NEW YORK — As the Occupy Wall Street protest enters its third week, with demonstrations popping up in more than 10 cities, the protesters are aggressively pushing a comparison to the Arab Spring. Some say the movement has channeled the zeal (or perhaps the naivete, others would argue) of the 1960s anti-war demonstrations. But it’s not Tahrir Square or Chicago in 1968 that Occupy Wall Street most resembles. It’s the protests for economic justice that swept Israel this summer.
Start with location. Like the J14 — the catchy name for the Israel protests, taken from the date, July 14, when they began — the Occupy Wall Street activists have staked out their turf in the heart of the American banking industry.
In Tel Aviv, hundreds of protesters railed against the high cost of housing by setting up tents in the area of the city that houses Israel’s largest banks, specifically on Rothschild Boulevard, an exclusive street named after Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, a member of the famous Jewish banking family and a patron of Zionist causes.
In Lower Manhattan, the Occupy Wall Street protesters have made their base 2 1/2 blocks from the New York Stock Exchange in Zuccotti Park. While there are no tents allowed, hundreds of protesters have made the park their temporary home, camping out in sleeping bags despite rain and the early autumn chill.
Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv houses Independence Hall, the site where Israel’s Declaration of Independence was signed in 1948. Zuccotti Park has been rechristened “Liberty Park” by the protesters and is just a few yards away from Ground Zero.
Demonstrators are quick to explain that the movement, Occupy Wall Street, is leaderless. This same lack of leadership characterized the August protests in Tel Aviv. (Yes, Daphne Leef, a 25-year-old film editor, was credited with sparking the protests when she pitched a tent in a Tel Aviv square to draw attention to the price of rent in Israel. But she remained a symbol more than a leader.) This lack of real leadership has, at least so far, resulted in a fuzzy ideology and a dearth of concrete demands from the Occupy Wall Street crowd.
In the small hours of a Tuesday morning, to take one example, I watched as a 24-year-old protester named Chris from Brooklyn tried to explain the movement’s goal to six of New York’s finest:
“The reason is bigger than you can possibly understand,” Chris said.
“So, explain to it to us,” one of the cops responded. “I work this job because I have a pile of bills to pay. What’s your side?”
“It’s not about the small scale,” Chris said, unable to articulate a better reply. “You don’t understand.”
“That’s where the difference is — between reality and your side,” the cop said. “It’s time to move along.”
This inarticulateness has provided lots of fodder for blistering satire. (“Because if there’s one thing New Yorkers never ignore,” Stephen Colbert quipped on his show, “it’s people sleeping in a park.”) At the same time, this big tent has served Occupy Wall Street, which has drawn a broad-yet-disparate coalition much in the way that the Tel Aviv protests did. Taking a lap through Zuccotti Park, you’ll hear snippets of conversations about the environment, gay rights, police brutality, the Iraq War, Afghanistan, the drone program, tax cuts, foreign aid and more.
But the single overarching theme of the protests has been corporate greed. It is this one-note song of economic inequality that has allowed a collection of students, the unemployed, activists, anarchists, immigrants and union members to form a coalition. They say they represent the 99 percent; the wealthiest 1 percent, they point out, controls 40 percent of the country’s wealth.
Similarly, by avoiding divisive political issues such as settlements, the status of Jerusalem, the future of the West Bank, policy toward Iran and financial subsidies for the haredi Orthodox, and focusing on one issue — the untenable cost of living — J14 was able to unite Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Christians, Druze, gays, the religious, the secular, the left wing and the right wing in common cause. In its final rally on Sept. 3, some 400,000 people participated — approximately 6 percent of the country’s population.
“We work for the richest retailer in the world,” a man from upstate New York who works at Wal-Mart said in Zuccotti Park. “And yet their employees make jack s—.”
He wore a hoodie, which partially covered a neck tattoo of the Hebrew letters aleph bet gimel, which he claimed was an acronym for “everybody’s equal.” On the other side of his neck were four Hebrew words that meant “God’s earth, God’s planet,” bisected by a tree in the shape of a cross.
“There’s a lot of love,” an unemployed Occupy Wall Street protester named Donna told me.
On a Monday evening and in the early morning hours the next day, I saw what she was talking about. The sound of drums and guitars gave the space the feeling of a carnival. A quick tour of the plaza revealed a surprising abundance of provisions: anarchists with logistical acumen! There was more food than could be eaten, and no one knew from where it had come: deli sandwiches, Pop Tarts, apples, bananas, coffee, and bottles and bottles of Poland Spring. There was talk of donating the excess food to homeless shelters.
Countless supplies had arrived via UPS and from strangers dropping off supplies throughout the day. There were tarps to sleep under and aluminum and cloth blankets for campers. A compost station had been set up for leftover food. Two protesters sat rolling cigarettes from mounds of tobacco, offering regular or mint. I was offered a free umbrella. A similar camaraderie had pervaded the Tel Aviv protests this summer.
In Zuccotti Park, a medical team roved the plaza giving out vitamins. A sanitation crew kept the square clean. Protesters used the bathroom in a nearby McDonald’s.
“They’ve been very nice to us,” Anya, who came from Iowa for the protest, told me. “The workers are part of the 99 percent.” At 1 a.m., a bounty of McDonald’s cookies and coffee arrived.
I met a guy named Max sipping McDonald’s corporate coffee.
“I work for the U.N. now, doing geospatial analysis,” Max said. He was more than a little drunk, skeptical of the movement, and may or may not have been telling the truth. “I was watching the Russians today on the Internet. And they are following the protests closely.”
Max said he lived nearby and had just dropped by to check out the scene.
“The protesters have … no mission,” he told me. “It’s like they are fighting a ghost.”
The same could be said of the Tel Aviv protests, which nevertheless galvanized an apathetic Israeli generation into political engagement.
(Adam Chandler is a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine, tabletmag.com.)