Rabbi Avidan Freedman came to the demonstration outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence last Thursday carrying a homemade sign with a message directed at his own community: “Religious public: Your place is here.”
Men sporting yarmulkes and beards are not a common sight at the anti-Netanyahu protests, so Freedman and his sign naturally sparked attention among the large Jerusalem crowd. Many passersby gave him a thumbs up. Others clapped him on the back. Some asked that he pose for a photograph.
“I think it was very meaningful to the protesters to see someone like me there,” said Freedman, 40. The resident of the West Bank settlement of Efrat has already attended several demonstrations outside the premier’s home, “and it’s very disappointing to me that there aren’t more religious people out there,” he said.
For religious Israelis who might identify with the protests, there is perhaps less reason to stay away these days. Whereas most of the big anti-Netanyahu protests of the past were held in secular Tel Aviv, this round is centered in their home turf of Jerusalem. Moreover, the political party that represents a large section of Israel’s religious Zionist community – right-wing Yamina – is, for a change, in the opposition. In theory, then, its constituents need not feel guilty for demonstrating against the prime minister.
True, the main demonstration of the week takes place on Saturday night and starts before Shabbat ends. And true, the so-called Black Flag demonstrations on bridges across the country are in full swing way before Shabbat lets out, making it impossible for those who observe the Jewish day of rest to participate.
But as Freedman noted: “I wish there were people in the religious community complaining about this – but it’s not the case. If they wanted to participate, there are demonstrations going on at other times and on other days that they could easily join.”
Freedman, a prominent activist in the campaign to end Israeli arms sales to rogue regimes, believes religious Israelis are staying away because they don’t trust that the protests are really about Netanyahu’s corruption (he is standing trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust) or his mishandling of the coronavirus crisis (Israel currently has one of the highest infection rates in the world).
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“As they see it, it’s all part of an attempt by left-wing elites to overthrow Likud,” he explained. “If you read the religious press, you’ll see that this is an overriding theme in their coverage of the protests.”
Freedman has already participated in two demonstrations outside the prime minister’s home in recent weeks and spent another morning hanging out with some of the veteran protesters who regularly camp there.
“What brought me out to the protests is my feeling that many of the choices Netanyahu is making are being guided by his own personal interests and not the best interests of the public,” he said. “Even if everything being said about him is lies, considering how he himself has become the cause of so much division in this country, I would expect that if he really cared about the people here, he would just step down.”
‘Running the show’
Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of Tzohar – an association of progressive-minded Orthodox rabbis – is not surprised by the absence of religious Jews at the protests. “Sadly, as a rule of thumb, this is a community that does not participate in social protests,” he said.
“The ultra-Orthodox community only participates in protests that have to do with religious issues, and the religious Zionist community only protests when it comes to issues dealing with the Land of Israel,” he said, referring to the West Bank settlement project.
Of all the communities in Israel, said Stav, religious Zionists also tend to be least dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. “It could have to do with the fact that members of this community are running the show,” he noted. “That would include Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, National Security Council Director Meir Ben Shabbat and many of the close advisers of the prime minister. If a survey were to be done, I’m pretty sure the religious Zionist community would give the government pretty high marks for its performance in this crisis – much higher than any other group would.”
Abraham Blonder, 70, attended Saturday night’s protest – thus far, the biggest of them all – with his children and grandchildren, all of them religiously observant. It was his third protest in recent weeks, he said, and he was there because of the Jewish values he holds dear.
“I’m talking about very basic values like caring for the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” said Blonder, who lives in Jerusalem. “These are values that have been sacrificed in the name of capitalism.”
A trained engineer, Blonder, a grandfather of nine, described himself as “a businessman who has, thank God, done well for himself.”
He continued: “I’m not here protesting because of my personal situation, but because of my deep concerns for the country in which my children and grandchildren will live.”
Asked why he thinks there aren’t more religious Jews protesting, Blonder responded: “Regretfully, many members of the religious community hold very right-wing views, and for them promoting the Greater Land of Israel and excluding strangers are more important than the basic Jewish value of helping the weaker elements of society. Netanyahu has also succeeded in convincing them that anyone who criticizes him must hate Israel and deserves to be demonized.”
Benny Lau, a prominent Orthodox rabbi known for his liberal views, has attended quite a few of the recent demonstrations. Last week, on the fast of Tisha B’Av, he presided over a reading of the Book of Lamentations outside the prime minister’s residence, which was attended by many well-known faces in the protest movement.
“My feeling is that Netanyahu is not motivated by the good of the nation, but instead by his desire to hold onto his seat,” Lau said, explaining his decision to take to the streets. “Rather than being a public servant, he treats us all as though it’s our job to serve him.”
The religious Zionist community, Lau noted, has yet to recover from the trauma it suffered 15 years ago when Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip. Most of the settlers in the Gaza Strip belonged to this community.
“As far as right-wing religious Israelis are concerned, those who supported the withdrawal from Gaza – and many of them happen to be involved in the current protest movement – will always be the rival camp.” For that reason, he said, he does not believe the religious Zionist community will ever join the protest movement.
While demonstrators last Thursday night banged on drums, blew plastic horns, chanted anti-Netanyahu slogans, sang and danced, just across the street from them a group of young Israelis in their twenties sat in a circle on a patch of grass. Ron Cohen, a youth coordinator at Gesher – an organization dedicated to building bridges between religious and nonreligious Israeli Jews – had gathered them all together.
“I pulled the nonreligious ones out of the protest, and the religious ones I found on the outskirts of the protest,” he said. “They were standing around watching what was going on.
“This is the first time we’ve organized a discussion circle right here,” said Cohen, who is religious. “I felt that something important is happening out in the streets, and this is the place to be.”
The subject of Thursday night’s discussion was whether the protesters represented a cross-section of Israeli society or just one particular group.
“The religious kids tended to say that these protests weren’t their cup of tea and that they suspected they were being led by the left,” Cohen reported. “And I think that’s how the religious community in general feels. But at the same, these young religious Israelis were quite interested and intrigued by what was going on around them.”
Feeling like a traitor
These are the first anti-Netanyahu protests that Channa Pinchasi – a senior faculty member at the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute – has attended. There are more religious Jews joining these protests than would seem, she said. “Many of them, like me, for example, are not visibly religious.”
Pinchasi, who lives in Jerusalem, describes herself as “a very mainstream Israeli who voted Kahol Lavan [Benny Gantz’s centrist party] with everyone else.”
“I feel like a traitor when I say these things, because I also come from this community, but I believe one of the reasons you’re not seeing more religious people out there is because we feel most comfortable among ourselves,” she said. “That’s the reason you also didn’t see many of us participating in the big social protests nine years ago.”
Beyond that, she said, there is a tendency in the religious community to believe that any social protests are motivated by a leftist political agenda. “It is part of our DNA,” she said.
One of the main reasons Pinchasi is out in the streets is to express her solidarity with young Israelis, who have been hard hit economically by the pandemic. “There are no jobs in restaurants these days for them, and there are no trips to the Far East,” she said. “This is a generation of Israelis whose ability to live a good life will be determined in the political sphere, and I’m here to support them.”
Sivan Har-Shefi, an acclaimed poet and prominent voice in the religious Zionist community, published a post on her Facebook page on Sunday in which she urged Netanyahu to step down.
“Your insistence on holding onto power despite the widespread opposition to your leadership is not good for either you or us,” she wrote. “Shape up, or leave. Don’t bring down the house on us.”
Pinchasi responded to her post with the following request: “My dear, I ask that you join the protests, even from afar.”