Morane Barkai
Last updated: 2 July, 2012

Israeli J14 movement turns the heat on Tel Aviv mayor

Public rage is mounting against Tel Aviv’s mayor, Ron Huldai, following recent violent repressions of social demonstrations in the city, during which activists and the movement’s leaders were injured. As a result, many artists, cultural institutions, and businesses decided to withdraw their participation from the city´s official White Night events, which took place on June 28. Meretz members in the city council have also resigned from their seats in a sign of protest, placing Huldai in a difficult position.

This is the first time such a large protest movement has coalesced in Tel Aviv against the city’s council and the man sitting at its head.

It all started Friday 22ndof June, as the J14 movement tried to rebuild its encampment on Rothschild avenue in Tel Aviv, as a rerun of last year’s massive social demonstration campaign. Huldai, who sternly opposed this, ordered the evacuation of the site. As a result, Dafnie Leef, the movement’s leader, and other activists were forcefully arrested, sustaining numerous injuries.

“For the municipalities, keeping the law and the public peace is more important than protecting free speech, or the right to organise and to protest (even if many of them could identify, at least partially, with the social movement’s goals),” said Dr. Nurit Hashimshony-Yaffe of the Government and Society School at the Tel Aviv-Yaffo Academy College. “In this respect, they want the movement to vanish, and last year, they really believed it would quietly die down. This year, realising their mistake, they rush to crush it, thinking: we must kill it while it’s still small. It is a misunderstanding of social movements, because usually, when you try to block such a movement, you radicalise it, not diminish it.”

Following the violent crackdown, thousands of demonstrators amassed in the streets of Tel Aviv the next day in protest of police brutality and what they saw as an institutional attempt to stifle the protest. This time, the peaceful protests turned more violent, with a number of demonstrators vandalising banks. Once more, the police employed force and many protestors documented cases of violent abuse. About 90 demonstrators were arrested, but most were later released due to flawed police procedures.

In light of these events, artists and J14 activists issued a call for a ‘Black Night’; in essence a boycott of Tel Aviv’s highly publicised White Night event, in condemnation of the improper “conduct of the city council, its local security forces and the national police”.

Following this announcement, nine art galleries out of the ten which were scheduled to participate in White Night confirmed their withdrawal from the event. Similarly, a number of Israeli authors, among them Edgar Keret, pulled out of an important literary happening. The authors stated that recent developments were no occasion for celebration. Other cultural institutions and artists joined the ‘Black Night’ initiative and shops and retailers have announced they will turn off their lights in a show of solidarity.

Huldai’s coalition at the city council is also facing trouble as it split with Meretz, the Labour party’s most important ally. In her letter of resignation, Meital Lehavi, former deputy mayor, accused Huldai of leading the violent oppression of the social movement and denounced him of becoming a “tool in the hands of the government”, instead of acting as a representative of the people of Tel Aviv.

The J14 social movement’s main target is the liberal economic policy that has dominated Israeli politics for the past decades. The Labour party, to which Huldai is affiliated, is the biggest opposition party at the moment, situated at the centre-left of the political map. Nonetheless, it too played a major role in dismantling the Israeli social system and is now struggling to form a coherent political response to the social movement. For the J14 movement, Huldai’s reponse is therefore a kind of treason, at least on the social level, adding insult to injury when considering the mayor’s other controversial stances, such as his pledge to expel African refugees out of the city.

But transforming Tel Aviv’s mayor into J14’s archenemy may prove a mistake, and if it becomes the movement’s main objective it may significantly weaken it, since it’s real target is the Israeli government.

“One of the most surprising aspects of the social movement has been its incapacity to weaken the government. On the contrary – the current Israeli government is one of the most stable governments of the last decades and the coalition is the biggest Israeli coalition ever. If the J14 movement makes it all the way to the election period, it might achieve political gain. But for the time being, the movement prefers to situate itself as a cross-political movement, appealing to citizens of all parties. This allows the government to deflect criticism and avoid appearing as the movement’s target,” added Hashimshony-Yaffe.