As anti-Netanyahu Protests Ramp Up, Women Take Charge

They've chosen the path of solidarity, compassion and cooperation, unlike the aggressiveness and competitiveness they say they were taught in Israeli society

Lee Yaron
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Maya Ben Pazi, the Superwoman of the Jerusalem protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 2020.
Maya Ben Pazi, the Superwoman of the Jerusalem protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Lee Yaron

“You have the face of a leftist,” shouted a man demonstrating in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem a week ago. He was addressing Leah Tonic, who was protesting against the prime minister.

When Tonic got closer to the man, he yelled in disgust: “You have hair under your arms!” The young woman kept her cool and responded: “So what? You have hair on your face.”

Her response drew a barrage of violent curses from the man, and before her friends had time to call for the police, Tonic decided to defend herself. She lifted up her skirt, took off her underwear and gave the man a lesson on the wonders of the human body.

That shut the guy up; he turned around and left.

Tonic is a 38-year-old film director living in Tel Aviv. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis she gave up all her work so that she and two other women could help people in need. The three of them distributed food baskets and hot meals to thousands of needy people that the state has neglected.

“The feminine is political too,” she says. “Why is protesting with breasts illegitimate, but it’s legitimate, with those same breasts, to sell perfume or a car for men?” She was referring to the social-work student who caused an uproar last week by baring her breasts on the menorah statue at the Knesset.

What happened to Tonic repeated Saturday when a far-rightist embarked on a long misogynist monologue in front of her.

“You know what the problem with democracy is?” he said. “It’s that it’s impossible to force you to shave the hair under your arms. If it were up to me, there would be a law that you have to; there were camps like that. What’s this disgusting thing?”

Tonic raised her arms so that the activist could see the hair in all its glory. It was too much for him; he retreated.

Women protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem's Paris Square, July 2020.
Women protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem's Paris Square, July 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

These two incidents are just examples of what Haaretz heard this week from the groups leading the current protest wave. And the picture was clear: The power behind the protest is female.

This doesn’t mean just the many female protesters or the naked breasts. It’s a question of values and modus operandi.

This feeling grew stronger at the demonstration Saturday night amid signs with slogans such as “Can a woman replace him?” Others included “The men have failed, let the women run things” and “Israel needs a mother.”

Outside the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street, there were also women giving out flowers to police officers, dancing in tutus in front of the water cannons, and leading meditation and support groups. And of course they were conscientious enough to clean up at the end of every evening.

Many protesters say that this time they’ve chosen the path of solidarity, compassion and cooperation, unlike the aggressiveness and competitiveness they say they were taught in Israeli society.

“It’s very clear that this country is missing a mother. The guiding hand that we need has compassion, and this is the narrative that guides us,” says Emma Magen, part of the Culture Shock protest group that includes hundreds of people from Tel Aviv.

“It was always men who ruled here, a military approach, a dialogue of generals and wars. We’re taking what was considered weak and turning it into our strength; our men are also very thirsty for this.”

The dominance of the female protesters on Balfour Street stands out especially given that the prime minister’s residence is ignoring that women are particularly harmed by the crisis. Since the coronavirus outbreak began in Israel, more women than men have been fired or furloughed. Also, more unpaid housework has been imposed on women, as well as more domestic violence.

Still, it seems Netanyahu is excluding them from much of the decision-making. An exception, Likud legislator Yifat Shasha-Biton who chaired the Knesset coronavirus committee and dared to argue with Netanyahu, now finds herself on the outside.

Women protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, July 2020.
Women protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, July 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Disrupting the old order

Sarai Aharoni of the gender studies program at Ben-Gurion University says it’s no accident that women with hairy underarms and exposed breasts have been turned into symbols of the protest. Aharoni, who studies feminist movements and women’s activism in Israel and around the world, says these are exactly the symbols that threaten the types in the far-right group La Familia.

“Their fear reflects the danger that the female body personifies when he decides not to act based on the patriarchal order,” she says. “Undermining the gender order is the rocking of the entire existing order in the conservative society in the Netanyahu era, and this is the danger they're responding to.”

The women protesting are shattering the image of the good Israeli woman, Aharoni says. “This is a woman who removes the hair from all her body, the hair on her head is straight and dyed, she’s very well groomed, cooks the Sabbath meals, raises children for the army, is traditional and loves Bibi,” she says.

“This is the stereotype because we live in a conservative era in a conservative country. A female body that refuses the patriarchal dictates is a problem for this order, and at that moment the violence against them starts, such as in the form of sexist curses. The goal is to bring them back home to the private space, and for them not to enter the violent public space anymore.”

Next week on Tu B’Av – known as the Jewish holiday of love – many of the female protesters plan a huge event that will include a women’s march to the Knesset. The organizers are calling for a new leadership, “humane, women and men together,” as they put it. They want a new politics based on fraternity and solidarity.

“All the world is marching toward a female leadership, understanding that a good humane government includes women in key positions, and our government does the opposite,” says Yifat Ashkenazi, 39 from Zichron Yaakov, an organizer of the march.

Ashkenazi, a regular participant in the demonstrations, created many of the initiatives this week, including an effort in Jerusalem’s Paris Square in which protesters carried signs questioning why there were no women in the coronavirus cabinet.

“What’s important today for the country is what is masculine, security,” Ashkenazi says. “And we offer welfare, care for all citizens, open communications, cooperation.”

“This protest has a very strong feminine voice,” adds Or-ly Barlev, an independent journalist and activist who broadcasts live from the demonstrations. “But its most powerful characteristic is that it’s harmonious and includes representatives of different groups, different ages and different ethnic groups.”

A protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, July 2020.
A protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, July 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A group of women known as Aerobics of the Revolution carried signs with the messages “prepare your body for the regime” and “whoever works out doesn’t degenerate.” Most of these women have studied at the School of Visual Theater in Jerusalem.

“We wanted to wake people up,” says one of these women, Judy Adini, a 25-year-old from Jerusalem. “We walked down the street and sang and danced. Instead of shouting what we’re against, we showed what we’re for.”

Members of Aerobics of the Revolution are also responsible for many art installations in the square, and one member invented a song: “Hop hop yalla, we’re saving democracy.” The chant, which rhymes in Hebrew, has become the hit of the square.

Superwoman flies in

And these women only speak in the language of “we” – there’s no head of the protest. Instead, the women reiterate that their strength is in their decentralized management, which is made up of different groups that don’t always agree with one another.

The left-wing parties are looking under every bandana for a female protester with the spark of Stav Shaffir, but these demonstrators are ruling out the politics of “who” and are proposing the politics of “what.” Similar to the three women who are leading the opposition to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled that country for 26 years, the answer is a women’s network of compassion, welfare and care.

Meanwhile, as the protest developed, fears arose about the safety of the protesters, both men and women, in part because of the violence in Tel Aviv against the demonstrators. As a result, self-defense initiatives were launched in which tens of thousands of shekels were raised for hiring security firms.

But even before the armed security guards arrived, a few dozen female guards stepped up, forming a group similar to the Wall of Moms in Portland, Oregon.

The "wall of moms" holding a banner in Jerusalem stating "Mom will protect you," July 25, 2020.
The "wall of moms" holding a banner in Jerusalem stating "Mom will protect you," July 25, 2020.Credit: Tzipi Menashe

After all, somebody has to protect the protesters from police violence and the water cannons. “I’ve been protesting for years; I saw the police’s horrible violence on Balfour against the young people and I have to protect them,” says Gali Israel-Tal, 61, from Tel Aviv.

“I took my vest from the car and told my friends: ‘From today we’re guardian moms, we’re a buffer, we’re protectors, everyone is our daughter.’

“In our country, with all its generals, not a single woman is left to connect the citizens. When there’s chaos, everyone wants their mother in the end.”

Israel-Tal and her friends aim to protect women like Maya Ben Pazi, the blond Superwoman who was summoned for questioning Saturday night because she jumped on a moving water cannon.

“I saw that the police were driving in to hurt my friends, so I jumped on it to delay them,” says Ben Pazi, a 22-year-old from Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha near Jerusalem.

“I didn’t plan it, I simply was really nervous and I knew that people were being hurt and I thought it was the right thing to do. I tried to buy a few more seconds for my friends to hide from the water, but the police didn’t stop even though I was hanging on it.”

Now Ben Pazi has been ordered to stay out of Jerusalem for two weeks because of disorderly conduct, but she plans to return. In the meantime, she’s working on rap songs for the protests.

Ben Pazi says she was born in a country with a prime minister for life, “and he doesn’t care, and his wife doesn’t either, whether his people are hurting. We’re the majority you hear?”

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