On 14 July, months before the first protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park, Israel’s version of Occupy Wall Street began when Daphni Leef, a 25-year-old filmmaker, found herself unable to pay her rent and pitched a tent on Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv. July 14th was the day the public conversation in Israel began to change. For decades Israeli politics had been stuck in an endless debate about the Palestinian issue, but while they quarrelled among themselves Israel’s citizens had failed to notice that a large part of Israel’s economy was now in the hands of 14 families. From being the most egalitarian country in the developed world, Israel had become the second most unequal one. But since the protests began, Jews and Arabs have been discovering solidarity and the welfare state.
One of the most astonishing events of the protests was the unexplained appearance of a full-size guillotine in the middle of Rothschild Boulevard. The next day, photos of the guillotine were plastered across the front pages of Israel’s major newspapers. Most people found it funny; Maariv, however, responded with an editorial demanding that the protest’s leaders condemn those who had put it up and reminding readers of the incitement that had preceded the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. In March, Maariv had been bought by Nochi Dankner, Israel’s biggest tycoon.
The guillotine was in place for just a few hours before the police pulled it down. And yet two months after its removal it has become the most discussed piece of installation art this year (leading me to feature it on the cover of the latest issue of Maayan, the poetry magazine I edit).
On 17 October, Muzi Wertheim, head of Coca-Cola Israel, ex-Mossad agent and owner of Keshet, Israel’s most successful TV network, told Maariv: ‘When I saw the Rothschild guillotine, my neck started to hurt.’ Tel Aviv’s mayor, Ron Huldai, who had the tents removed, still points a finger at the radicals who erected the guillotine at almost every council meeting, sometimes three or four times during the same session. Opposition members say he is obsessed.
For years we’ve joked about the ‘Israelisation’ of the world: anti-Muslim paranoia, the occupation of countries in the name of fighting terror, targeted killings, even global warming, all make the world more Israel-like. Today, as the Occupy Wall Street protests in America and Europe recall the endless lines of tents in Tel Aviv this summer, we’re finally seeing the positive aspect of Israelisation. Jesus and internet chat messaging systems aside, this region has until now mostly exported trouble and wars. It’s good to see a positive contribution at last.
Originally, the guillotine, first presented as part of the 2007 Herzliya Biennale, was meant for a different kind of protest. In an interview with the art magazine New and Bad, the artist who made it, Ariel Kleiner, explained that it had been inspired by the 2006 Lebanon War and was intended to demonstrate that whole societies here live on the gallows. The billionaires and their minions must have been feeling guilty about something.