Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed them as “anarchists” and “leftists” who hate their country. Their numbers have been multiplying from protest to protest, but the premier and his supporters continue to insist they are a fringe phenomenon, members of a tiny clique of Ashkenazi elites who have yet to accept they no longer rule the country.
But it’s not just die-hard left-wingers who are taking to the streets these days. Haaretz spoke with six protesters who recently joined the demonstrations who definitely don’t fit that mold. Here, in their words, are the reasons that caused them to turn against the prime minister.
Father figure no more
Liat Rotner, 33, had been hesitant about joining the protests, “because I thought they were just for leftists – and I’m definitely not a leftist,” she says. “I don’t support the left on security issues, and I definitely don’t see myself as part of the Tel Aviv bubble.”
Indeed, the last demonstration she attended was organized by right-wing groups to protest an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights; she was a teenager at the time. A successful author who has published more than 21 young adult novels (her first at age 15), Rotner says she used to vote Likud, but stopped voting altogether about five years ago. “I’m completely apolitical now,” she says.
Until now, though, she had admired Netanyahu as a leader and saw no problem with his penchant for the good life at the expense of Israeli taxpayers.
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“Like many people on the right, my attitude was: Who cares how much he or his wife spends on fancy takeout dinners and pistachio ice cream? He works hard, he’s protecting us, so what do I care?” says Rotner, who grew up in a religious home in the coastal city of Netanya and teaches creative writing in the religious school system.
But last Saturday, she decided the time had come to join the crowds outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. What brought her out, she says, was her disgust at Netanyahu’s response to the protests.
“I see people in the streets whose lives are a shambles – young people who have no money for groceries and have been forced to move back in with their parents, young Israelis who were willing to give their lives for this country who are suddenly being thrown to the dogs. And what’s his reaction to all this?” she asks. “Pure contempt. All he can say is, ‘Leftists, leftists, leftists.’”
The final straw for Rotner was a post Netanyahu recently shared written by one of his supporters. It said: “Only Bibi.”
“I said to myself, ‘This is what the prime minister cares about? Proving to everyone that he has fans?’”
She was even more incensed a few days later when, after one of the demonstrations outside his home, Netanyahu responded by publishing a photo of a Palestinian flag that was waved in the crowd. “One Palestinian flag among hundreds of Israeli flags, which he didn’t even bother mentioning,” she notes. “I mean, come on, you’ve got to figure that with thousands of people out there, statistically there will be at least one carrying a Palestinian flag. And that’s all he can talk about.”
For years, Rotner says, she and many of her friends – right-wing Israelis for the most part – saw Netanyahu as a father figure. “And now it’s as though this father is spitting in our face, turning his back on us and telling us we’re not his kids.”
It was the coronavirus pandemic, she believes, that finally exposed his flaws as a leader. “So long as the economy was in good shape, he seemed to be doing a good job. But once we had a major crisis on our hands – instead of showing concern for the welfare of the public, he was only concerned with his own welfare. At the moment of truth, it turned out he really he didn’t care about us after all. And this really worries and scares me.”
‘Disaster for Israel’
Shlomo Barkan, 61, calls himself a “hawk” on security issues, even a “staunch hawk.” A partner in several factories located in West Bank industrial zones, he says he would love it if Netanyahu followed through with his promise to extend Israeli sovereignty to what he refers to as “Judea and Samaria.”
“I believe we have every right to this land,” he says, “but I would insist that Palestinians living there receive full rights.”
Barkan voted for Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan in March’s election, but mainly because he supported the hawkish Telem faction headed by former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Though he’s a registered member of the right-wing religious party Habayit Hayehudi, he says he isn’t particularly observant. He voted for the now defunct, centrist Kadima party when the ultra-hawkish Ariel Sharon headed it, and in the much more distant past even cast his vote for the ultranationalist Tehiya party.
Last Saturday night, Barkan participated in his first-ever protest against Netanyahu. He joined hundreds of other Israelis at the first big protest to be held outside the prime minister’s private residence in the wealthy seaside town of Caesarea.
Attached to Barkan’s car was an Israeli flag, and on the roof he had tied a surfboard that proclaimed: “The state is in a deep-dive. Enough.” (“Tzolelet,’ the Hebrew for “deep-dive,” also means “submarine” and was a reference to Netanyahu’s alleged involvement in a scandal regarding the sale of German submarines to Israel.)
“I think our prime minister is a disaster for the State of Israel,” says Barkan, who lives in Ramat Poleg, near Netanya. “All he does is incite one group against another, and all he cares about are his own personal interests. He doesn’t know what it means to be statesmanlike.”
Barkan says that even for right-wingers like himself, Netanyahu has become a liability. “He hasn’t been promoting annexation, but rather working against it,” he says. “He’s too busy with his own personal survival and his legal battles to follow through with any of his promises.”
‘I divorced Bibi’
Moral Levy, 37, grew up in what she describes as a right-wing “Likudnik” home. Until March, she ran a thriving event-planning business, but then along came the coronavirus and the cancellations started pouring in.
“I lost contracts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels,” reports the mother of three. She had no choice but to close the business she had built from scratch, sell her car and leave the apartment she had been renting in Rishon Letzion. These days, she lives in a hostel in Tel Aviv, where the owners have generously offered to provide her with free accommodation.
“I used to vote for Bibi,” she says, referring to the prime minister by his nickname. “I was never much of a political person, but when I saw my business going down the drain, I started paying more attention to the news – and I understood I had made a big mistake.”
Levy describes Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus crisis as “a complete mess,” noting that many Israelis like herself are now forced to dig into their life savings to survive.
“The government has tax reserves stashed away for emergency situations like war,” she says. “I say this is the equivalent of a war and those reserves should be distributed to people who can’t make ends meet these days. Instead, they throw a few crumbs at us and expect us to say thank you.”
Thus far, Levy has attended more than 40 demonstrations against the prime minister around the country. Last Friday afternoon, equipped with a bullhorn, she walked through Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market – a well-known stronghold of the prime minister and his party. She wore a T-shirt that said “I divorced Bibi” and carried a sign that stated “Bibi, you’ve disappointed us.”
“Some people cursed me, others applauded me, even volunteering to protect me with their own bodies,” she recounts. “I plan to be there again this Friday. This is a democracy and I can protest where I want, even on Netanyahu’s turf. Many of my friends on the right are afraid to speak. But I’m not. After losing my business, I have nothing left to lose.”
From hilltop to protest
Rabbi Yossi Fruman, 45, says he’s probably one of the few demonstrators outside the prime minister’s residence these days who was also arrested there more than 25 years ago while demonstrating against then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The son of the late Rabbi Menachem Fruman – a prominent settler rabbi, known for his relatively dovish views – Yossi Fruman says he was thrilled that his 13-year-old son agreed to join him for last week’s Saturday night protest.
“I hold a minority position in our family,” says Fruman, who lives with his wife and six children in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa and serves as a rabbi at a nearby yeshiva. On Wednesday night – the eve of the fast of Tisha B’Av – he was back outside the prime minister’s residence, this time reading from the Book of Lamentations to a crowd of several hundred Israelis, including some of the protest movement’s more prominent faces.
Fruman voted for Kahol Lavan in the past three elections, but says he has also cast his ballot for Netanyahu in the past and once even considered him to be quite an effective leader.
“What’s happened to Netanyahu is what happens to others who have been in power for too long,” he says. “And this has become very clear in the way he’s dealt with the health crisis. He showed no flexibility and no courage. And I’m saying this as someone who is most definitely not from the left-wing political camp – in fact, someone who has fought on hilltops and feels a deep connection to the Land of Israel.”
Unlike many of those protesting these days, Fruman doesn’t believe Netanyahu needs to step down because of the corruption charges against him. “I’m not one of those people shouting ‘Bribery, fraud, breach of trust,’” he says, citing the charges against Netanyahu that are often chanted as slogans at the demonstrations. “As I see it, whether or not he’s corrupt is an issue for the court to decide.”
Citing Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Fruman says a good leader is one who knows when to hand over the baton. “And if he doesn’t, he was never a good leader to begin with,” he says. “It seems to me that Bibi started losing his touch a few years ago, but the coronavirus crisis exacerbated things. I’ve been praying that God will give him the courage to say he’s done his share and pass along the baton to the next generation. To me, it doesn’t matter if that next generation is in Likud or Kahol Lavan.”
No compromise on democracy
Yamit Bensadoun, 42, grew up in a Likud home in which nobody would ever dream of voting for another party. “My father is from Morocco and, among families like ours, the way you vote is a tribal thing,” says the yoga instructor from Tel Aviv.
In recent weeks, she and her husband have been participating in the so-called Black Flag protests on bridges around the country every Saturday evening. When asked why she goes, Bensadoun explains: “It’s the whole situation in the country right now.” But specifically, this mother of three says she’s concerned about the future of democracy in Israel.
“I’m not willing to compromise on democracy,” she says. “For me, there’s nothing more important than living in a democracy, and it pains me to see how Likud is trying to destroy that.”
Standing out in the crowd
Pinchas, 30, asked that his full name not be published or his photograph used. He was probably the only ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) Jew present at the demonstration Tuesday night outside the Tel Aviv apartment building of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana. The protest, which later turned violent after being infiltrated by right-wing extremists, was held to protest Ohana’s attempts to get police to outlaw the mass gatherings in the streets.
With his black kippa, white shirt and black pants, Pinchas stood out in the crowd of largely young, secular Israelis. He might even have been mistaken for a curious spectator, rather than participant, were it not for the “Bibi, go home” sticker glued to his shirt.
Pinchas, a lawyer who previously worked in the civil service, describes himself as center-right. “I’d obviously be happy if there were peace, but I don’t really believe there’s a partner for it right now so can’t call myself a leftist,” he says.
What brought him to Tuesday’s demonstration was his deep concern about one specific indictment against the prime minister: Case 1000, as it is known, in which Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust for accepting expensive gifts from wealthy friends.
“As someone who worked in the civil service, this is the case that bothers me more than any other,” Pinchas says. “And that’s because I know all too well how easily the system can break down. Once you let one person get away with this sort of behavior, others will try their hand too.”
Pinchas, who lives in the predominantly Haredi city of Bnei Brak, says he’d wanted to join a demonstration for a while but hadn’t found the opportunity. “I’d hear about people leaving the comfort of their homes and coming from faraway places to attend the demonstrations in Jerusalem, and I’d say to myself, ‘Kudos to them for making such an effort to save their country,’” he recalls.
He only found out about Tuesday’s demonstration in Tel Aviv because it was taking place downstairs from his office. “I saw what was going on and said to myself, ‘Wow, I’m joining.’ I called my wife and told her I’d be late coming home.”
He was initially concerned that the protesters might regard him suspiciously, “because they’re not used to seeing people like me around.” But that didn’t happen. “People were very gracious. Many came up to me and said they were really moved to see a Haredi guy like me join them.”
Pinchas says he doesn’t hide his views about Netanyahu from his close friends and family, but neither does he “parade around Bnei Brak carrying anti-Netanyahu signs.”