They Fought for Israel’s Independence. Now They’re on the Streets Fighting Netanyahu

Call it the last stand of the ‘old guard’: Elderly protesters, some as old as 104, are joining demonstrations in their neighborhoods and demanding the prime minister’s ouster

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Elderly demonstrators protesting at a junction near Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, October 6. 2020.
Elderly demonstrators protesting at a junction near Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, October 6. 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Yitzhak Arad, a veteran of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, organized an anti-Netanyahu protest the other day for residents of his assisted-living center in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon.

About 50 people attended. “We would have easily gotten a bigger crowd, but we didn’t want to violate the social distancing rules or endanger anyone’s health,” says Arad, a Holocaust survivor who served as director of Yad Vashem (Israel’s Shoah memorial center) for over 20 years.

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The protesters gathered on the sidewalk outside the facility, where pedestrians and drivers passing by could see them. Almost all of them waved Israeli flags. Some also waved black flags. Those who could stood. Those who couldn’t sat, often in wheelchairs. At the conclusion of the event, they all sang the Israeli national anthem.

Arad is 94 years old. Give or take a few years, he says, his fellow protesters were pretty much the same age.

“We did this for our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren,” relays Arad, a former brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces, in a telephone conversation with Haaretz.

A protester holding a sign that says "Go" at a junction near Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, October 6, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“We’re the generation of founders,” he says. “We fought for this state. We shed blood for this state so it could remain Jewish and democratic – and now all that’s in jeopardy. It’s in jeopardy because the man running this country has failed to address the coronavirus pandemic properly, because he’s destroying our economy and our justice system, and because he’s surrounded himself with yes-men who are afraid to make their voices heard. So we felt it was time we made our voices heard.”

Under new regulations, which came into effect as the country entered its second lockdown before the High Holy Days, Israelis can only demonstrate in small groups no further than 1 kilometer (about half a mile) from their homes. The ban on big protests, the government explained, was meant to help enforce social distancing rules and prevent the further spread of the coronavirus. Considering that he’s the target of these protests, Netanyahu also had a personal interest in cracking down on them.

It appears to have backfired, though. Rather than one huge protest outside his official Jerusalem residence, Netanyahu got himself hundreds of smaller protests at locations around the country over the past week. Israelis who had been prevented – whether because of age or other risk factors – from attending the mass protests held every Saturday night in Jerusalem suddenly had an opportunity to make their voices heard close to home, at much less risk to themselves.

Holding back tears

It’s still difficult to assess the scope of the phenomenon, but social media accounts run by activists in the protest movement have been paying special attention to these elderly Israelis – often referred to as “the 1948 generation” – now joining in.

There have been videos featuring groups of elderly Israelis congregating outside their old-age homes and assisted-living facilities, carrying flags and holding up signs, sometimes with the assistance of their caretakers.

One photo that went viral showed 104-year-old Alex Zielony, one of the founders of the Israel Air Force, sitting in his wheelchair at a protest held Saturday night at an unidentified location. A former pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, Zielony was the first commander of the Tel Nof air force base.

Another widely shared video featured 88-year-old Leah Stoller, who had joined a protest convoy to Jerusalem last week. Barely able to hold back tears, the Holocaust survivor was recording saying: “Look at the situation we’re in. After everything we’ve been through, it tears my heart. Look at what’s happening here. It’s terrible. It’s terrible.”

Until now, it had been the large number of young Israelis joining the protests that had drawn considerable attention. Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political communication professor at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, notes that this was quite out-of-character for them.

“In the United States, the younger generation tends to be more liberal and progressive than the older generation, while in Israel it’s exactly the opposite,” he says.

But the older generation would have referred to their parents, not their grandparents. “It’s true that you would generally not find high levels of political participation among this age group,” Wolfsfeld says, referring to octogenarians and nonagenarians.

These members of what he calls “the old guard” are feeling increasingly marginalized these days, Wolfsfeld adds. “In general, these are people of Ashkenazi origin who belong to the left, and they’re very angry that all those they once considered beyond the pale are now running the country,” he explains. “This is a generation that’s feeling more and more alienated from the system, and they feel they have to do what they can – even if it’s screaming in the dark.”

Elderly Israelis, he says, also have specific gripes against the government related to their experiences since the outbreak of the pandemic in March. “All the cases of government neglect in the assisted-living facilities and the fact that they’ve been forced to be separated from their loved ones during these final years of their lives – it would be amazing if they weren’t angry and didn’t want to express it,” says Wolfsfeld, who has studied protest movements.

A protester at an anti-Netanyahu demonstration in Jerusalem, September 20, 2020. Young people are in the majority at these protests, but older protesters are now able to attend neighborhood events.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

‘Nobody to trust’

Yehudit Gutman, 95, is a case in point. “I used to volunteer in the local day care centers and go to all sorts of classes,” she says, in a phone conversation from her home in Kfar Tavor, northern Israel. “Now, I’m stuck at home with my caretaker and have nothing to do.”

But that isn’t the only reason she decided to join the small protest right near her home on Saturday night, posing for photographers as she waved an Israeli flag.

“I’ve been through tough times,” she says, noting how at age 14 she joined the Haganah (the pre-independence Jewish army in Mandatory Palestine), and how her brother was killed at age 17 during the War of Independence. “But in the past we always knew that we could trust our leaders, and we believed in them. Now, there is nobody to trust,” she charges.

Born in Tel Aviv, Gutman grew up in the nearby city of Givatayim, in what she describes as “the first socialist neighborhood in the country.”

“I have two fabulous sons, seven even more fabulous grandchildren and another six great-grandchildren who are beyond fabulous,” Gutman says. “I fought for this country, and now I’m extremely concerned about what future they have here.”

As a young girl, she recounts, she would often participate in protests against the British forces in Mandatory Palestine. When asked if this is the first time she’s protesting her own government, Gutman responds: “This isn’t my government now. This is a government that does things I strongly oppose. We have a prime minister here who cares only about himself and, you know, sometimes when he talks on television, I get really insulted. It’s as if he thinks we’re all idiots, and I want to tell you – I’m not an idiot.”

Gutman plans to join the next protest in her neighborhood as well, even if just for a short time. “It’s hard for me to stand,” she says.

Paul Kedar, 95, and his wife Ruthie, 93, are veteran protesters. Among the founding members of the anti-occupation group Yesh Din, they’re prominent human rights activists who rarely miss an anti-government demonstration.

Paul and Ruthie Kedar at a demonstration near their home in Ramat Hasharon.

In American terms, they could be considered descendants of Israel’s “Mayflower families.” Ruthie’s grandparents arrived in Ottoman Palestine in the late 1800s and were among the founding members of the town of Rehovot. Paul, who served as a pilot during the War of Independence and later filled various diplomatic posts abroad, also traces his roots in the country back several generations.

Because he had recently injured his leg, Ruthie says, her husband hadn’t been able to join her in recent weeks at the protests organized at a bridge located a few kilometers away, where she was regularly joined by a good friend. Last week, though, Paul was able to join her, in his wheelchair, at one conveniently located barely a few feet from their home in Ramat Hasharon.

“People are shocked that I go to the protests now. But I used to travel around the West Bank by myself gathering testimonies of human rights abuses from Palestinians, so this is nothing for me,” Ruthie says.

Opinions are split in Israel about whether the protests can ultimately force Netanyahu out of office, but Ruthie believes they can. “We’ve seen it in other places in the world – in France, in former communist countries,” she says. “These things can have an effect. So as long as we still have our strength, I feel we have to go out and do something. It seems to me that there’s a lot of energy and anger out in the streets, and this isn’t going to stop. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing.”

Arad says it’s hard to predict whether the protests will have the desired effect. “Netanyahu seems pretty determined to remain in Balfour,” he says, referring to the prime minister’s official residence.

But as long as Netanyahu stays put, Arad says he’s determined to continue organizing protests at his assisted-living center. “As long as it’s still legally possible, we’ll be out there,” he vows.

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