Hundreds of protesters seeking the ouster of Benjamin Netanyahu gathered Thursday afternoon and into the night outside the prime minister’s official home in what they called a “siege on Balfour,” the Jerusalem street on which the residence is located. Armed with Israeli flags, signs decrying the prime minister’s alleged corruption and a lot of spirit, the protesters spent the night calling for Bibi to quit and dreaming of a different government.
Thursday’s protest, which continued Friday, was only the latest in a series of mass anti-Netanyahu gatherings across Israel. These events have been going on for several years now, led by a core group of older protesters. The difference of late is the age and number. The financial crisis and soaring unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic seem to have provided the impetus for younger people to join their elders on the streets.
Pini Vardy, 67, from Kibbutz Kfar Haruv, has been involved for over three years. “We have no choice,” he said Thursday. “If we want a country for our children and for us, we need to do something, and the decision of the group that started here is that we are here until he goes. It might take years, but we are here until he goes.”
But Vardy feels that something has changed over the past week. He points to a bigger protest at the same location on Tuesday, in which thousands of young people participated, as the beginning of a trend. “I feel like I can sit down… We will continue, of course, but most of the work, the young people are doing.”
“There is an amazing awakening from the young people,” agreed Mirav Ben-Uziel, a 43-year-old kindergarten teacher. ”If up until now we 40+ and up led the protests, today I see the 20-year-olds. They are full of energy. They bring something else.”
Indeed, Thursday’s protest featured some unusual displays reflecting the new demographic, including a group meditation and a fire performance.
Ben-Uziel acknowledged that the youth “also bring rage.” This, she said empathetically, however, “is because they have been profoundly hurt.”
Israel’s leadership “took away their horizon, everything… You get to a certain age and you start to dream, and now they have been told no more dreams. Don’t dream! I understand their rage and I enjoy seeing how they bring it out creatively and in art into this space… I admire them.”
Ben-Uziel, who was dressed in pink pajamas and accompanied by a giant teddy bear, was planning to sleep out on the street as part of the protest. But while Vardy has been out here in a sleeping bag an average of four nights a week, this was Ben-Uziel’s first time. “The teddy bear and I came to sleep here tonight,” she said. “I told myself, it’s not a bad idea to take this very painful place and turn it into something that is also funny, a little soothing.”
She said she has the pajama onesies from ‘opposite day’ at the kindergarten and thinks they are appropriate for the occasion. “Look at how the country is being run; this government feels a little bit like a kindergarten.”
Gili Rahat, 28, said she has become more of an activist since the coronavirus pandemic began. She came to Tuesday’s rally and has been participating in other recent events, including protests against Netanyahu’s plans for unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank and over the killing of Iyad Halak, an autistic man shot dead in East Jerusalem last month. (Police said they believed Halak was holding a gun and was a terrorist; he was holding his cellphone.)
“A wave has started that we need to continue,” said Rahat. Israel, she said, is led by “a person that I don’t trust, who put together a government that I don’t trust… We need to do something.”
Alma Beck, 32, and Daniella Kantor, 26, are part of an initiative to organize food packages for people in need during the pandemic. They said they came to protest because they are getting increasing calls from people who need food, and brought a sign that reads “15,000 boxes of food is not bullshit.”
“We provided that food, and you didn’t,” said Beck, referring to Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who declared earlier this month in a TV interview that the notion some Israelis have nothing to eat was “bullshit”; Hanegbi subsequently apologized. “It is time for a new leader and new leadership and a new government,” she said.
The sentiment was echoed by Nitzan Kopelman, 41, who said his independent business was destroyed by COVID-19, taking him from “an average income to zero income.” Dressed in red (“the color of revolution”), he said that “as a patriotic Zionist citizen who pays taxes, serves in the reserves and loves his country, I have a feeling that I am lost, and I am alone. The government doesn’t support me.”
Kopelman, who said the only government aid he has received to date is NIS 700 (some $200), noted that “this protest may look unfocused” since it is “carrying in it a lot of messages. But the main message is that what was can no longer be. A government that does not serve its citizens… should not survive.”
His wife has been involved in the protests for a while, he said, but now he has made it “the mission of my life to leave my children the country that they deserve.”
Many of the participants expressed indignation that media coverage of the protests, especially Tuesday’s, has focused on violence and the clashes with the police, with the protesters often presented as anarchists.
“It is very easy to stereotype it when you are on the outside and only taking violent pictures,” said Ben-Uziel. “But I was here on Tuesday and it was one of the most beautiful protests that I have been at.”
Although the clashes were widely documented, she insisted that “there was no violence,” only “a really beautiful rage.”
The Israel Police needs to go through training to learn to better contain and understand the young people, she said. “They are not anarchists. We are not,” said Ben-Uziel, who added that her three dogs have not been getting enough attention lately because she has been so busy with protests, and her marathon running has suffered too. She will go back to all that when the country goes back to what it used to be, she said. “I am here because it hurts me.”