Hundreds of self-employed small business owners protested Sunday near the Knesset, blocking roads and setting fire to tires, as they demanded that the government help them weather lockdown orders, due to the coronavirus crisis, that have left them unable to earn revenue for several weeks.
Demonstrators also hung mannequins by the neck from scaffolding to represent their dire state of affairs.
Some protesters focused their outrage on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with one distraught interviewee saying on Channel 12 news: “We voted for you. You were chosen as one who knows how to manage wars. In the coronavirus war you’ve failed! …You need to get up and get out!”
The self-employed have long complained of mistreatment by state and tax authorities, who take large amounts of their income, but provide none of the security nets enjoyed by salaried employees.
One said to the cameras: “We demand all the money you’ve taken from us [now that its needed]. We deserve it by right, not as charity!”
Netanyahu was holding deliberations Sunday evening on how to further support self-employed Israelis, Channel 12 reported, with government officials admitting to the network that bureaucracy was causing difficulties in funds set out to support small businesses actually reaching them.
In addition to the capital, independent business owners also held protests in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and the Lower Galilee. Prominent among those protesting were business owners from the beauty and culture industries, as well as private kindergarten operators who have been hard-hit by the lockdown orders that have brought most of Israel’s economy to a standstill.
When Jerusalem protesters moved on from the parliament area to continue their rally outside President Reuven Rivlin’s official residence, also in Jerusalem, representatives were invited inside for impromptu talks with Rivlin. The president vowed to take up their cause with government leaders when he meets with them for updates on the campaign against the virus’s spread.
“We are in an emergency situation which is like war, and we must see the big picture without abandoning anyone,” Rivlin told the representatives.
Rivlin met with two protesters: Lucy (identified only by her first name), a kindergarten teacher from Ramat Gan, and Abir Kara, founder of the “I’m Shulman” Facebook group, which has become a social media rallying point for the self-employed in Israel.
Kara told Rivlin that 60 percent of employees in the country work in small businesses.
“We need support, not just in this crisis, but now more than ever,” Kara said. “We are a forgotten part of society and at this difficult time, it is very important that the Finance Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office work quicker because what is happening could lead to anarchy. We expect our elected representatives to set a personal example and show us how they are also bearing the burden.”
Lucy told Rivlin: “We are not getting anything, not even the grants that were announced we would get. Our requests have been denied and we got nothing. In the meantime, we are just paying out and our debts are mounting.
“All we are asking for is a plan, to know where we are headed,” she said.
Rivlin responded by telling them that “your protest is justified,” also noting that the difficulties faced by the self-employed trying to earn a living, while taking care of their children at home due to the closed education system.
The president told the two that he would raise the subject when he meets with senior state officials, including the health and defense ministers, as well as the army’s Homefront Command chief.
“I promise you that everything you say will be said to the policy-makers,” Rivlin said.
“I understand that the Finance Ministry intends on improving its grants and I understand that you are in a tough situation with the banks and I promise you I will do everything possible to relay your protest,” Rivlin continued. “This is an emergency situation which is like war, and we must see the big picture without abandoning anyone. What you said here will be relayed as you said it. You came to me and said what you had to say and I will deal with it.”
Eliran Bardugo, a veteran events organizer who attended the demonstration in Jerusalem, predicted that the protests will only get more severe as time goes on.
“Today, people started to burn tires and to cause a ruckus, but it will get worse,” he told the Ynet website.
“They simply don’t understand the distress; people will start to go berserk and jump from Azrieli [Center],” he said referring to a landmark skyscraper complex in Tel Aviv.
Early on Sunday, the cabinet approved a slight easing of the restrictions that have brought the economy to an almost total standstill. However, non-essential small businesses, such as those in the culture, fashion, and beauty industries as well as shopping malls, could still face a long wait until they are able to return to full work. Pundits have predicted they will be among the last released from restrictions in any plan to end the lockdown.
Since the government began introducing lockdown restrictions requiring most Israelis to remain at home except for essential needs, the unemployment rate has rocketed from around 4% at the beginning of March to 26.25% by mid-April, with 1,093,465 now jobless.
Earlier this month, the government approved emergency grants for self-employed Israelis whose businesses have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The funds will go to businesses that have seen at least a 25% decline since the start of the crisis in Israel in March, compared to the same period last year.