Protesters in Jerusalem march to Balfour, the home of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. All photos: Or Kaplan
Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, left- and right-wing citizens alike have descended upon Jerusalem every weekend for the past 12 weeks to protest corruption in governmentEvery Saturday this summer, thousands of young people come from all over Israel in chartered buses and shared car rides to the Chords Bridge, the entrance to Jerusalem. From there, they march in unison to Balfour, the home of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or “Bibi”, for an evening of colourful, boisterous rallies calling for Netanyahu’s resignation.
On the streets on a Saturday evening, gay pride flags wave alongside religious signs from the Torah and the Bible, as well as hand-drawn slogans. People are whistling, shouting in speakers, painting, building impromptu structures. Once, an enormous pirate ship streamed along with the crowd. Another time, groups of people spread out silently in meditation circles. Outside Jerusalem, in cities all over Israel, people have taken over bridges, highways and intersections to stand in solidarity with protestors on Saturday evenings.While demonstrations are not uncommon in Israel, they are often politically divided in nature, or led by peace activists or religious leaders. This is the first time so many historically disparate groups have stood together, shoulder-to-shoulder, shouting the same rallying cry: “Bibi, step down! Bibi, go home!”
Netanyahu was indicted in November of 2019 on charges of breach of trust, fraud and bribery, including exchanging favours and gifts for positive press coverage in Israeli media. He is now facing trial, and critics believe a prime minister facing trial is unfit to lead the country.This summer, coronavirus got out of hand in Israel: the country of 8.9 million people has one of the highest number of cases in the world, proportional to the population. Israel has plunged into a recession following the epidemic, with unemployment rate at 24 percent in August, according to i24news. Protestors say Netanyahu is preoccupied with avoiding charges and that his political manoeuvres to avoid trial have diminished his ability to manage the coronavirus crisis and the failing economy.
Demands for Netanyahu’s resignation started years ago, when a group of elders under the name “crime minister” held small protests to ask the state attorney to bring the Prime Minister to trial. They succeeded, but the political pressure was limited to this older generation of Israelis. Now, with coronavirus, thousands of younger people who were once politically apathetic have found themselves unemployed and struggling. With that, they have gained a new political consciousness.
Oren Fischer, an artist from Tel Aviv who has been demonstrating against the government for the past two years through his own artistic projects, tells VICE News that “when Balfour erupted, for me, it was a dream. I waited for people to show up for a long time and I did a lot of actions but people were still sleeping,”He adds: “It’s from above they make us work really, really hard and have no time for resistance… you feel like you struggle but you still manage to live so you don’t have time to resist.”This summer, Balfour has become a place for all sorts of groups to come and voice their concerns as one. Protesters have a multitude of reasons to be enraged. All of them want a new government making the rules.After an autistic Palestinian youth who was not resisting and posted no danger was shot by Israeli police in East Jerusalem, some saw parallels to the police violence against Black people in the United States, and demanded an end to police brutality and who leads the police force. In Israel, the marches focus on Palestinian Israelis and Ethiopians, who have been targets of police aggression. Others march for the protection of women after a 16-year-old Israeli was gang-raped in Eilat. Freelancers march for tax relief and to demand more financial help from the government.
Artists have also come to Jerusalem to use the city as canvas, expressing their displeasure at Netanyahu’s reign in creative, nonviolent ways. Dancers, performers and artists arrive in costume, carrying beautiful signs.Oren Fischer creates messages and drawings with his own unique font. “I am obsessed and I am healing in this place,” he says. “I am active in bringing my talents to the protests. Balfour is in a way like Hyde Park, you go there and it is really pluralistic and liberal, it is a really beautiful place to be right now because you want to know there is a place for everyone to say what they wish for.”On another wall of the Old City, a wall fraught with the history of separation between Jerusalemites, a group of artists screened the message: “Bring down the walls between Jews and Arabs – we are the hope.”Liraz Sharbaf, a 39-year-old hydrotherapist in Tel Aviv, attends the protests in Jerusalem every week, riding with friends or finding ride-shares through WhatsApp groups. She alleges that she was hit with a water cannon at her first demonstration and had a bruise under her eye for a month. Afterwards, Sharbaf and her friends brought flowers to give to police officers as a peace offering. “We are not anarchists, we do not want to create vandalism or anarchy, we just want to create what is in our minds and hearts,” says Sharbaf. The protests are especially colourful and artistic, according to Sharbaf, because “there are a lot of creative minds in Israel and these people don’t have a lot of chances to take out this creativity right now”.
The initial protests attracted a crowd of predominantly left-wing, secular Jews. A month ago, Karen Brunswasser, an activist in Jerusalem, attended a demonstration and worries that in a city where very few are secular, “we alone cannot get anything done here if we do it on our own… the problem is too much of the demonstration is the same kind of person”.“When I go and see an overwhelmingly secular protest, I shake my head because I don’t think that’s how you change things here anymore,” Brunswasser says.In the past two weeks, the demographic of protesters has started to shift. Religious ultra-orthodox men in knitted yarmulkes have joined the march to demand the right to travel to Uman, Ukraine, for their annual pilgrimage.
According to Fischer, Arab leaders such as Ayman Ouda have also been calling for Arab people to join the protests. Fischer admits there are “not a lot of Arabs”, but he hopes that will change. “It’s on progress to bring them on board because they’re really suffering from the situation, and the Israeli Arabs are really important,” he says.The protests have become a catch-all for the concerns across the population. Reports indicated that some 10,000 people took part in the demonstrations, but organisers were determined to prove that the media made the demonstrations look smaller than they were. Recently, organisers have started to give out paper bracelets to every protester entering Balfour, to count their numbers. They have counted up to 40,000 paper bracelets given out at the Prime Minister’s residence in one evening.
The demonstrators are eager to seize on this historic opportunity for different factions of Israeli society, which have been pitted against each other by Netanhayu’s regime, to now stand united against him.“Left and right are illusion,” says Sharbaf. “Everybody speaks from where he is hurting.”
Daniel Palanker Chas, a veteran demonstrator who is an active member of the Pink Bandanas and the Jerusalem Heart Pirates, two activist groups in Jerusalem, reiterated that the current moment is an important shift towards unity in Israel’s fractured history. “We are in a long process of starting to heal the Israeli society,” he says. “Bibi divided us in a very bad way to hate each other, race-wise, politically. I actually love the fact that we have Bibi in front of us, because he’s such a symbol of all bad together… now we can actually get many different groups together… he’s a good enemy.”