Today is Tisha B’Av, Judaism’s day of tragedies — the 25-hour fast that commemorates an accumulated history of disaster, covering everything from the destruction of both Temples to the greenlighting of the Final Solution. Talmudic wisdom ascribes the Temples’ destruction and exile of the Jews to “sinat hinam,” baseless hatred. This year, the timing of the fast veritably cries out to Israelis — the regathered exiles — to internalize the lessons of our history, remember what unites us in this extraordinary modern Jewish state, and step back from the brink of further catastrophe.
A week ago, just outside the official residence of the prime minister, a group of far-right extremists, said to be affiliated with a notorious racist gang of soccer hooligans, aggressively confronted some of a vast crowd of protesters urging the resignation of Benjamin Netanyahu. One of the “La Familia” members reportedly told one of the anti-Netanyahu demonstrators, “It’s a shame Hitler didn’t finish the job.” The knot of hooligans were also filmed singing the praises of Yigal Amir, the far-right extremist who shot dead prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the end of a peace rally in Tel Aviv a quarter century ago.
On Friday, amid further, far smaller anti-Netanyahu protests at numerous locations nationwide, a group of demonstrators was pepper-sprayed by a passing motorist, and a protester was stabbed and lightly wounded in the neck.
On Tuesday night, at the tail end of demonstrations directed against Netanyahu, and specifically his public security minister, Amir Ohana, protesters were again attacked by alleged far-right extremists, with two victims reportedly hospitalized with stab wounds in the back, and one man, Shay Sekler, left bleeding from his forehead after he was attacked.
The anti-Netanyahu demonstrations are swelling week by week. Last Saturday night, the police estimated over 5,000 turned out near Netanyahu’s Balfour Street residence to urge that he quit — because of his alleged corruption, his government’s failure to provide timely and sufficient help as Israel’s economy collapses amid the pandemic, and a multitude of other complaints. There were anti-occupation activists; protesters alleging that an autistic East Jerusalem man, Iyad Halak, was killed in cold blood in an incident two months ago; environmental campaigners, and more. The true number in and around Paris Square may well have been 10,000 or more. Along with growing genuine anger, the demonstrations represent the only permitted mass gatherings in these COVID-blighted times, and thus a unique forum for simply getting together.
Most of the demonstrators, on Saturday night and at previous rallies, disperse as required at or around 11 p.m. The police have been using water cannons against those who do not willingly leave. That tactic, which is being appealed to the High Court, along with the use of mounted cops and the arrests of alleged rabble-rousers, has not satisfied Ohana. He has been recorded urging the cops to put an end “to this anarchy” and last week reportedly asked Israel’s interim police chief whether the protests would be handled differently were the demonstrators Ethiopians, Arabs or ultra-Orthodox Jews — communities against whose protests over the years the police have often been accused of utilizing excessive force.
In other words, the police minister appeared to be suggesting that a bit more police brutality was the order of the day.
Ohana has also been warning that the rising tide of protest “will end in bloodshed.” On Wednesday, opposition leader Yair Lapid charged that Netanyahu and “his messengers” — a presumed reference to Ohana among others — already have blood on their hands following the previous night’s violence.
Ensuring the democratic right to protest against the elected leadership presents complexities at any time — including taking into account such banal factors as the right to a reasonable night’s sleep for the folks who live nearby. (London police notoriously turned off Paul McCartney’s unprecedented guest appearance at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Hyde Park in 2012 because it went on past the 10:30 p.m. noise curfew; “When did England become a police state?” fumed the Boss’s guitarist Steve Van Zandt.)
The right to protest is more complicated still in the midst of a hugely contagious pandemic. It requires sensitive policing, an effective dialogue with demonstration organizers, and responsible ministerial behavior — all of which are proving to be in short supply.
The assassination of Rabin left Israeli democracy teetering. Our society is still riven with bitter divides, and the abiding blight of the pandemic — more infuriating now, perhaps, because we allowed ourselves to believe we had it beat — is exacerbating them. The protests are growing, and so too the incidents of violence.
President Reuven Rivlin sounded the alarm on Wednesday, invoking both the Rabin assassination and the 1983 killing of left-wing protester Emil Grunzweig by a grenade thrown by a right-wing activist at a Peace Now rally in Jerusalem. “Given the violent developments over the last day,” Rivlin warned, “the murder of a demonstrator who goes to protest in the State of Israel, or the murder of an Israeli prime minister, are not imaginary scenarios. Woe betide our democracy if brother takes up arms against brother.”
The Hebrew calendar now prescribes us a day to consider our history, a day of introspection, a day to calm ourselves. We are not helplessly destined to add further tragedy to the litany of Jewish disasters. But that tragedy is right around the corner unless we change course.
An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.