Israel is changing. Usually deployed with a sigh, this observation has risen to the level of an axiom in recent years as a sad requiem for a golden age that ceased to exist decades ago. This axiom was both proven true and turned on its head on the night of February 4 in Tel Aviv during the course of two separate rallies. One had as its banner the green marijuana leaf, the other the black, white, green, and red of the Palestinian flag. Both sights in the middle of the first Hebrew city would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Israel is indeed changing—perhaps, in some respects, for the better.
The first rally was less a demonstration than a celebration—indeed, it was a party. An estimated 5,000 people turned up in Rabin Square, adjacent to Tel Aviv’s city hall, under the slogan “It’s About Time.” Israel’s public security minister had recently expressed his support for decriminalizing marijuana use, and the attendees were taking advantage of it (albeit prematurely). The pungent odor of marijuana smoke filled the night sky under the bemused but permissive gaze of a handful of police officers. A stage had been set up and various speakers declared “victory in the battle and a continuation of the war” for full legalization of the drug.
It was an eclectic crowd, mostly but not only in their 20s and 30s. “A toke here, a toke there,” 19-year-old Ori from Kfar Sava said of his marijuana use. “But it’s scary to smoke. It’s not a crime and we need to stop with the stigma.” An older lady, likely in her 70s, proclaimed, “It’s also expensive!” as she eavesdropped on the conversation. A smattering of young parents had brought their children to the party, hoisting them on their shoulders to get a better view of the Israeli hip-hop groups performing.
Presiding over the festivities was a local celebrity dwarf outfitted in a top hat and sunglasses. He was correct in observing that there were no Israeli flags at the demonstration—only the cannabis leaf. “It’s not a right, left, or center rally, but people from the entire country,” he said. In fact, the only politician to speak was Sharren Haskel, a 32-year-old Likud parliamentarian who led the decriminalization effort in the Knesset. She expressed her hope that the government would officially adopt the recommendations her committee put forward. “All we want is to be a free people in our land,” she told the crowd—quoting from “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem—“as long as we’re not hurting anyone else.”
A short distance west of Rabin Square, on Tel Aviv’s fabled Dizengoff Street, another rally was taking place that demanded, if not freedom, then at the very least equality. Put on by a mix of Israeli-Arab and left-wing political parties and NGOs, it included 2,000 people of all ages, Arabs and Jews, marching through the city streets, chanting and banging drums. The event was organized in response to recent government demolitions of illegally-built homes in Arab towns—particularly one tragic incident last month in the southern village of Umm al-Hiran, where a local Bedouin man and an Israeli police officer were killed in clashes. A banner next to the construction site that used to be Dizengoff Square stated in Hebrew and Arabic, “They Destroy, We Build a Common Future.”
The most striking feature of the march was the number of demonstrators streaming down one of Israel’s main thoroughfares holding aloft the Palestinian flag. No Israeli flags were visible. The spectacle drew curious looks from local passersby, since the Palestinian flag used to be outlawed. Yet similar to the pro-marijuana rally, this Arab-Jewish demonstration was a legal gathering, presided over by police officers. The police were out in greater force and more visibly armed than in Rabin Square, but were there not only to keep order but also to protect the demonstrators from any counter-protestors. It was, if anything, a pure example of free speech. Speakers, including Joint (Arab) List party chairman Ayman Odeh and the widow of the Bedouin man killed at Umm al-Hiran, spoke at length in Arabic; Israeli-Arab hip-hop star Tamer Nafar spat out rhymes in both Arabic and Hebrew.
Needless to say, the demonstrators I interviewed blasted the “fascist” Israeli government and its supposedly hypocritical policies regarding home demolitions. “There were no police officers with guns at Amona,” said Mohammed, a 30-year-old Israeli-Arab, referring to the recent evacuation of an illegal West Bank settler outpost that the authorities handled with kid gloves. He then rattled off a litany of ills ostensibly perpetrated by the Israeli state, as his girlfriend Rinat, a beautiful Jewish girl of Ethiopian descent, looked on nodding.
Rinat and Mohammed had met on the streets of Tel Aviv after he called out to her in Hebrew. They have been dating for two years and live together in the city. They plan to get married, build a home together, and have children. “We’ll let them decide which religion,” they said. Even their respective families have come to accept their relationship after an initial period of resistance. Given all this, I posited, wasn’t there something undeniably positive about Israel being a place where this kind of relationship is possible?
Both Rinat and Mohammed paused for a moment. “There is, there is,” Rinat said, smiling widely. “That’s the magic of this country; that we met. Between all the difficulties there are sparks of light and from there we’re able to grow and become whole.”
“The most important thing,” Mohammed added, “is to be a human being.”
Its interminable politics aside, Israel has indeed changed, and not just in Tel Aviv. After all, marijuana decriminalization, once passed, will be a national law. And the police guarding the Arab-Jewish demonstration were national police. Hopefully, Israel continues to be a place where human beings are free to make their own personal decisions, and where these “sparks of light” become brighter—either between two people in love or, if one so chooses, the business end of a spliff.
Neri Zilber is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture, an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a research associate of the Rubin Center at the IDC Herzliya. You can follow him on Twitter @NeriZilber.
[Photo: Tomer Neuberg / Flash90]