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Swearing allegiance in Tel Aviv

08/14/2005

TEL AVIV, Aug. 11 --- Jews hoping to block Israel's withdrawal from settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria have come to Tel Aviv to stage a rally.

"Raise up the signs, raise up the signs," a voice from the stage instructs the audience that fills the plaza in front of city hall. "They [a television crew] are broadcasting."

The crowd responds by raising a mass of orange-colored signs with messages opposing the withdrawal that is due to begin next week. Many people carry uniformly printed Hebrew signs proclaiming, "I swear." The theme of the event is a swearing of support to settlements in Gush Katif and Samaria.

Benny Elbaz, a popular singer, is performing a special anti-disengagement number. He tells the crowd, "It [the disengagement] won't happen. ... They [the government] won't succeed." Groups of men are praying at the edges of the crowd.

"Oil," Elbaz chants, "oil!". He brandishes a bottle of oil and cries out, "We'll pour this oil on ourselves." He anoints his head with the oil. Dignitaries seated behind him on the dais shift in their seats to avoid being sprinkled. The police won't stop us, he shouts. "No, no, no. We won't let them."

The master-of-ceremonies, Pinchas Wallerstein, head of the Binyamin Regional Council, follows Elbaz to the podium and announces that the people of Israel have never seen anything like this event. He says that 100,000 people have arrived. It is now 8:45 p.m.

Wallerstein returns to the microphone a few minutes later and announces that the crowd has now grown to one-quarter million. The latecomers are on the side streets, he explains.

At a far corner of the square, the voice of Moshe Feiglin is heard at a stand where people are collecting signatures for his Jewish Leadership Movement. It is a recorded voice, announcing over and over again that the way to save the country is to support Feiglin's drive to increase his faction's strength in the Likud party. Feiglin is not in sight. He moved to Gush Katif some weeks ago from his home in the Karnei Shomron settlement.

The speakers denounce Prime Minister Sharon and Likud members of the cabinet who have supported disengagement. They repeat the slogan that a Jew doesn't expel a fellow Jew. The central message is that the disengagement will not take place, because the people at this rally will prevent it. A new theme is that the demonstrators next week will refuse to go home until Sharon agrees to hold new elections.

At 9:11 p.m. Wallerstein announces that the crowd now exceeds 350,000. He says he expects that the newspaper Haaretz will report that 12,000 attended.

Orange, the color of the anti-disengagement forces, is everywhere --- orange signs, orange clothing, orange ribbons. Elevated so that everyone can see it, an orange stage runs along one end of the square. Behind it, a giant screen shows what is happening on stage or projects recorded materials. From time to time, the screen splits into two or more panels, each with a wide orange-colored border which dominates the images.

Visually, this demonstration is better-executed than any event seen here since this plaza got its present name. It is almost a triumph in pageantry. The plaza used to be named Kings of Israel Square. For most of the past 10 years, it has been known as Rabin Square, in memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated here Nov. 4, 1995, while getting into his car after speaking at a rally against violence.

The most impressive demonstration that has taken place here may have been what happened in the evenings that followed Rabin's murder. Young people began showing up at the plaza and lit thousands of memorial candles. This was spontaneous, and it seemed to express grief and confusion.

Tonight's event is highly organized and it expresses a will and determination. One element that prevents it from being a triumph in pageantry is the crowd's subdued manner. For the main part, people are listening quietly and not reacting a lot. Some talk on cellular telephones or chat with friends, or watch the screens impassively. For an event billed as a mass oath-taking ceremony, it seems to be drawing too much on the stage and not enough on the crowd.

One speaker who does elicit a reaction is Noga Cohen of Kfar Darom. Three of her eight children lost limbs when a mortar shell exploded near their school bus in November 2000.

Arguing against withdrawal, she cries out, "What wrong did we do?" Members of the crowd closest to the stage shout back to her. The chant, "A Jew doesn't expel a Jew," goes up in the crowd.

Wallerstein's jab at Haaretz is one of the few cracks directed at Israeli leftists this evening. This may be because tonight there's a personal villain --- Sharon --- and speakers focus their criticism at him.

Several speakers call for non-violence as a tactic in the coming confrontation. They say protesters must not hit soldiers or police, even if attacked.

Another element that takes away from the pageantry of tonight's event is the 12-story building that looks out over the orange stage. This is Tel Aviv's city hall, which is not part of what is going on in the square below. Bringing the anti-disengagement campaign to Rabin Square may be a good way to get television coverage, but it also underscores the immense gaps in understanding that continue to grow between predominantly secular Tel Aviv and religious settlements outside the Green Line.

Here are a couple of examples of the extent to which anti-settlement sentiments have been developing in the modern world's first Jewish city.

On television, a satire program rated as Israel's most popular show created a woman-settler stereotype --- an arrogant, narrow-minded person who smiles a lot and insists on having her own way regardless of consequences. The actress who plays this character is a member of the Tel Aviv city council. Her character's pretend-name is an undisguised allusion to Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin. Strictly speaking, one can say this is a cheap shot, as Amir comes from the nearby city of Herzlia, not from a settlement.

Another television channel has been running promotional spots for a different satire program. These show an actress dressed as an orange-adorned settler behaving in foolish ways. Her settler character is a fixture on the show. The actress who plays the part is married to the head of a rival faction on the Tel Aviv City Council.

At 9:55 p.m., Wallerstein reports again on the turnout. He says that if Peace Now brought 400,000 people to this square in 1982, then tonight there are 600,000.

"The revolution in Israeli society begins here and now," Wallerstein says.

From their dress, it is evident that almost all of the crowd in Rabin Square tonight are religiously observant.

It is not clear whether Wallerstein is claiming that 600,000 people are really here, or whether he is merely reiterating doubts, heard over the years, that the 400,000 turnout claimed by the left in 1982 was an honest count. Anyone who wasn't listening carefully could get an impression that Wallerstein said 600,000 people have shown up, here and now.

This is evidently too much for the media to deal with. Arutz Sheva, which is not known for being stingy to the settlement movement, will use an attendance figure of 250,000 in its reports the following day. The consensus among news organizations is 150,000, a figure that is not based on anyone's actual crowd count. (Haaretz reports 100,000 in an early online story and will raise this to 150,000 in the printed newspaper that goes to subscribers and newsstands.) Before the rally, police were expecting 50,000 people, arriving in private cars and 500 buses.

If the truth be told, the square does not seem more crowded tonight than it has been at other demonstrations in recent years. There's plenty of walking-around space on the periphery of the square. In May, when pro-disengagement Israelis held a rally at the same place, the periphery was more crowded. Attendance at the May event was estimated at 120,000.

--- Joseph M. Hochstein

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000369.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

by Joseph M. Hochstein @ 12:02 AM CST [Link]

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