What Occupy Wall Street Can Learn from Occupy Tel Aviv

By Karl Vick, TIME

The tents seem to be everywhere now — Wall Street, London, Hong Kong, Madrid — but very little really comes close to what happened in Israel this summer: thousands camping out, hundreds of thousands marching, a society transformed. “It’s all part of the same thing. It’s people saying, ‘We want to be in charge,’ ” says Stav Shaffir, 26, one of the first Israeli campers. Yonatan Levi, also 26 and an early organizer, offers a comparison with the scale of things in New York City: “Sadly, I think we were much more successful in transmitting our message and our ability to show up in great numbers. I mean, a half-million to a million people!”

The tent protests in Tel Aviv began in muggy mid-July with a handful of young people pitching tents to protest the skyrocketing price of housing in Israel. (Tents — get it?) The first night, reporters outnumbered protesters, but a chord had been struck. The focus quickly widened to take in a gamut of shared complaints about an economy that looked great at the macro level but had created a growing gap between rich and poor. Inspired in part by the Arab Spring (“People thought, Wow, if they can do it, why can’t we do it?” says Shaffir) and in part by Madrid’s indignados movement, the Israeli protests combined and managed the contagious spread seen in Israel’s neighbors as well as the difficult economic and social issues similar to those that emerged in Spain. Ground zero in the Tel Aviv protests, fittingly enough, was Rothschild Boulevard, a shady walkway named for a fabulously wealthy family who helped found Israel as a state originally grounded in social welfare. Within two weeks, 40 camps sprang up around the country. Two weeks later, the camps numbered 100 and marchers 350,000, a whopping turnout in a country of just 7 million.(See photos of Occupy protests from around the world.)

“The spirit of this was amazing,” says Shaffir. “That’s maybe something you can send to the people at Wall Street: happiness was the key. Journalists asked, ‘Is it really serious? Because I see a lot of people smiling.’ I said that’s what makes it serious. People have hope again.”

Another key: nonpartisanship. There was no room for labels and even less for parties in a protest that strove for a “new language” based on common ground staked out in group discussions, assemblies or councils. People shared with strangers what they were embarrassed to confess to their children: We can’t afford the expensive ice cream.

“The other thing that’s very important is chaos,” says Shaffir, who arrived for a breakfast interview after spending the night talking on Rothschild Boulevard, where a handful of tents had gone up anew, weeks after police dismantled the last vestiges of the main camp. “As a movement that goes up against the most powerful force, if you act like an organization, like an institution, you lose. If you have one head, they know what to cut off. You have to be like water, to be everywhere, to be unpredictable. We work like an open code. Everybody should act their part. Everybody should act like a leader.”(Read about the New York City protesters holding ground in Zuccotti Park.)

At one end of Rothschild, a headquarters of sorts went up, though it amounted to a few workstations under fabric stretched to reduce the glare on the computers that lay underneath. “I think in a way what we see in the streets today is a result of things we were trained for from using the Internet since age 5,” says Levi. “I think these assemblies are chat rooms, wide open, with this sense of nonhierarchy, that everyone is equal in the kingdom of the Internet, where there are no kings or queens. We’ve taken these tools that we’ve acquired unknowingly — this generation of ours which was blamed for not doing anything in the world — and now we’ve taken these things we’ve learned out into the street. And it’s pretty impressive, I must say.”

In Israel, the leap to the masses was both more challenging and, in other ways, a bit easier than elsewhere. Jewish Israeli society is relatively small and cohesive, united in a sense of nationhood and shared risk; almost everyone, for instance, serves in the army. But it is also riven by differences, between secular and religious, between Jews and the 20% of the population who are Arab, between recent immigrant and native-born. Only the black-clad ultra-orthodox religious, who gather in residential enclaves, started the summer with a community, Shaffir notes. “If you’re secular, your community is your family. That’s all.”

“If we talk about tips, the most important thing is to connect the different groups, the different social classes,” she says. “And that’s the hardest thing.”

Yet it happened. In just weeks, the protests that some conservative politicians reflexively dismissed as elitist or leftist swelled into a national movement, drawing Israelis from every class and cohort, all of them beaming as they found one another on the street together. In the tent cities, campers organized kitchens, kindergartens, trash removal. They even elected representatives to reclaim a political realm that had grown alien and remote, the province of professional politicians. “And people were so happy,” Shaffir says. “Israelis, for so many years, didn’t feel like we could do anything.”(Read about rioters hijacking Rome’s Occupy protest.)

In time, the political establishment scrambled to respond, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu naming a committee to list specific actions — more money for child care, less for defense — that many in the group call a misapprehension of what was, at bottom, something more diffuse: a remaking of the national consciousness. “The fact that we have no specific list of demands is very hard for them,” says Levi, referring to the Knesset, the Israeli legislature. “I’m not sure we’ve directly affected the political system yet, but I’m sure we will. Because the people who elect these robots spent many hours in the tent cities. It was a learning experience.”

The lessons continue. The other day, organizers set out to secure Tel Aviv’s main public gathering place, Rabin Square, for a follow-up demonstration. They learned it would cost them about $5,000. “That’s a disgrace,” says Shaffir. “It’s like your right of protest is also privatized.”

So they decided they didn’t need the permission of the very people they were opposing. “We just told everybody we’re going to reoccupy Rothschild,” she says. “It made everybody happy, because we were getting back to the streets.”

— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv