‘I am exercising my rights as a citizen(of Israel) and they are treating me like the enemy’ (Plus61J Media 23th of July, 2020)

“I also want to build a better society, and that has to include caring, compassion, equality and peace with the Palestinians.”

The demonstrations have become a near-nightly event. The commotion of the kazoos that the demonstrators have brought with them, along with drums and tambourines and rhythmic calls for Netanyahu’s resignation, is intensely loud.

Tomer Folman, 27,  a student says this is only his second demonstration, but that now he will be returning every evening. He points to his black T-shirt, on which “Crime Minister” has been printed in large black and red letters. He taunts the drone, “take my picture. Go ahead. We won’t let Bibi turn our country in to a police state. This is our country, not his.”

For close to four years, groups of older adults aged 50-75, have been protesting against Netanyahu and his governments’ policies throughout the country. Their demonstrations and vigils have been small, lacking in energy, and largely ignored by the media.  They have complained bitterly about the absence of younger generations.

But over the past month, and especially over the past two weeks, Israeli millennials, long-criticised by their parents as apathetic, self-absorbed, and unengaged, have been showing up in increasingly large numbers to the demonstrations that have become a near-daily occurrence in Israel.

Many of them acknowledge that these are the first demonstrations they have attended. They come for a variety of reasons, including their worries about their futures due to the economic crisis, anger at what they see as the government’s mishandling of the pandemic, and concern for Israel’s social and political future.

They share the  conviction that Netanyahu, who has been in power for over a decade and is now on trial for charges including breach of trust, bribery and fraud, has corrupted public life; they are convinced  that these demonstrations are a legitimate, even necessary, civil and democratic expression.

They have brought with them new energy and diversity. If their appearances and slogans are a guide, their number include religious and non-religious, left wingers and even former right-wingers who voted for the Likud. They connect through social media, and their demonstrations are noisier and angrier than that of their parents.

They bring their own signs, more direct and in-your-face than their parents’ generation, and many also bring flowers and guitars. They have even coined a new Hebrew verb, ‘l’balfar’, which means to demonstrate on Balfour Street (where the prime minister’s official residence is located).

Until March, when Israel went into lockdown, Noa Shimshon, 34, owned her own small tourist business, located outside of Jerusalem.  “There are no tourists anymore,” she says, “and I haven’t made an agura (cent) in five months.  And I don’t see any tourists coming in the future, either.  But the government doesn’t care. I have no hope, and this government isn’t giving us any.

“Most of my friends,” Shimshon continues, “own small businesses or work in the gig economy. And we are all hurting. Some of us have families and we are worried if we will be able to feed them.  Some of my friends – even at our age – have had to move back into their parents’ homes because they can’t pay the rent or the mortgage.

“And this government doesn’t care.  It doesn’t relate to people like me.  Not only aren’t they handling the illness, they can’t deal with its effects, either.”

Most of my friends own small businesses or work in the gig economy. And we are all hurting. And this government doesn’t care. It doesn’t relate to people like me. 

Boaz Sperger, 26, from Tel Aviv, says that, until recently, he “had no interest in politics. But things have changed because of COVID-19. If not for the virus, I would be somewhere in the Far East on my post-army trip, decompressing after having served for many years in the army as a combat officer. I wouldn’t be caring about anything except myself.

“But in lockdown, I’ve had time to think. I don’t like having a prime minister who is on trial for corruption. I don’t like living in a country where politicians are corrupt and only think about themselves and not the public. I don’t like the values they are pushing – no compassion, no justice, no equality.  That’s not the country I served in the army for, and I’m going to do everything I can to change it.”

A source in the Likud, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledges to Plus61J Media that the Right has not been able to mobilise its supporters to create its own momentum on the streets and confront these demonstrations, as they had in the past.

The protesters, on the other hand, are very ready to confront authority, and the vigils in Jerusalem and the demonstrations throughout the country have taken on a set, albeit unofficial and unarticulated, format.

In the first few hours, the demonstrations are loud and filled with intense rage, but they are mostly “respectable”, as the police maintain a tight periphery around the event.  After a few hours, the demonstrators who have come with their children and the “grandparents” – as some of the young people affectionately or patronisingly refer to the older demonstrators – leave. The younger demonstrators remain, often sitting themselves down on the sidewalks for sing-a-longs.

At some point, the police intervene and the events quickly deteriorate into vicious, and increasingly violent, struggles, with the police bringing in armed ‘special ops’ units armed with live ammunition, horsemen, and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Dozens have been arrested every evening.

Tomer Folman, the student, accuses the police of acting in the interests of the prime minister and the government, and notes that Major General Doron Yadid, who is widely considered to be a candidate for the position of police chief, called the demonstrators “leftists”.

“The police suddenly come crashing into the crowd, bringing in too much force,” Folman says. “They start by randomly giving out tickets for not wearing their masks [which are mandatory in public spaces], and if someone argues with them, they use that as an excuse to attack us with water cannons and horses. I am exercising my rights as a citizen and they are treating me like the enemy. People are getting hurt.”

The police insist that they are using reasonable levels of force to break up the demonstrations. Speaking on I24 TV, police spokesman Superintendent Micky Rosenfeld says the police only intervene when the demonstrators, who “are given the right to demonstrate” break the permitted boundaries and the time-frame.

But Netta Lankman, 35, who owns a small computer business in Jerusalem, says, “why the hell are the police coming in with water cannons and special forces? The police are responsible for the violence.

“I never used to come to demonstrations,” he continues, “but I am disgusted with the way this country is going and with this corrupt government that doesn’t care at all for the public. All Bibi cares about is not going to jail, and he will manipulate anything and anyone to stay in power. And the police are doing his bidding.

I never used to come to demonstrations but I am disgusted with the way this country is going and with this corrupt government that doesn’t care at all for the public. All Bibi cares about is not going to jail.

“But if Netanyahu and his henchmen think this will deter us – they should think again.  The police are just proving that this country is going in the wrong direction, and we won’t stop until Bibi resigns.”

Yishai Hadas, 63, one of the “grandfather demonstrators,” as he refers to himself, has been part of the opposition to Netanyahu for years and is widely recognised as one of the leaders of this movement. He tells Plus61JMedia that while he is proud of this generation and welcomes them, they have no leadership and no strategic plan about how to achieve their goals.

“After years of demonstrating, several groups have developed, and some have organised formally and raised small amounts of money to pay for stickers and T-shirts. The ‘Crime Minister’ movement is one such group. With most of the young people, we have a solid relationship.

“I feel that we laid the foundation for their demonstrations, and this is how it should be. But some of the younger people, like young people everywhere, think they have to reinvent the wheel and don’t want to learn from our experience.”

Yishai says  he has been demonstrating for years “to change the direction that this country is going in”. He has children, he says, who left Israel because they did not feel that they wanted to live here and raise their children here. Although  not wanting to identify them, he acknowledges that they live in Australia. “I don’t know if they will ever come home, back to Israel.  But perhaps my grandchildren will. I want this to be a country we can all be proud of.”

Merav Ferziger, 24, a permaculturist, tells Plus61JMedia she lives in the north, a four-hour drive away.  “I feel I have to come,” she says, adding, somewhat proudly, that she was arrested in one of the earlier demonstrations.

Some of my friends started coming to these demonstrations because they wanted the government to help them out financially. But these demonstrations aren’t about money anymore.

“People in my generation have come to understand that we don’t have a voice in this so-called democratic system. Some of my friends started coming to these demonstrations,” she continues, “because they wanted the government to help them out financially. But these demonstrations aren’t about money anymore.

“Even if the government came up with some reasonable plan – throwing a lollipop at us and telling us to go home and behave won’t work. The whole system is rotten, and they can’t buy us out.”

Last year, she says  she was travelling around the world, and lived several months in Byron Bay on the north coast of NSW. “Life is so much easier there. But I was born here. I love this place. When our grandparents and parents came to this country, they believed they were making ‘aliyah’ – that means, going up, to build a better place.

“This is an amazing story, and I am proud to be part of it. I also want to build a better society, and that has to include caring, compassion, equality and peace with the Palestinians.

“Bibi doesn’t understand it, but these demonstrations are an expression of hope,” she concludes.

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

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Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

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