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Occupy Wall Street Spreads to Over 50 Cities, Reflecting Israel’s Social Justice Protests and Arab Spring Roots

Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily.

by David Harris-Gershon

High school students in Tel Aviv's tent encampment discuss social issues after the largest protest in Israel's history on September 3, 2011.

As the initial phase of Israel's social justice protest movement climaxed this summer - with tent encampments dotting nearly every municipality in the country and massive street rallies shaking Israel's major cities - many progressives in America looked on from the sidelines in awe, cheering Israel's youth-driven movement.

In a diverse array of online venues, people marveled at the protesters' success and identified closely with many of their central demands - bolstering social welfare programs, strengthening workers' rights and reforming those capitalist systems that have served to widen the gaps between the rich and the poor. However, while cheering from the sidelines, many in this country who longed for such a movement to sweep through the United States also expressed feelings of envy. Time and again, the following refrains echoed on news sites, blogs and in social media: it can't happen here. America is too big. The geography makes a replication impossible.

It was a refrain voiced by those who viewed New York City and Washington, D.C. as the necessary focal points for mass protests, and who thus seemed frustrated by the prohibitive burden of long-distance travel. And to be fair, with the September 17 Occupy Wall Street initiative scheduled to take place in New York City, such frustrations had practical weight, for who among us can travel from Denver to New York to engage in prolonged protests?

That said, it was also a refrain I found perplexing as I watched Israelis - inspired by what they had seen in Tunisia and Egypt - set up tent encampments in their own cities, in their own neighborhoods, on their own streets, knowing that the same type of activism could happen here in America, knowing that geography was not the stumbling block preventing us from creating our own populist movement.

Protesters hold an assembly in New York City as the movement grows. Photo by MinistryOfTruth at Daily Kos.

Today, what we saw in Israel is beginning to happen here, for less than two weeks after 700 protesters converged on New York City, heeding Adbusters'call for Americans to occupy Wall Street, the movement has organically branched off into over 50 additional states and cities across America as local citizens take up the banner of this rapidly-growing movement in the places where they live. While the central protest in New York is slowly growing, the expansion of this protest movement across the U.S. is anything but slow. There's now an Occupy Boston; anOccupy L.A.; an Occupy Chicago. There's an Occupy Arkansas; an Occupy Pittsburgh; an Occupy Nashville.

And this list of locations is not growing by the day. It's growing by the hour.

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A single Israeli, Daphni Leef, moves into the street on July 14 to protest unaffordable housing in Tel Aviv.

On July 14, it was the act of a single Israeli - Daphni Leef - which led to a massive movement that continues to reverberate and shake Israel's social fabric and political direction. On that day, Leef set up camp on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv as an act of civil disobedience, as a way to protest Israel's unsustainable housing costs as well as the growing divide between Israel's rich and poor. And on that day, in a single location, Leef - accompanied by friends who responded to a Facebook call to join her - unwittingly launched a national movement that saw thousands of Israelis create dozens of Tahrir-style encampments across the country and inspired nearly 5 percent of the population to march in the largest protest in Israel's history.

Sleep became the first act of civil disobedience that led to a national awakening.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, open and largely undefined in its beginning (and still defining itself though democratic means), was very clear from the start that this protest initiative would begin with a single strategic concept: occupation. Forming encampments would be an essential component of the planned movement. And this word -occupation - didn't arise out of thin air. It was borrowed directly from the Arab Spring and from Israel. It was borrowed directly from Tahrir Square and from Rothschild Boulevard.

Sleep would become a revolutionary act. (This is why organizers spent so much time researching the legal ways in which to occupy, or sleep, in public spaces in New York City as an act of protest, something which the courts have deemed is legal.)

Just as in Israel, this initial act that was launched in a single location, on the streets of New York, is now expanding outward. Sure, the numbers of those participating are small at this stage, but such is the case in almost any grassroots-led movement. And just as in Israel - where organized labor threw its full weight behind the protesters - labor unions and various other organizations in America, including the Teamsters, are already beginning to stand up and express their support for what is occurring.

After taking down many of their tent encampments to enter a phase of more direct political engagement, Israel's protest leaders have now pledged to return to the streets when the Knesset reconvenes on October 29, frustrated by the government's response to their demands.

When they do, America's streets may be reverberating with the sounds of drums, of chants, of citizens in unison singing, "This is how democracy works" and screaming, "We are the 99 percent."

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