Hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrate for social justice

(JTA) — More than 400,000 Israelis demonstrated in cities across the country under the banner of social justice in what some say was the largest protest in Israel’s history.

A crowd estimated at 300,000 showed up in Tel Aviv Saturday night for what organizers had billed as a nationwide "March of the Million."

Israeli media reports variously put the number of protesters who gathered in Jerusalem at between 40,000 and 60,000. Tens of thousands more turned out in Haifa, and sizable demonstrations were also held in more than a dozen other Israeli cities, from Eilat in the South to Kiryat Shmona in the North.

“Mr. Prime Minister, take a good look at us: We’re the new Israelis. We want only one thing: To live in this country. We want not only to love the State of Israel, but also to exist here respectfully, and to live with dignity,” Itzik Shmuli, chairman of Israel’s National Student Union, said in his address to the main rally in Tel Aviv’s Hamedina Square, according to The Jerusalem Post.

"My generation always felt as though we were alone in this world, but now we feel the solidarity," one of the protest movement’s young leaders, Daphni Leef, told the crowd, according to Haaretz.

Leef’s decision this summer to pitch a tent in central Tel Aviv to protest the high cost of housing kicked off what has become a mass movement calling for change on an array of issues.

While the demonstrations’ organizers have tried to keep politicians and political parties at a distance, Saturday’s rallies were embraced by a variety of Israeli politicians who are critical of the current government. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima Party on her Facebook page urged Israelis to attend the protests.

On Sunday, the protesters began dismantling tent camps across the country. The largest tent city, on tony Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, was taken down, as were tent cities in two public parks in Jerusalem. Some tents will remain, however, to be used as the movement’s meeting places for public debates and strategy sessions.

"We are taking down the tent today with our head held high after the very significant rally that took place yesterday," said Yuval Bedolach, a representative of Israel’s student union. "The tents were in some way a symbol, and we had to choose a very particular date to take them down. The tents were merely sheets and pegs; the people inside are what is important — the people who were at the rally yesterday and will be there next week as well."

The government-appointed Trajtenberg Committee on housing and economic reform is set to issue its recommendations in two weeks.

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