The Noise, the Smell, the Right to Protest: Protests Divide Netanyahu's Neighbors

Mass anti-government protests have upended the lives of the people living in the affluent Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, yet many neighbors still support them

Nir Hasson
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The site of the protest encampment after it was cleared out, on Jerusalem's Balfour Street, July 13, 2020.
The site of the protest encampment after it was cleared out, on Jerusalem's Balfour Street, July 13, 2020.Credit: Yaniv Swissa
Nir Hasson

“Villa Leah” is one of the most famous British Mandate period buildings in Jerusalem. It is 84 years old, located on Ben Maimon Street opposite the entrance to Balfour Street, where the prime minister's official residence is, and during its entire history the elite of Jerusalem have lived there. The building was originally constructed by Dr. Nasib Abcarius Bey, a wealthy Arab lawyer, for his Jewish wife, Leah Tennenbaum. The words “Villa Leah” are etched in stone in English at the entrance.

Since then, occupants have included exiled Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, ministers Eliezer Kaplan and Yosef Burg, and the commanders of the Jerusalem district. The present occupants are Dr. Ada Ben Sasson, Burg’s daughter, and her husband Prof. Menachem Ben Sasson, former president of Hebrew University.

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Villa Leah is also the residential building nearest to the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street. Life there has become particularly difficult in the past few weeks with the intensification of the protest surrounding the site. Over the weekend the situation deteriorated with the establishment of the encampment of the “Bibi-ists,” supporters of the prime minister, near that of his opponents. The Bibi-ists are a clear minority compared to the opponents, but they have more powerful loudspeaker systems.

On Wednesday during the conversation in Ben Sasson’s kitchen, there were loud screams from a supporter: “Bibi we love you,” “Jew haters from the seed of Nazism,” “Do you want to strip and show your breasts, that’s the trend with you,” were the more refined statements during those minutes. “It’s terrible, there’s not a moment of quiet, people relieve themselves in the yard, it’s terrible,” says Ben Sasson. “But thank God that it’s possible.”

Paris Square during a demonstration, near the PM's official residence, Jerusalem, July 29, 2020.
Paris Square during a demonstration, near the PM's official residence, Jerusalem, July 29, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The lives of the residents of the streets adjacent to Balfour have been ruined due to the ongoing protest. The main complaints are of intolerable noise, blocking of the sidewalks to pedestrians, frequently blocking of the street to vehicles and dirtiness. Despite the serious damage to their quality of life, the residents of the surrounding Rehavia neighborhood are divided into two groups. One is opposed to a continuation of the demonstrations and has even petitioned the High Court of Justice against the police, demanding they limit the demonstrations and even move them to another location. The second group recognizes the unpleasantness but expresses support for the demonstrations.

“The petitioners are men, women and children who are crying out before this honorable court, due to the fact that the protest has gotten out of hand, lost all proportion and genuinely harms the petitioners, endangers their lives and denies them basic rights, including rights based on the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, including freedom of movement, public health and so on,” according to the petition submitted by attorney Hur Uriel Nizri.

On the other side, the supporters’ manifesto states: “The right to protest is a basic right without which democracy is impossible. During this period, when so many people are losing everything, when large parts of the public are shouting with all their heart, the convenience of the residents of Talbieh and Rehavia is not what hangs in the balance.”

The petition was submitted by 61 residents, and the manifesto was signed by 448 residents as of Monday. Both groups claim that many of the names on the other’s list are not residents of Rehavia, or at least not residents of the streets suffering from the demonstrations.

Attorney Yoel Shabtai lives in the building adjacent to Villa Leah, right opposite the protest encampment. “There are the large protests, this is a protest that comes and goes and I’m the last to say that I’m opposed to demonstrations. What’s more problematic is the refugee camp they’ve opened down there, shouting and megaphones around the clock, no consideration. [Protest leader] Amir Haskel has been making great efforts to control the disturbance and there’s been an improvement in the past week. When people demonstrate with all their hearts and I say that they’re making noise, I feel somewhat foolish.”

“It’s unparalleled lawlessness,” says Binyamin Glickman, 85, who lives above Paris Square. “They shouted and whistled until 1:30 [A.M.]. Is that freedom? It’s lawlessness! There are six tents on the sidewalk, people who come with shopping have to walk in the street. Is that freedom? They relieve themselves in the gardens and backyards of people living here. Last night I fell asleep at 4:30 A.M.”

Stand-off between protesters and police in front of the prime minister's residence, July 25, 2020.
Stand-off between protesters and police in front of the prime minister's residence, July 25, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Daniel Weinberg, who lives at the corner of Balfour and Ben Maimon, said, “I’ve lived here for 20 years and this is the worst until now. I’m not against demonstrations but there’s a limit. I no longer get my car because of them. Both supporters and opponents say that at night they close the windows and sleep with an air conditioner, and even that doesn’t guarantee uninterrupted sleep until the morning.

“We’re not saying that the demonstrations have to stop, but that it has to be conducted according to the law,” says Nizri. “It can’t be 24/7. Demonstrate, but be humane and don’t harm little children.” He says that half the petitioners identify as leftists.

Regarding the problem of people relieving themselves, which the prime minister and his son often complain about, even supporters of the demonstrations admit that it exists. “It’s disturbing, but it could be easily solved with chemical toilets,” says Ben Sasson. In the past the municipality has provided them at less partisan demonstrations. The neighbors believe that those to blame are not the regular Balfour encampment demonstrators but some of the occasional ones. The neighbors say that encampment residents and municipal workers are meticulous about the cleanliness of the street and the sidewalks.

“There was a feeling that they used us as a tool to silence the protest,” says Noa Pinto, 27, a neighborhood resident and an organizer of the support manifesto. “I prefer that those who are disturbed are the residents of Rehavia, who are lucky to live in such a wonderful and well-to-do neighborhood, and also that we live in a center of politics. We know that and that’s the deal we signed up for.”

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