At twilight, Paris Square in central Jerusalem was already packed late last week with more protesters than at the four previous demonstrations that had taken place there in little more than a week against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A long banner hung on the side of a building, bearing a single Hebrew word that means, “We’ve woken up” — describing the protests, or possibly an entire generation of Israelis.
Hundreds of people sat meditating in lotus position, as if to announce, “This is a peaceful protest.” Their ability to focus was astounding. The square, and the avenue leading toward the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street, was awash in a tsunami of noise. A tall man beat a bass drum he wore on a shoulder brace, while another man, a head shorter, stood on the other side and also flailed it. A woman banged a kitchen pot with a steel spoon. People pounded the metal barricades that the police had dragged in to keep the crowd from Netanyahu’s residence. They blew whistles and plastic horns from under their masks. A man played long riffs on a shofar. Everyone wore masks. The distance between them, though, was two centimeters, not two meters.
At two different places, people used amplifiers to give speeches that were impossible to hear. People chanted, “Capital! Regime! Underworld!” — meaning “Kleptocracy!”
People danced. Their glistening faces were nearly all young. The gray-haired Israeli protesters of the past were absent, perhaps because of novel coronavirus fears. Another generation took their place, joyously angry.
A dozen movements had come with printed signs. “You’re out of touch, we’re sick of you!” read one set. Another group’s said in Hebrew and Arabic, “Health! Livelihood! Hope!” A third set proclaimed, “Annexation never. Democracy now!” A man held a handmade sign declaring, “The Israeli Spring is already here.” A woman danced with a hand-drawn sign above her head, “I have no money, and no rich uncle,” referring to the sudden economic crisis brought on by the pandemic and the government’s feeble response.
Some people carried black flags, symbol of a group that began protesting anti-democratic steps by Netanyahu after the Israeli election in March. Most of all, the air was full of Israeli flags.
The babel of messages reflected the breadth of the ersatz, ever-growing coalition supporting the protests, from the veteran Israeli left to the newly unemployed and the owners of failing restaurants. The unifying meaning of the cacophonous roar was: Netanyahu, we want our country back.
Anti-corruption demonstrations began several years ago, when Netanyahu was under investigation, even before he was indicted in three separate corruption cases. They fed into the three election campaigns of the past year, in which virtually the entire platform of the new centrist opposition party Blue and White and its leader, Benny Gantz, was getting rid of Netanyahu and restoring respect for the rule of law.
The last election, on March 2, gave parties opposed to Netanyahu a narrow majority in parliament — just as the coronavirus struck. Netanyahu’s initial response to the pandemic was semi-competent on the public health front. But he exploited the coronavirus to delay his own arraignment, briefly prevent parliament from functioning and convince Gantz to join an “emergency” government.
Once the threat of losing power faded, Netanyahu acted as if covid-19 had been cured. When the new government was sworn in on May 17, Israel was down to 10 new cases a day. “To help the economy ... to make your lives easier,” Netanyahu announced, pandemic restrictions were drastically loosened.
Netanyahu devoted himself to attacking the legal system and to arranging a personal tax perk. He spent weeks on plans to annex pieces of the West Bank. This sparked another set of protests by anti-occupation activists.
By mid-July, nearly 2,000 Israelis a day were being diagnosed with the virus. The government’s response to the disease and to its economic impact has been inconsistent and chaotic. Public approval of Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic dropped to 38 percent. The sense that the country was crumbling and Netanyahu just didn’t care also became contagious. Economic protests grew. Balfour Street turned into the focus — perhaps most of all because late at night, at the end of each demonstration, the police made arbitrary arrests, spurring more young people to come.
I can’t foretell if the protests will grow or fade, if this indeed the start of an Israeli Spring. Netanyahu is a master at diverting blame. But it is hard to blame the coronavirus on the left or Iran. The strength of the protest movement and its weakness derive from the same source: It amalgamates a dozen causes. It has no leader. It aspires most of all to be rid of Netanyahu. But this is also an aspiration for politics concerned with people’s health and livelihood, rather than annexation and evading court dates.
Toward midnight, by chance, I stood close enough to a police bullhorn to hear orders to disperse. A few moments later, a line of uniformed men and women rushed into the crowd. Arrests began. The next day, more people would come to the siege of Balfour.
Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist.