At anti-Netanyahu protests, no clear leaders — and that’s how activists like it

Mass rallies have brought together a jumble of groups of varying generations. Often disagreeing about methods and ideology, all coalesce around one central tenet: the PM must go

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem, on July 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi)
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem, on July 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi)

When journalist and activist Orly Bar-Lev was invited by Public Security Minister Amir Ohana to talks last week as a representative of protesters calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she declined.

From the central stage at Paris Square by the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem last Thursday, she told a crowd of anti-Netanyahu demonstrators that the protests roiling the country have “no leaders that will decide for the people.”

Thousands have been attending protests against Netanyahu near the residence on Balfour Street over the past month, enraged by what they say is a detached and corrupt government. Demonstrators have blocked traffic in downtown Jerusalem by the prime minister’s house for hours on end. A major demonstration was under way as of this writing, with some 2,000 gathered on Balfour Street, and police out in force.

Authorities have deployed water cannons to disperse protesters refusing to leave by 11 p.m., the police-mandated deadline, and have detained over one hundred on suspicion of disturbing public order. A number of anti-Netanyahu protesters across the country were also reportedly attacked by far-right extremists, with five sent to Ichilov Hospital for treatment on Tuesday night after a protest at Ohana’s house in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.

Water cannon fire hits demonstrators protesting against Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on July 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

One might expect protesters to desire a central leadership to coordinate them in the face of rising tensions. But the protests’ organizers — most of whom reject the very label — embrace what they call the decentralized nature of the movement.

“No one is the leader, the organizer, the one who’s responsible for telling everyone what to do. That’s how it ought to remain in my view… everyone is leading together,” 35-year-old Mor Elyakim told The Times of Israel this week. Elyakim, an environmental activist, identifies with the younger generation of protesters at the demonstrations.

The lack of a unified leadership is a key difference between the current anti-Netanyahu protests and the social justice protests which swept the country in 2011, but which many believe failed to achieve their goals of greater equality. This movement’s leadership is much harder to identify, demonstrators say.

Protesters at an anti-government rally in Tel Aviv, July 28, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The failure of 2011 was due to their inexperience. They attempted to create a single leadership, which promptly embarked on egotistical internal struggles,” said 65-year-old Avi Ofer, a longtime activist involved in the anti-Netanyahu protests.

Most protesters who spoke to The Times of Israel echoed Elyakim and Ofer. According to 70-year-old Eli Brook, the Jerusalem protests are “more like a network, a web. There is no central organization, central command; there are many different groups.”

Various groups, varying ages

Sixteen groups are listed as co-hosting the main Facebook event for this Saturday’s anti-Netanyahu protests, which are expected to draw several thousand participants. There are numerous spinoffs on social media as well, with smaller organizations sending out invitations to their members to head to Balfour Street on Saturday night.

Despite the “no formal organization” claims, however, there are clearly some people leading the way.

The demonstrators can be broadly said to belong to one of two coalitions: older, more veteran demonstrators who have been part of the so-called “Old Folks’ Protest” and younger newcomers. The newcomers belong to a constellation of groups, some formed specifically to call for Netanyahu’s resignation, while others are more established organizations dating back to the 2011 social protests.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana delivers a speech at a Likud election rally in Or Yehuda on February 13, 2020 (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The three largest groups of veteran protesters, the movement’s backbone — are Ein Matzav (No Way), Crime Minister and the Black Flags. Any observer at the Balfour Street protests can see demonstrators wearing the ubiquitous Crime Minister face-masks or black Ein Matzav t-shirts, while black flags fluttered over 250 bridges across the country last Saturday.

The boundaries between the groups are not always clear cut. Many veteran protesters say they are part of all three groups, or none, and some young people are members of the three “veteran” groups as well.

Sixty-seven-year-old former brigadier general Amir Haskel, a well-known face of the veterans, says the groups work together effectively because they share the same goal.

“The common denominator for all of us is the understanding that the era of Netanyahu is over, and Netanyahu must go home,” Haskel said.

Nonetheless, Haskel acknowledged that each group had its “own style.”

Haskel’s Ein Matzav group practices what he calls a quiet, determined protest.

Israeli activist and former air force general Amir Haskel holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on June 28, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Ein Matzav began as a gathering of lone protesters who demonstrated, often by themselves, for years — despite their small numbers. The group has gained traction since Haskel’s well-publicized arrest last month played a central role in igniting the current larger round of protests.

Crime Minister is widely seen as more aggressive and more willing to conduct civil disobedience. It was founded during protests in Petah Tikva against the attorney general, prior to Netanyahu’s indictment, as activists accused Avichai Mandelblit of dragging his feet to protect the prime minister.

Haim Shadmi, a Crime Minister activist who has been arrested five times this past year for civil disobedience, said that parts of the Israeli public are too easily subdued.

“There is a certain moment when the talk about law is less relevant,” Shadmi said in an interview in mid-July. “In the reality of an anarchic government, government violence, you cannot expect that people will only act pleasantly.”

Eli Brook acknowledged that Crime Minister’s tactics were divisive, but said they were a necessary part of the coalition. “They are very strong,” Brook said. “Not everybody likes it. But in a protest like this and in a struggle like this, you need it.”

One area of disagreement revolves around the degree to which coordination with the police is necessary. Without a central leadership on call to handle problems with police, tensions can rise higher and be harder to defuse.

Anti-Netanyahu activist Gonen Ben Yitzhak is arrested by police during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on July 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There is no need for us to get permits from the police,” said Gonen Ben Yitzhak, a former Shin Bet officer and lawyer who is active in Crime Minister. “The High Court has ruled on this matter. Nor do we have any incentive to sign [such permits].”

“Crime Minister… has decided that there’s no need to work with the police. My opinion is somewhat different,” Haskel said, adding that he is in constant communication with the police to try to ensure that events run smoothly.

“If there’s a protest in a place with 1,000 or 2,000 people, in a place like Balfour where they simply can’t fit, I inform the police… I take responsibility, if God forbid something happens, if someone gets trampled or if someone throws something [at cops]. I want the police to show up, to appropriately fence off the protest, and I can conduct the protest accordingly,” Haskel said.

Such concerns have become more acute in recent days, following alleged attacks by far-right extremists against demonstrators. Avi Ofer and Amir Haskel said they were working with the police to try to ensure that demonstrators stayed safe.

Shay Sekler, a demonstrator who said he was attacked during protests against Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, in Tel Aviv, July 28, 2020 (Facebook screenshot)

The young and the restless

As the Balfour demonstrations have swelled to the thousands, the last month has seen the arrival of a new type of activist into the mix: young protesters, bringing with them new causes and a new, more intense kind of protest.

“From the moment the young people joined, the equation changed,” Ofer said.

Young demonstrators are mostly the ones resisting police calls to disperse late at night, and sometimes being dragged away by police. The first protest with large youth turnout on July 14 saw clashes between protesters and police, as well as the use of water cannons and mounted police to disperse demonstrators in Jerusalem’s city center.

“I’m happy that the young people have joined us, but I urge them to act with restraint,” Haskel said on Twitter the following day.

Ranging from unemployed students to small groups of hippies to young activists from the joint Arab-Jewish party Hadash (which is part of the Knesset’s Joint List), younger demonstrators often contrast sharply with veterans. Clusters of pro-LGBT activists wearing shirts identifying them with the Jerusalem Open House mingle with members of the HaShomer HaTzair socialist youth group in their distinctive blue uniforms.

There are not merely tactical differences between protesters, however, but deep ideological divisions as well. Many protesters with whom The Times of Israel spoke identified as being the center-left, rather than the left, and often dismissed questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as irrelevant to their decision to take to the streets.

At the same time, both hard-left activists and even a few disappointed right-wingers have joined the protests — making for a wide tent covering everyone from ex-senior Air Force officer Haskel to those raising signs calling for a free Palestine.

Social release

Beyond the deafening noise, the water cannons and the police, there is a softer side to the protests. Demonstrators have been holding meditation circles, camp out at nearby Independence Park, and organize Shabbat services on Fridays attended mostly by young families.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem on July 30, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel)

“We dress up, we dance, we sing, we meditate,” said 27-year-old Jerusalem resident Roei Kleitman, describing millennials’ style of protest. He also joked that the protests were millennials’ “summer camp.”

In a long, hard summer defined by unemployment and the raging coronavirus pandemic, the protests also provide some social release, with demonstrators holding public lectures and discussions at Independence Park. Whether the youth will stay once summer ends remains an open question.

Some attempts by legacy organizations to channel the newfound energy of the protests have seemed to fail. Last Thursday, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, itself formed during a protest wave in the 1990s, set up a central stage at Paris Square for the first time since the beginning of the demonstrations.

As speakers tried to get the crowds’ attention and whip up chants, some demonstrators milled about the stage — but far more noise concentrated on Balfour Street with the younger activists.

Bridging the gaps

While many veteran protesters praise the newcomers, Brook admits that working with the youth is “a very big challenge.”

Some of the new protesters are well known social activists, Brook said, but the older demonstrators simply don’t know many of the other newcomers yet.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem on July 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“It is a very big challenge because you need to give them space. They are impatient and they don’t have the stamina and the longevity,” he said.

He said some such activists “may have a political ambition… they may have psychological problems… we don’t know them.”

Brook said older protesters do not want to stop the young people from coming to protest, only to guide them.

“[The young protesters] have a very big ego, most of them obviously because [they are] young people, so you need to work with all these things and you don’t want to stop it, and you don’t want to monitor it, you just want to allow it to happen in the right direction,” Brook said.

The two sides appear to be slowly learning how to collaborate. After a Wednesday Tisha B’Av event at Balfour, Haskel crossed the street to Independence Park to speak to a group of young demonstrators holding their own, separate event. (Police later that day evacuated a tent camp there.)

Jerusalem police seen evacuating demonstrators who set up a protest tent camp against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Independence Park, Jerusalem, July 29, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I believe in a stubborn, silent protest… which becomes a thunderous silence,” Haskel told the younger demonstrators stretched out on the grass.

It is doubtful that the plethora of groups flooding into the protest space all agree with that type of attitude.

Attempts by some protesters to quiet others, in order to comply with noise restrictions, have so far been unsuccessful.

Despite the challenges, Avi Ofer says the union between old and young demonstrators is key to the success of the movement.

“This protest will succeed where the 2011 protest failed,” he insisted, citing the existence of a core group of very experienced older activists with a clear vision.

It may not have a formal, declared leadership, but, said Ofer, “In this protest, we know where we are going.”

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