Anti-Netanyahu Protests Have No Leaders. That's Why They're Getting Stronger

A number of groups have been involved in the demonstrations at the Prime Minister’s Residence, but none of them is actually in charge

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Anti-Netanyahu protesters throng Paris Square near the Prime Minister's Residence, Jerusalem, August 1, 2020
Anti-Netanyahu protesters throng Paris Square near the Prime Minister's Residence, Jerusalem, August 1, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

“Thanks, but no thanks,” is how a number of posts over the weekend began on Facebook pages from groups identified with the recent anti-Netanyahu protests near the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. “Over the past few days, various figures have been trying to appropriate the protest for themselves. We won’t let you. Don’t leave us your funding and don’t leave us your [political] messages. We won’t be a protest 'under the auspices' or a protest 'on behalf of.' Stages and speakers, associations and political organizations, printed signs, politicians with statements on camera – not on our backs…. You have a message? Write it on a piece of cardboard and come.”

That is apparently the closest thing to a spokesperson’s statement that has come out of the wave of protests since they began and, based on conversations with prominent activists, they appear to reflect the spirit of the movement – no hangers-on, no association with establishment organizations and no organized leadership that speaks on behalf of the protesters as a whole.

Protesters arrested at the recent demonstrations have been asked under interrogation to identify the people behind the scenes of the protests, but the police and the demonstrators themselves have had difficulty pointing to leaders or identifying them by name or through photos.

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“The leadership of the people here goes up to the [maximum of] 256 people in a WhatsApp group,” a key activist told Haaretz, referring to the popular cellphone group messaging service. “They drive the protest behind the scenes, but on the ground, they are just more people holding signs. The importance of the protests is in their compartmentalization. There’s no front line.”

Another prominent activist added: “They’re always looking for leaders, but this isn’t a media gimmick. There really is no leadership.”

There are, in fact, three rather organized groups involved in the demonstrations: Ein Matzav (“No Way”), a protest movement that coalesced around retired army Brig. Gen. Amir Haskel; the Hozeh Hadash protest movement, which uses the “Crime Minister” slogan and is made up of long-time protesters against corruption who staged regular demonstrations near Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s home; and the Black Flag movement, which coalesced around individuals from around the country. But none of the groups leads the protest or sets its agenda.

They have also been joined by a number of groups of young people, including Balebatim, which roughly translates as “those in charge,” who are known for their pink bandanas; Hitorerut (“awakening”); Kumi Israel (“arise Israel”); and Helem Tarbuti (“culture shock”).

Some were specifically founded as protest groups or in the run-up to a particular demonstration. From time to time, all of them have joined forces with more established organizations, such as the Movement for Quality Government, which has provided stages and sound systems for several demonstrations.

‘The word “organize” is ridiculous’

In practice, the protest movement appears to run on its own, in keeping with collective wishes, and no one can take credit for what takes shape on the ground. Generally the protests don’t feature organized speeches, and anyone with charisma and a megaphone can lead a march.

“The word ‘organize’ is ridiculous,” one key figure replied when asked who organizes the protests. “People find an event on Facebook, and if it catches on, there’s a demonstration.”

Someone posting a new event might end up with a demonstration with 10,000 people, she added.

Thursday’s demonstration near the Prime Minister’ Residence was not preceded by any Facebook notice, and just hours before, people known to be key activists in the protest movement couldn’t say for sure it if would take place or how it would unfold. In the end, a measure of momentum and a sense that threats of violence needed to be responded to resulted in a turnout of about 1,500 people.

From conversations with protest activists, it appears that most of the organizing takes place on WhatsApp or other messaging platforms, some of which are encrypted. There are groups focused on discussions of general principles, groups that coordinate transportation and others involved in filming the protests. There are also groups dealing with police violence and legal representation, and even some devoted to artists’ protests.

A sign bearing the image of Netanyahu with the caption 'Anarchist,' held by a protester during a dmeonstration against the Israeli prime minister, Jerusalem, August 1, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

The atmosphere is creative and marked by an approach that “if you want to do it, go ahead,” somewhat reminiscent of Midburn, the Israeli version of the Burning Man event in the United States – or a youth movement for grown-ups.

Every afternoon, leadership meets to refine the protest messages, among other places at the outpost set up (to the displeasure of Jerusalem municipal officials) in Jerusalem’s Independence Park. Anyone can attend the meetings.

The activities and transportation, activists say, is from crowdfunding or from small donations provided by passengers on the buses going to and from the demonstrations.

When the need arises, there is still coordination among those involved in the demonstrations, as occurs, for example, when legal representation is necessary for protesters who are arrested. There is a regular group of volunteers available who leave the demonstrations and wait for those detained at the entrance to Jerusalem’s Moriah police station, and then call lawyers to represent them. There is a similar group of 30 volunteers from various protest groups who arrange transportation to the demonstrations.

“The aim is to create a calendar of events” and arrange transportation to them, said one member of this group, who rejected being labeled a leader. “It’s a place for exchanging information about what exists,” and to facilitate the organization of the protests, she said.

At Saturday evening’s protest, one person was put in charge of a logistical situation room that handled arrests as well as the photographers, “so we can tell our story rather than what the police and the media are saying,” as one person described it.

Speaking before the demonstration, he said “the situation room will help connect the many groups, but in the end, everyone will do what they want.” He also expressed confidence that there was no need for leadership of the protests, and in fact, opposed such leadership.

“If someone comes and says: ‘I’m leading this thing,’ they would be out of touch with [the situation] on the ground,” he said, which “belongs to the young people who turn out, and that’s what counts.”

Thousands of protesters calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throng Paris Square, Jerusalem, August 1, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The more long-standing groups have more well-known leadership and spokespeople, but they too realize that the protests are not within their control. Things have evolved, said Crime Minister activist Yishai Hadas.

“At the beginning, the protests were organized, but it hasn’t been like that for a long time,” he said, adding that “the stars aligned” at the protest in front of Prime Minister’s Residence on July 14, which he said gained momentum from what he described as the Jerusalem municipality’s “pogrom” in seeking to dismantle Amir Haskel’s protest encampment there – and due to the economic situation. “Since then, it’s been running and no one has controlled it. It’s a popular protest. There’s coordination among us, but it’s the wisdom of the crowd that decides. We can’t control the agenda.” Hadas said.

Prime Minister Netanyahu posted a distorted photograph on social media of another prominent Crime Minister activist, Gonen Ben-Itzhak, over the past week, in a post in which Netanyahu reported being a target of death threats. Ben-Itzhak said that the picture was an effort to portray him as a protest leader.

“We, the old guard of the of the protests, are no longer relevant. Today the young people are the leaders. I can’t decide what the protest will look like.”

Difficult to suppress

The compartmentalization of the protests, activists say, makes it particularly difficult for the target of their protests, the prime minister. When it’s impossible to put a face on the protests, it’s also difficult to suppress them.

Journalist Shimshon Ofer addressed that issue in his book “Sanverim Batzameret” (“Blinded at the Top”) in connection with protests against Prime Minister Golda Meir’s government after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Ofer wrote of the need to get close to protest leaders and soften them up and to spread rumors to tarnish the reputation of others.

This, according to Ben-Yitzhak, was the approach taken by authorities in the social justice protests of 2011. “They embrace some of them and turn them into Itzik Shmuli,” he said, referring to the 2011 protest leader who is now a cabinet member from the Labor Party. “Some they break physically, as when they broke the arm of Dafni Leef,” another protest leader in 2011. “At the same time, they infiltrate with a whole bunch of collaborators.”

“They have no face to throw garbage at,” one activist involved in the protests at the Prime Minister’s Residence said, “so they’re trying to talk about ‘anarchists,’ about [former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak and [Knesset opposition leader] Yair Lapid,” as instigators of the protests, “but it’s not catching on.”

Beyond that, it has been suggested that the lack of leadership is making a statement. “People say ‘only a strong leader will beat Netanyahu,’ and we see that no leader has managed to bring down this government,” one protester commented. “We are creating the opposite – a bunch of people who don’t draw attention to their strength vis-a-vis the government. That’s consistent with the foundations of this protest – no longer believing leaders – and in protest, there is action based on trust. If I find people who I’m comfortable working with, we will do something. There’s a deep connection here to something we’re protesting against. It’s an approach that is managing to create an alternative.”

In any event, it appears that there is one thing that everyone involved in the protests agrees upon. “Everyone has an agenda on some issue, but everyone comes together over the fact that as long as Bibi is in power, nothing can be resolved,” the spokesman for the Black Flag movement, Roi Neumann, said referring to the prime minister by his nickname.

Another activist seconded that: “The ideological disparities among the groups are not small. But everyone understands that there’s a problem that has to be dealt with,” she says.

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