked by the three-fold music of `The Peace Song` dating back to the 1970`s (`Don`t say `A day will come - bring the day!` In all the squares, sing only for Peace!`) followed by the Israeli National Anthem `Hatikva` and finally John Lennon`s voice singing `Imagine`.

The young people did not quickly disperse. Many of them continued milling back and forth through the square. Suddenly, one of them pulled out a large drum, and within minutes hundreds were dancing to his rhythm.

`These young people are looking for something more, something which the organisers could not provide` said a balding activist in his fifties. `Don`t read too much into it. They are young, they want to have a good time` replied his grey-haired companion.


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