Thousands attend weekly anti-government, hostage protests with Purim themes

Speakers at both sets of rallies liken Gaza captives to Purim story heroine; 10 arrested at demo in Tel Aviv where participants blocked roads, lit bonfires outside minister’s home

An anti-government demonstrator wearing a costume of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a prison jumpsuit   protests outside the IDF's Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
An anti-government demonstrator wearing a costume of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a prison jumpsuit protests outside the IDF's Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Thousands gathered in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for weekly Saturday night protests against the government and for a hostage deal, with speakers at both types of demonstrations drawing from the themes of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which began on Saturday evening.

This week’s rallies took place as talks between Israel and Hamas for a temporary truce and hostage release were kicked into gear in Doha, with speakers at both protests urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to close a deal as soon as possible.

Rabbi David Stav, the chief rabbi of the central city of Shoham and the head of the Tzohar rabbinical organization, likened the 134 Israeli captives in Gaza to the Purim story’s Queen Esther in a sermon he delivered at the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which has been rebranded as Hostages Square.

Esther, the heroine of the Book of Esther, which recounts the story behind the holiday, “was a queen, but really she was a hostage in the palace of [Persia’s King] Ahasuerus,” Stav said.

Esther, who was Jewish, had told her uncle to gather all the Jews after hearing that the king’s adviser Haman was plotting to kill the Jews of Persia, Stav recalled. “She also asks him to pray and fast for her.”

The story of Purim, which ends with the Jews’ salvation and the demise of their persecutors, “shows that this is holiday capable of miracles –- if we pray and if we unite,” said Stav.

Rabbis David Stav, left, and Yoni Lavih read the Book of Esther in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2024. (Courtesy of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Nadav Rudaeff, the son of 61-year-old Lior Rudaeff, whom Hamas terrorists abducted to Gaza from Nir Yitzhak on October 7, recalled how his father loved to celebrate Purim in their hometown.

“Purim was my favorite holiday to celebrate in the kibbutz. But not this year,” Rudaeff said.

He, too, referenced Esther. “Just as rescuing the Jewish people was in Esther’s hands, rescuing the hostages now is in our hands, and the hands of our leadership.”

At the Jerusalem hostage protest near the Prime Minister’s Residence, Hostages and Missing Families Forum organizer Tom Barkai said, “No holiday will ever be a real holiday without the return of all the hostages.”

Jon Goldberg-Polin, the father of Hersh Goldberg-Polin who was kidnapped from the Supernova music festival by Hamas on October 7, said that despite the fact that this Purim holiday will be the most challenging of his life, “there is nothing more fitting than Purim to describe the critical moment we are in.”

Hostages and Missing Families Forum activist Tom Barkai at a protest for a hostage deal in Jerusalem on March 23, 2024. (Charlie Summers/The Times of Israel)

“I stand here with hope that we will also be able to flip the dice that were cast, to change their outcome and to see our beloved hostages returned to their homes,” he said. Purim — which is celebrated in Jerusalem a day after the rest of the country — means “lots” or “dice” in Hebrew.

Releasing ‘human scum’ in exchange for the hostages

The Tel Aviv anti-government protest took place outside the Kirya military headquarters, where demonstrators called for early elections.

Many attendees wore shirts calling for the immediate dismissal of Netanyahu and the release of hostages, as well as shirts identified with various protest groups from the anti-judicial overhaul demonstrations that occurred weekly prior to October 7.

The first speaker to take the stage was Yael Engel Lichi, aunt of Ofir Engel, who was held hostage by Hamas for 54 days before being released during a temporary truce in late November.

Engel Lichi called for immediate elections and blasted the government for refusing to take responsibility for the failures surrounding Hamas’s October 7 massacre in which her nephew was kidnapped.

Opher Havakuk, who served in Gaza as a reserve doctor during the war, spoke next.

IDF reserves doctor Ophir Havakuk speaks at an anti-government rally in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2024. (Iddo Schejter)

“As a doctor, I’m required to take responsibility for my actions and to be decisive,” he said. “I mention this because these qualities are missing from our government.”

Ami Dror, a high-tech entrepreneur and one of the leaders of the “Elections Now” movement, lauded the protesters before him as “heroes who went to war with a government of cowards.”

At the hostage protests a few blocks away, Izhar Shay, a former cabinet minister whose son Yaron was killed fighting Hamas terrorists on October 7, said he supports freeing his child’s killers and their accomplices if it helps secure the release of hostages in Gaza.

“Capital punishment would be a relatively light sentence” for Hamas terrorists responsible for the onslaught on October 7, he said. “But if we need to return the human scum who murdered you… we will give backing to the ministers and the prime minister to make a painful decision.”

Clashes with police

In the wake of the clashes between police and protesters at last week’s demonstrations, cops in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem intensified their crowd control measures in hopes of preventing ralliers from blocking traffic.

Participants from neighboring hostage and anti-government protests in Tel Aviv blocked off the northern section of Begin Street after their respective demonstrations finished, lighting bonfires in the middle of the road.

Protesters light a bonfire on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway, March 23, 2024. (Iddo Schejter)

Calls against the government were echoed across the protesting crowds as the bonfires were set up. Attendees pleaded for the US to pressure the Netanyahu government to pursue a hostage deal, crying out in English “SOS USA” and “Help, help, we need your help.”

Demonstrators also chanted against Netanyahu and his wife Sara, yelling “Bibi, Sara, thanks for all the s**t,” a reference to a complaint that the freed hostages were ungrateful reportedly made by the premier’s spouse in a recent meeting.

When Fire and Rescue Services arrived at the demonstration, protesters pulled on the hoses to prevent them from extinguishing the bonfires, while the police attempted to forcibly disperse them.

Despite the police barricades installed along Ayalon Highway, a group of demonstrators made a break for the major road and succeeded only briefly in lighting a few bonfires before being dispersed.

Protesters made a couple more attempts to block the Ayalon before returning to Sapir Street and blocking it, lighting a bonfire along the way. The commanding police officer then declared the protest illegal and called on its participants to return south and for cops to use force to remove them from the street.

A group split off and made its way to MK Gideon Sa’ar’s apartment block, where they called on the lawmaker to ensure that far-right ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich do not gain entry into the war cabinet.

Protesters gather outside the home of MK Gideon Sa’ar in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2024. (Iddo Schejter)

The protesters also rallied outside the home of Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf, from Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party, calling for the release of the hostages and lighting a bonfire before being dispersed by the police.

Tel Aviv police said they arrested 10 protesters over the course of the evening.

After the protests in Jerusalem, a group of roughly a dozen people attempted to block the road outside Netanyahu’s official residence. The group included Mai Alvini-Peri, the grandson of Hamas-held hostage Haim Peri.

Protesters block the road outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official Jerusalem residence on March 23, 2024. (Charlie Summers/The Times of Israel)

Although last Saturday night, attempts to block the road descended into clashes between police and protesters, the civil disobedience this week quickly fizzled out with only a few willing to partake in stifling traffic.

Sitting in the middle of the street, protesters chanted through megaphones that there is no routine without a return of the hostages and demanded their release.

Police ordered the demonstrators to return to the sidewalks, and then dispersed them without much resistance within a couple of minutes.

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