Culture Connection Summer 2020
Something was bound to give. A disenfranchised population, raging unemployment, inconsistent and often incompetent responses to Covid-19, and an indicted Prime Minister – it was bound to hit the streets sooner or later. Here is a bit more detail on why the protesters say they are protesting:
The majority of voters had voted for parties that were dead set against Benjamin Netanyahu becoming Prime Minister once more. The leader of the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, had built the party with the sole aim of replacing Netanyahu. The leader of the Labor Party had even shaved off his famous mustache so we could all read his lips when he told us he would never serve under a Netanyahu government. Yet somehow Netanyahu had become Prime Minister, with the naked upper lip of Amir Peretz nevertheless joining the government, and Benny Gantz destroying the Blue and White/Yesh Atid alliance and breaking many hearts by also joining Netanyahu’s government. The majority who had already lost faith in Netanyahu found themselves with no faith in those who had presented themselves as his alternative.
Ever since the first Coronavirus lockdown back in March, Israel’s unemployment levels have been dangerously high. One in every five adults has been out of work for nearly half a year. Israel’s aid packages for individuals and businesses hit by Covid-19 have been half those of similarly developed countries. Israel has been projected to spend some 5.5% of GDP, far behind the Europeans, and even half the 12.5% being spent by the United States. Add to this the newly released soldiers, whose de rigueur trip to the Far East has been blocked, searching without success for jobs at home. This leaves a significant proportion of Israel’s adult population in dire financial straits, with a great deal of time on their hands to do things like go to demonstrations…
Unfortunately, Israel’s initial swift lockdown in March, was not utilized efficiently. While Israel’s low infection and even lower death rates from Covid-19 were praised across the world, it turns out that little preparation was being made for the moment the country opened up again. The time that had been bought in “flattening the curve” was, by most accounts, wasted. Testing, tracing, treatment, had not been developed ready for the next wave, and policies for opening up the country were woefully unprepared. Cynicism rose as graveyards were closed on Yom HaZikaron, but the IKEA furniture store was allowed to open. Further critique emerged as it was clear hundreds if not thousands of potentially infected people were allowed to land at Ben Gurion with no limitations and no organized quarantining procedures. The government seemed busy with tax breaks for the Prime Minister, internecine political quarrels, and worst of all – interest-based haggling over which sector should open up next. The Corona committee in the Knesset has overruled the government, the government has overruled the Medical officer they appointed to drive Corona policy. Faith has been lost and frustration has grown.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his trial
The trial of Benjamin Netanyahu has finally been set for January 2021. After endless delays, the process has begun. He has been indicted in three cases for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, with yet another even more incendiary charge of treason perhaps coming down the line. Netanyahu has not taken these charges lying down. When his initial strategy of outright denial (“Nothing will come of it, because there is nothing behind it”) was undermined when the charges were published in full, he has moved to a two-pronged approach. On the one hand he and his supporters attack the motives and competence of the judicial system, and on the other hand Netanyahu is searching for a political-legal way to avoid trial.
If he were to find himself with a clear majority on his side, he could make significant changes to police and prosecution personnel, and could pass legislation shifting the balance of power between the Supreme Court and the Knesset. For example, were the Supreme Court to rule that, due to the charges (or even, later, convictions) against him, Netanyahu cannot be Prime Minister – the Knesset might vote to over-rule the Supreme Court. But this can only happen if the make-up of the Knesset were to change in his favor. And this can only happen if there are new elections. Thus despite having committed in writing to a two-year National Budget, as part of his coalition agreement with Benny Gantz, Netanyahu has been looking to get out of this commitment. The only way the government can fall, and automatically move to a fourth election, is if it does not pass a budget. [At time of writing, the latest deadline has been postponed.] Netanyahu and his supporters argue that it would be irresponsible to pass a two-year budget in this Covid period of uncertainty.
There are without doubt those who argue that the charges against Netanyahu are indeed trumped-up. There are also those who have argued for years that the power relationship between the Supreme Court and the Knesset is in need of recalibration. What seems difficult to deny is that the current Prime Minister is looking avoid trial, even at the cost of the country’s internal stability. (Can you imagine a fourth election? Now? With over 20% unemployment, Covid still raging, and no actual budget?)
All of which has led to people taking to the streets and to the bridges.
Not only Balfour
While the protests are beginning to gain the name associated with the location of the main protest – close to the Prime Minister’s official residence in Balfour Street, Jerusalem – there are protests going on throughout the country. Every Saturday night there are also protests near Mr. Netanyahu’s private home in Caesarea, hoping to disturb him as he travels to Jerusalem after a weekend in Caesarea. There are also weekly protests on bridges and junctions throughout the country. At latest count there are 310 “Black Flag” protests every week at junctions and bridges. On Saturday evenings, after Shabbat is out, there are enormous numbers of cars on the roads, making their way home after visits and vacations. Exposure is very high.
The Protests’ weakness is their artistic strength
There are two main critiques of the protests. There are those who question their motives, and those who question their execution. Those who question the motivation will call this a protest of those who have always been anti-Bibi. The protesters are left-wingers who can no longer win anything at the ballot-box and so have taken to the streets. They represent the last cry of the aging white elite of the First Israel. The protesters are spreading Covid, they are anarchists, and they are, according to the Prime Minister’s son, “Aliens” (in the science fiction sense).
The other critique is tactical: What are the protests about? What are they trying to achieve? A protest that is unfocused, does not have a unifying aim, will never transform its numbers into power. Many protesters only wish for Netanyahu to stand trial. Others complain that the entire government is out of touch. Some don’t call for a trial, but for Netanyahu to resign, while some still call for an end to the occupation of the Palestinians, while still others are disillusioned Likud voters. On the one hand the protests are a broad tent, but on the other hand, the tent is flimsy.
Out, Dybbuk, Out!
The fun is in how the protesters themselves are engaged in a form of creative contest to define what unites them and might inspire others to join them. Costumes, stickers, songs, poems, signs – endless expressions are proliferating, to the joy of a cultural collector like me.
The Ju-Jitsu thang
Protesters have had a lot of fun re-appropriating insults thrown at them. Call us “aliens”? Yes, that’s us…
Yossi Zabari the Ju-Jitsu Prophet
Yossi Zabari is a well-known spoken word poet, with radical tendencies. Whenever there is an anti-establishment protest going on, he’ll be on stage, performing his latest powerplay of words. A few weeks ago, one of the Prime Minister’s tweets gave him inspiration, and he stood in among the protesters at Paris Square in Jerusalem to channel his inner prophet.
One of PM’s well-loved Biblical quotations is from the Book of Exodus. Although having been Prime Minister for over a decade, he sees himself as the victim of unprecedented, almost mythical attacks. Hence, he has been known to tweet and Instagram: “But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew.” Just as Pharaoh and the Egyptians oppressed the Hebrews but the Hebrews grew stronger, so Bibi Netanyahu is attacked in the media but becomes ever stronger. The use of the phrase normally emerges when Netanyahu or the Likud are looking good in the polls.
Yossi Zabari latches on to this line, and this image of the People of Israel being oppressed by a cruel tyrant, and brings it home to the protesters themselves. The protesters at Balfour have indeed been arrested far more than, say, violent settler protesters – 30 were arrested at Balfour in one night, while 1 settler has been arrested after two months of violent resistance.
And when they do arrest them
May they multiply and grow
Almost like an ancient Biblical curse, Zabari takes the epithets hurled at the protesters by politicians and public figures, and seeks to spin them around. The protesters have indeed been called anarchists, vandals, riffraff, Ashkenazis (Zabari is of proud Yemenite stock!), and First Israel:
And when they are called anarchists
And foolish vandals
May they multiply and grow and rise up in their multitudes
In late July a woman climbed on to a statue of a menorah, and exposed her chest during the protests. As she explained the following morning in the media, she felt that 20 days without any social workers was more important than a woman showing her chest, but was happy if her exposure might bring about a discourse about what is important. The Speaker of the Knesset condemned her debasement of the symbols of the nation, while Zabari takes a different tack:
And when they are accused of debasing the symbols…
May another breast be pulled out in pride
Reaching his crescendo, Zabari returns to the Book of Exodus, using the language Pharaoh has adopted to describe his fear of the Hebrews (Exodus 1:7)
May they multiply and grow
Until they become many
And multiply, and wax exceeding mighty;
And the land is filled with them.
HaDag Nachash show their colors
The situation is such that even HaDag Nachash, well known for their praise for various left of center causes, have rushed out a single with footage from the protests. Most remarkable is that for the first time ever, they name specific politicians. The band has famously supported (and performed at) the 2011 Social Justice protests, and railed directly against politicians in at least two of their songs (Suits, Israeli Parties), but never named anyone. For many right-leaning voters, this has allowed them to continue to enjoy HaDag’s music without feeling too politically alienated. But this time, the key players are named in the chorus:
So come on everyone
Let’s break the cycle of –
The most common symbol of the Protests
In looking for something that unites the protesters, from all the different aims and signs and slogans, one need look no further than the Israeli flag. In both a rebuke to those who call them traitors, and an expression of what they are fighting for, there are more Israeli flags at the Balfour Protests than at a Salute to Israel Parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City…