Open Zion

06.28.12

Freedom of Assembly

When Israeli police addressed the social justice demonstrators in Tel Aviv and announced, "this is not social justice—these are rioters," they were only partially correct. It is true that, despite the previous summer's massive protests, there still is no social justice. Exploitative contract labor practices, the privatization of education, withering services for the unemployed, salary gaps, and record-setting inequality all testify to this. Nonexistent public housing and the castrated Trachtenberg Committee’s recommendations (never implemented) will also testify, as will the proposed (though still unlegislated) new Basic Law: Social Rights. But the best testimony comes from the reality we all know —and no, “this is not social justice.” To arrive at social justice, we must struggle—we are obligated to struggle.

But the second half of the sentence—"these are rioters,"—that part is incorrect. The Israeli Police were trying to depict the social justice demonstrators of 2012 as a violent mob. “Rioters”? Let us review the facts.

When the mayor of Tel Aviv makes a sweeping announcement (without legal authority) that he will not permit the pitching of protest tents in his city this year, who is it that is scoffing at the law? When he sends his municipal inspectors to forcefully tear down tents that are being held in the air (!) by citizens who seek to protest, who is being violent? When Israeli police officers, rather than arresting these municipal inspectors, brutally arrest the demonstrators, is it not clear that it is the police that are out of order?

Close to 90 demonstrators were held under arrest at the Glilot police station north of Tel Aviv through Saturday night. By law, they were entitled—each and every one of them—to consult with an attorney prior to their interrogation by police. Throughout the night, there were lawyers on the premises of the police station specifically for that purpose.

Still, some of the detainees did not meet with an attorney—because the police did not bother to inform them that there were lawyers available.  This is a violation of the law on the part of the police.  And this was not the only violation of law: the police trampled on the Youth Law when it came to juvenile arrestees, withheld medical care from injured arrestees, and more. What kind of police force behaves like this to human beings in its custody?

A high-ranking Israeli police officer said—on the record—that Daphni Leef attacked the police.  Anyone who sees the pictures from Rothschild Boulevard on Friday will understand immediately how wild this accusation is. In the meantime, the police changed their version of things slightly, calling Ms. Leef's violent arrest an "operational failure." Still, they have yet to decide if they will seek indictments against Leef and others. But indictments for what?

Pitching tents on Rothschild Boulevard is legal. Holding tents in the air on Rothschild Boulevard is also legal. On Friday, the demonstrators went out of their way to abide by the absurd terms imposed upon them, and despite this, municipal inspectors—backed by police—attacked them.  A citizen attacked by police has the right to resist, even with reasonable force. But either way, the force deployed by police was not reasonable—it was full-fledged aggression.

The essence of the social justice protest is not the search for freedom of expression, but the struggle for affordable housing, education, and healthcare; for fair employment; and against outrageous socio-economic gaps. But the suppression of the social justice protest is headed down a path that will trample our freedom of expression.

Now imagine: If this is what the police force permits itself to do in broad daylight, exposed to the eye of the camera, in the heart of Tel Aviv, against demonstrators pushing for one of the more popular causes in the Israeli public, how does it behave in other situations, in other places, on other matters? If this was Daphi Leef’s fate on Friday, what happens to Arabs or Hareidim?  To protesters in the Occupied Territories or in disadvantaged neighborhoods?

By continuing to struggle and refusing to give up, the citizens of Israel will succeed in their fight for social justice.  In the meantime we must remain vigilant against police excesses so as not to cede one of our most precious freedoms along the way: the freedom of expression.


Hebrew version of this article was originally published online at NRG (www.nrg.co.il)