The scene could easily be a school Independence Day celebration: Hundreds of grandparents, parents and children are gathered on the green lawns at the major intersection dividing the cities of Ra’anana and Kfar Sava, waving large Israeli flags vigorously as cars and trucks drive past, beeping in enthusiastic support.
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But the signs they’re carrying – “Crime minister,” “You’re cut off! We’re fed up!” and “Bibi go home!” – make clear that they’ve assembled in this upper-middle-class area on Saturday evening for a far less festive reason.
Bentzion Arad, 80, a resident of neighboring Sde Warburg and a retired army officer, stands with a megaphone that allows his voice to be heard over the background noise. He decries the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which “every third child in this country is living below the poverty line! What will happen to our future?”
One sign in Arad’s hands reads: “I fought four wars for this country. This one is my fifth!” A second hanging around his neck states: “We’re fighting for the future of our youth!”
To emphasize his point, he turns to Maya and Gali Moskowitz, ages 6 and 8, demonstrating next to him, supervised by their father Raz. “Raise those flags high!” he urges them. “We’re all here doing this for you!”
At over 300 junctions and highway bridges across Israel over the past two months, these scenes have become a weekly ritual. At about 6 P.M. every Shabbat, a crowd begins to gather – the organizers supplying flags, signs and horns for those who haven’t brought their own.
The action peaks about an hour later, some leaving earlier, some arriving later, remaining well after darkness falls. Anyone driving along the highways of Israel at 7 P.M. can see the signs, flags and crowds at overpass after overpass. Chants of “Bribery! Fraud! Breach of trust!” – the charges Netanyahu is facing in a Jerusalem courtroom – can often be heard, sometimes by groups of young children, marching in circles and tooting horns.
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The national and international media focus has been on the mass demonstrations drawing tens of thousands to Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street, Jerusalem. But while these protests draw predominately adults (from students to the middle aged), the intersection and overpass protests are family affairs.
Participants include senior citizens and many parents with children, letting their voices be heard closer to home and in a less crowded place.
The bridge and intersection protests tend to be heavily mask-compliant, with participants worried about COVID-19 infection taking advantage of the open space to remain relatively distant from each other. The extremely cautious purposely stake out the far corners of the intersection.
Arad, who has stood at the Ra’anana intersection every Saturday for the past eight weeks, says that, like most of the protesters at this junction a half-hour northeast of Tel Aviv, he never saw himself as a political activist until now. But the combination of Netanyahu’s corruption trial and what he sees as the mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis brought him into the streets.
“I’m not political at all. And if I am, I’m far from being left-wing. But we’ve never had a prime minister in our history who cared so exclusively for himself and was so busy serving his own interests and not those of the country,” Arad says. “Something has to be done now. Look at the economic damage to the country, the damage to our health. It’s rotten to the core – we have to change it. We have to fight for our future.”
Moskowitz, who works in high-tech like many of the protesters here, says he came to this intersection with his two daughters after he traveled alone and joined the Balfour demonstration four times. The Jerusalem events, he reports, were “too crowded and overwhelming” for his daughters, but he wanted them to join him in speaking out at what he felt was “the lack of values in this government, and their clear inability to handle a crisis – which is hurting us all.”
He vows to continue demonstrating, both locally and in Jerusalem, “until Bibi is replaced.”
Asked what he thinks of the prime minister’s characterization of the protesters as “radical leftists” and his son Yair Netanyahu’s description of them as freakish “aliens,” Moskowitz scoffs derisively. “Every word that comes out of that family’s mouth is a lie, as far as I’m concerned. I put no value in anything he says – or his wife [Sara], or his son. Netanyahu, in my view, has completely lost the public mandate to run the country.”
Headlines lauding Netanyahu’s recent diplomatic accomplishment – the peace deal with the United Arab Emirates – left Moskowitz unimpressed. “Big deal. Half of the high-tech companies here sell to Dubai already,” he says. “I mean, yeah, of course it’s great that the relationship has come out of the closet. But really, let’s be honest, this was all just about getting [Donald] Trump reelected and, for the Arabs, saying that they stopped annexation” of parts of the West Bank.
The Israeli way
Demonstrating at intersections is far from a new phenomenon in Israel, being a hallmark of modern national protest movements: from grassroots protests calling for the Israel Defense Forces’ withdrawal from Lebanon in 1997, to demonstrations against the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, when thousands of settlers were forcibly removed from the Strip.
For a core group of veteran demonstrators, coming to intersections to protest Netanyahu’s alleged corruption isn’t new either: they’ve been there ever since police investigations into the allegations first began in 2016.
Kfar Sava resident Yuval Mishory, 44, who helps organize the group at the Ra’anana intersection each week, was one of the earliest local protesters to call for Netanyahu’s resignati on.
“Three years ago, we were a very small group who would come and demonstrate against corruption. Back then, each week there might be seven to 10 of us coming out on an intermittent basis – mainly when the Netanyahu cases were in the headlines,” he recounts. “But we were seen as the crazy people: no one else cared – and if they did, they didn’t care enough to do anything about it.”
These days, he says, surveying the animated crowd of demonstrators with satisfaction, “it’s a pleasure to see democracy in action. It makes me feel like our message is being carried and it really gives me hope.”
The momentum began in mid-March when a motorcade of protesters flying black flags drove to the Knesset to speak out against antidemocratic measures being taken to fight the coronavirus outbreak and the disbursement of parliament by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, which critics saw as an attack on the checks and balances within Israel’s democratic institutions.
Thwarted by police, organizers of the “black flags” protest vowed to continue demonstrating, “with the aim of putting Israeli democracy back on track.” A month later, despite the coronavirus lockdown, some 2,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to protest what they called the antidemocratic measures passed during the pandemic crisis – fueled by disappointment at the decision of Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz to enter negotiations with Netanyahu to form a unity government.
The protest movement experienced another spike in June when Brig. Gen. (ret.) Amir Haskel – a veteran anti-Netanyahu protester who had been standing at intersections around the country for the past four years – was among those arrested while demonstrating in front of the prime minister’s residence for refusing to disperse.
As summer wore on, and confidence in the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout continued to drop, the Jerusalem protest expanded to Caesarea, with crowds gathering in front of the Netanyahu family’s private residence, and the number of protests at highway bridges and intersections mushroomed. One woman at the Ra’anana junction brags to Haaretz that her extended family “has conquered four different intersections.”
‘Best civics lesson’
Hadar and Ditza Yoresh, both 63 and Kfar Sava residents, say all of their grown children have traveled to Balfour every week to protest, while they play their part locally.
“We all want our country back,” says Hadar, who lost his job a month ago as a result of the economic crisis. “Netanyahu’s corruption came before the coronavirus and the economic crisis happened, but it has made everything worse.”
“I was never any kind of political activist,” Ditza says. “But we’ve been watching this play out for years, and it’s just gotten to be too much. [Netanyahu’s] interest is purely personal; he doesn’t do anything because it benefits the people – only himself.” She dismisses the UAE peace deal as “Bibi and Trump just helping each other save their you-know-whats.”
For the Yarom family, the intersection protest is a three-generations affair. “I dragged them all here,” says Hagit Yarom, 68, pointing to husband Dedi, two sons Boaz and Ofer, daughter-in-law Gili, and her grandchildren Alon, 11, and Tal, 12. For the grandkids, she says, “I think it’s the best civics lesson they can possibly get.”
When asked why she’s attending, Hagit says: “I think a corrupt man can’t be prime minister. Bibi has accomplished many things and he’s very smart – he should be smart enough to know when it’s time to leave.”
Boaz, 43, had been at Balfour the previous week, but decided this was the Shabbat to join his parents and take his children to the intersection. For him, it was only a question of where to protest each week, not whether he should go.
“Between the corruption of the regime getting worse together with these crazy and irrational policy decisions on the coronavirus, we just can’t trust this government to do what’s best for our health or our welfare,” he says. “It has to change.”
His anger, though, is tinged with optimism and a belief that change is indeed on the way.
“This is a temporary situation. It won’t stay like this forever,” he says, pointing to the protesters around him and the loud horns of passersby continuing to beep in support. “I mean, look at what’s going on here! I don’t see how this government can hold on.”
Behind them, a group of children march in circles and toot on bright green plastic horns as they chant “Bribery! Fraud! Breach of trust!” Nearby, Karen Van Haren, 41, who owns a dog kennel in the neighboring moshav of Givat Hen (where she helps the cause by storing the signs and flags for the weekly protest), mans a table selling anti-Netanyahu T-shirts – merchandise that helps fund the protests. In front of her, signs and flags are strewn on the lawn, left by the protesters who are headed home and picked up by new arrivals.
Van Haren says she’d never demonstrated before, but joined the protests at her local intersection when she first learned of them last month.
“I couldn’t sit home anymore,” she says. “Since 2011, I’ve felt like we’ve been heading in the direction of a dictatorship, watching things deteriorate more and more. I hate to use the analogy, but you look at history and think to yourself: Why didn’t the Germans do something in the 1930s? Well, we know there were some people back then who tried, but they didn’t do enough and they did it too late. So that’s why I feel like I need to do this now.”