It’s difficult to predict where the anti-government protest movement in Israel is headed and how long it will last. But it’s safe to say what one of its lasting images will be.
The photograph in question was taken this past Saturday night, though not at the big weekly protest held outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. It was shot at a quiet, relatively deserted junction in the northern Galilee.
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The five protesters featured aren’t carrying signs or wearing T-shirts with the usual angry slogans about government corruption and ineptitude. Rather, they’re modeling long, flowing dresses made of colorfully patterned fabrics.
Since the protest movement began, thousands of Israelis have been gathering on bridges around the country every Saturday evening waving black flags. Two of the demonstrators in the photo are holding flags, but not the usual kind: Their banners, like their coronavirus-mandated face masks, match the fabric of their garments.
Their loose-fitting, long-sleeved dresses call to mind kimonos, or perhaps even galabias – except for one feature: The torso areas are cut out, exposing very pregnant bellies. Each protruding stomach has a few words written on it in Hebrew. Although they say somewhat different things, they share a common theme: These unborn children deserve better.
“She deserves change,” reads the belly on the far right. “She deserves to imagine,” reads the one next to her. “She deserves hope,” reads the one in the center. “She deserves to be safe” reads the one second from the left. “He deserves a [female] leader,” reads the one on the far left.
Four of these five protesters, if it isn’t already obvious, are expecting baby girls. With one exception, this is a first child for each of them.
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Maya Ben David, eight months pregnant and on the far right, came up with the idea. But as she points out, it was a team effort, with each participant, all of them friends of hers, playing a role in the final execution.
“We spent a lot of time discussing what exactly to write and what kind of message we wanted to be putting out,” says Ben David, 29, an artist who lives with her partner in the village of Klil, known as a hippy haven of sorts, in northern Israel.
In contrast to the mood in the country these days, she says it was important to all the participants that their message be one of love.
“Considering what’s going on in our bodies right now, we wanted to avoid any bad energy and any message that conveyed anger and hate,” she says. “If you want to put it in terms of hormones, you could say that our goal was to create a vibe of oxytocin rather than adrenaline.”
Ben David, who comes from a family she describes as “activists and artists,” is a graduate of the School of Visual Theater in Jerusalem, her hometown. In her art, she says, she tries to fuse “beauty and nature with political and social activism.”
The idea for her most recent project took root a few weeks ago when she attended the weekly Saturday night protest at Kabri Junction, named after a nearby kibbutz. She was wearing a cropped tank top and had these words written on her bare belly: “She deserves more.”
“Someone took a photo of me, and it went viral,” she says. “It was just crazy. I knew that this was something powerful, but I guess I didn’t understand just how powerful. I decided then and there that I was going to develop the concept into a work of art.”
Of the 25 pregnant women she approached, four agreed to be part of her project. Three of the women – Perach Boker (second from the right in the photo), Tzlil Hanuka (center) and Tzvia Nahmani Cohen (second from the left) – also live in Klil.
Boker, 28, is studying design and speech; Hanuka, 32, is a movement therapist; and Nahman Cohen, 38, is a mother of three and animal caregiver. Danielle Gallia Kind (far left) is from Tel Aviv and also an artist.
Two photographers – Yasmin Steinmetz and Hila Israeli, both 29 – were also recruited for the project. Ben David and Steinmetz have a long history of collaboration.
In designing the dresses worn by her pregnant models, Ben David drew inspiration from various world cultures. “These are dresses that cover up most of the body, but at the same time, expose a part that is not usually seen,” she says.
“The idea here is that we are all women, and it doesn’t matter what culture we come from because every one of us enters the world in the same way. So instead of hiding this part of the body, let’s reveal it and give it the respect it deserves.”
The five pregnant women gathered at about 6:30 P.M. at Kabri Junction, where they stood in protest for about an hour. For most of the time, they were on their own.
“We didn’t look like typical protesters, but many of the cars passing by, even if they didn’t have a chance to read what was written on our bellies, they kind of figured out what we were up to,” Ben David says.
Many drivers honked their horns in solidarity. Less-friendly types rolled down their windows and shouted a slogan popular among Netanyahu supporters: “Only Bibi.”
“One woman actually stopped and parked her car,” Ben David recalls. “She came out with tears in her eyes and told us that we had given her hope. It was very moving.”
The photograph has been shared by thousands online, and not only in Israel. “I’m really thrilled that it inspires hope in people and speaks to them,” Ben David says.
She says she isn’t sure if the group will be out again in full costume next time, “but we are already thinking about our next project.”