Do Israelis Still Care About Justice?

“This isn’t everyone,” my son said Saturday as we stood on the steps of the Tel Aviv City Hall, in Rabin Square. “There are more people coming, right?”

It was already 9 p.m., an hour and a half past the official opening of the anti-violence, anti-incitement demonstration. He’s not even 10 yet, but he’s already seen that square full of people demonstrating for less important causes and he’s sure that, as in every good Western, the cavalry is on the way, that tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of citizens horrified by the terrible events that occurred in Israel this week will be thronging the square. How is it possible that fewer people would come to demonstrate against the murder of children and innocent people than to demonstrate against the high cost of housing or the halt to building in the settlements?

The next day, Sunday, the newspapers reported that there were “thousands of demonstrators,” the word “thousands” designed only to conceal the empty spaces in the square. Skilled photo editors produced pictures for the front pages that made the relatively small crowd appear huge. That sad effort to enlarge the size of the demonstration was not a result of hidden political motives, but of a collective sense of shame.

Protesters at Rabin square in Tel Aviv. Credit Baz Ratner/Reuters
Protesters at Rabin square in Tel Aviv. Credit Baz Ratner/Reuters

Because the embarrassing truth is that a demonstration against two hate crimes — the firebombing on Friday of a home in a Palestinian village, which killed an 18-month-old boy, and the stabbing of six marchers on Saturday in Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade, including a 16-year-old girl who later died of her injuries — did not get many people out of their homes, definitely not in this especially hot, humid August. And that truth is not a pleasant one for anybody.

I’m old enough to remember Rabin Square, when it was still called the Kings of Israel Square, full of demonstrators on many occasions. I remember, as a teenager, hundreds of thousands of people railing against the Lebanon War after the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982 and a crowd so full of hope at the demonstration for the peace agreement, after which Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995. I remember it full of men in their knitted skullcaps demonstrating against the disengagement, and the eager young people singing at the demonstration for social justice. But today it’s half-empty. Where are all the people who filled it then?

Have the young men and women who failed miserably in their struggle for social justice given up hope and lost their faith in the ability of this democratic tool to have an impact? Have the people on the left who come to sweat in this square every time a new injustice is perpetrated in our country — not an infrequent occurrence — begun to tire?

And where are those settlers in their skull caps who instantly filled this square when demonstrations were held against the demolition of illegal settlements — but who are now choosing not to demonstrate against the murder of babies? Do they think that, when it comes to Palestinians and the L.G.B.T. community, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” has been erased from their set of stone tablets? That we have some sort of division of labor here: The right demonstrates for the sanctity of the land, and anything related to murder of innocents who are not Jewish or straight falls completely outside their jurisdiction?

And what about all those who don’t really take an interest in politics, but simply live here and try to survive — do they also think that this demonstration has nothing at all to do with their lives?

It seems that we’ve all given up on the belief that we can change something here — the fact is that even the few who have come to the demonstration look tired. Many of them are sitting on the rim of the fountain and the steps of City Hall. Only a few have come to the demonstration on Saturday night, and even they don’t have the strength to stand. The speakers finished their speeches and the crowd began to disperse, but my son refused to leave.

To his mind, every person who believes that the murder of children and the stabbing of innocent people are wrong should come out to demonstrate against those acts. As he sees it, there should be millions of such people in our country, millions. If people haven’t arrived yet, he insists, it’s only because something’s holding them up. Maybe their kid can’t find his shoes or the babysitter is late. It’s only a matter of time until they come, that’s clear.

“Let’s wait a little longer,” he said, placing his small hand in mine. “Another tiny little bit, just until they come.” The only answer I managed to mumble: It’s late already and it might take a long time, a really long time, for all the people who should be in the square to make their way here.

Etgar Keret is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Seven Good Years. This essay was translated by Sondra Silverston from the Hebrew.

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