JERUSALEM — Just when Israeli democracy most needed saviors, they materialized.
No one saw where they came from. They just appeared amid the thousands of horn-blowing, pot-banging protesters in Jerusalem: seven caped superheroes in matching pink spandex, striking Superman poses and going through coordinated dance moves as they advanced toward the protest’s focal point at the official residence of the man known here as the “crime minister.” One superhero with a megaphone led her comrades in a chant about “hope” and “democracy,” and everyone cheered, but I couldn’t hear much more because of the guy next to me and his accordion.
The protests growing since early summer outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on Balfour Street, and smaller demonstrations across the country, have given Israel’s battered moderate camp an outlet for its political energies and grievances — an outlet outside Parliament, that is, where its representatives are hapless, impotent and divided. The trigger was the government’s failure to deal with the coronavirus crisis. But if you’re on the streets, you know there’s a lot more going on.
The main protests at Balfour Street happen Saturday nights, but there’s also one on Friday afternoons, before Jerusalem shuts down for the Sabbath. When I arrived last Friday, an anti-corruption crusader was riling up a few thousand people with a list of grievances: an economy controlled by monopolies and tycoons, ludicrous housing prices, packed classrooms, a leadership so out of touch that the wealthy Mr. Netanyahu just voted himself a personal tax break.
The speaker compared the compliant watchdogs of the Israeli government to the horse appointed consul by the mad emperor Caligula. He quoted a Nigerian writer. Things were getting a bit obscure, but the tone was the point, not the content, and the crowd was on board. A key feature of these protests is the signs that people make at home, and my view was momentarily obscured by a woman with a green sock affixed to a piece of cardboard. The sign read, “My sock would do a better job than Bibi — and it’s clean.”
Here and there came whiffs of pot. There was only one guy in a Che Guevara shirt. Right-wing thugs have threatened violence, but the crowd was relaxed and the police seemed bored. There were a few signs about the occupation of the West Bank and some about the banks. The Israeli left finds it hard to concentrate. But it’s creative, and has a good sense of humor. At a recent protest someone had a sign saying, “I’m single.” Another sign read, “Sign.”
On Saturday nights, however, the scene is different than on the easygoing Fridays. There isn’t a podium or any kind of program, and it’s a pure energy surge of a kind that hasn’t been seen on Israeli streets in years. Thousands of people — 15,000 or so this past weekend, depending on who is counting — just stand and shout themselves hoarse for hours, beginning before sundown and ending when the last demonstrators are forcibly removed by the police after midnight (but only after cleaning up the area with brooms and garbage bags they bring from home).
This week’s theme was provided by one of the most avid critics of the protests, a recognizable type in the human landscape of 2020 — the frustrated young man spending too much time on the internet and tweeting his addled worldview from his parents’ basement. Yair Netanyahu is unique mainly for the location of the basement and for his father’s job, which is prime minister.
After tweeting the private addresses of some of the protest leaders (drawing a court injunction) and a picture of a protester peeing on a car owned by one of the prime minister’s neighbors (which turned out to be fake), he told a radio interviewer last week that he likes to show his father photos of the protesting “aliens,” as he called them, for the elder Mr. Netanyahu’s amusement. The implication was that the protesters were weirdos from outer space and not mainstream Israelis who, unlike the prime minister’s son, have real jobs, or did until the economy fell apart.
As a result, this week’s protests included a sizable contingent in green U.F.O. masks and antenna head bands, including a few with a sign that said, “We Come in Peace.” At the center of the throng, three men in green alien suits gyrated on a fountain. The protests are driven by real political and economic fury across many sectors of society, but there’s no question that much of what makes them fun is specifically a result of all of our theater people being at loose ends.
Eli Ben-Ezra, an employee of a high-tech company from the suburban settlement of Maale Adumim, outside Jerusalem, held a sign reading, “I’m an alien.” He was with his son Yair, 12, whose sign read, “I’m a little alien.”
“I’m fed up with the damage that Netanyahu is doing to our democracy, the way he’s undermining the gatekeepers of the legal system, the lack of unity and statesmanlike behavior, the way he pits us against each other,” Mr. Ben-Ezra said. He resents being dismissed as an “alien” or an “anarchist” when he, like the vast majority of the protesters, is a patriotic Israeli citizen anxious about the country’s future and his own. People from settlements aren’t a common sight at the protests, though there was one man with a skullcap and a sign reading, “The right is fed up with Bibi too,” which is probably more hopeful than true.
Despite the heady eruption of liberal energy on the street, in Parliament, where it counts, the center-left is toothless. The Labor Party never recovered from the waves of Arab violence that shattered the peace dreams sold to the Israeli public in the 1990s. Centrist alternatives have come and gone. The centrist party Blue and White, led by the ex-general Benny Gantz, split apart this spring at the peak of the coronavirus panic when Mr. Gantz took half of the party and joined Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, which he’d promised not to do.
Outmaneuvered at every turn and revealed as a political naïf, the general’s popularity has since tanked. Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party may have just a quarter of the vote, but right now it’s the only substantial political movement in Israel. No vuvuzelas or dancing aliens can change that.
Anyone who’s been around here for a long time can’t help but be struck by the echoes of the last real wave of demonstrations against Mr. Netanyahu, in the summer of 2011. Those were set off by growing social inequality, and enabled by the new tools of Facebook and Twitter. I remember being at the same intersection near Balfour Street with tens of thousands of others, sure that something was going to change. It was the same summer as the Arab Spring uprisings, and the world felt fluid. We all know how the Arab Spring turned out — all, apparently, except one guy this weekend whose upbeat sign proclaimed, “The Israeli Spring Has Arrived!”
Mr. Netanyahu weathered those protests and delivered a decade of economic growth, relative safety and cynical, hopeless politics. One of the few accomplishments of those demonstrations was to elevate two charismatic young organizers into Parliament as a new generation of liberal leaders. One of them left after a few terms. The second is now a minister in Mr. Netanyahu’s government.
Matti Friedman (@MattiFriedman) is a contributing Opinion writer and the author, most recently, of “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.”
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