A truck from an upholstery cleaning company stopped near the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem last Sunday afternoon. The driver opened the doors, cranked up the vehicle's sound system to full volume and for an hour played recorded speeches by Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud campaign jingles and chants à la "Bibi is the king of Israel." It was less an expression of adoration for the best-known resident of Balfour Street than it was a provocation against his newest neighbors.
For the past two weeks, this stretch of pavement has been home to the people of the "chairs protest," a determined group of older adults who demonstrate against Netanyahu. They are there to stay, despite all those who want them gone. Two days before the sound truck incident, a right-wing activist threatened them with an ice pick. Right-wing activists show up to harass them nearly every day, to no avail.
"I'm a retired Israel Air Force brigadier general, I have a home with a working air conditioner," says Amir Haskel, 66, from Yavneh, the group's unofficial leader. "I could have lived a much more comfortable life, but I'm doing this for my children and my grandchildren," he says. On Friday he and six other protesters were arrested during a an-anti Netanyahu demonstration.
Like Haskel, most of the demonstrators were active in the anti-Netanyahu protest movement, which for four years has been taking to dozens of road and highway intersections throughout the country. Most of them are older, secular and from central Israel. Most also say they are comfortable financially and could have chosen to spend their retirement years in a manner that doesn't involve sleeping on mattresses on a sidewalk in Jerusalem and being the target of insults – and occasional violence – from Netanyahu's staunch supporters.
Nevertheless, they are there. Take Eti Yehiely, 74, of Tel Aviv. She sits on the warm ground, holding a sign that refers to the so-called submarine affair, which involves alleged corruption surrounding a $2-billion deal to purchase submarines and boats from the German industrial group ThyssenKrupp.
"I grew up in a different country, everything has changed," Yehiely says. "The feeling is that a prime minister under indictments simply cannot lead the nation. Corruption is everywhere. He is leading us to an abyss."
Some members of the group say the protests have caused tension with family members, particularly now when the original goal of replacing Netanyahu seems to have been thwarted by his main rival's decision to join his coalition government.
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That fact doesn't appear to have affected the conviction of the protesters, some of whom have been demonstrating regularly against Netanyahu for four years. Their protest is persistent, radical and at times even conspiratorial.
Haskel's career included stints commanding two squadrons and two IAF bases, as well as the force's personnel division. He began taking an interest in education and in Holocaust research during his military service and has written three books on the subject (including one in English, "The Warden of Block 11"). He says he increasingly focuses on "human behavior in extreme circumstances: Between those who fired into the pits and the Righteous among the Nations is where you find those who stood on the sidelines." Haskel is aware of the danger in this comparison, but he isn't afraid. "I'm not comparing, but I have learned that most people stand on the sidelines, and that's what got me out of the house," he says.
Haskel began his protest in 2015, even before the start of the criminal investigations against Netanyahu. At the time, he says, the law regulating foreign political contributions and the law permitting the retroactive legalization of settlements built on privately owned Palestinian land were in effect, "and I felt a general discomfort. I felt that Netanyahu was leading us on a path to a binational state, and for me that is the end of the Zionist dream." Haskel soon teamed up with David Feldstein, who also protested on his own outside the Prime Minister's Residence. Together they founded the Individuals' Protest.
"Our model was Motti Ashkenazi," Haskel says, referring to the reserve captain in the Israel Defense Forces whose protest movement after the 1973 Yom Kippur War ended with Prime Minister Golda Meir's resignation. "I am naive. I was sure that more people would follow me." He wasn't entirely wrong. Slowly, as the suspicions and the investigations mounted, leading to Netanyahu's indictments, more and more people joined in. There were protests almost daily at dozens of intersections, "from Yesud Hama'alah in the north to Meitar in the south," Haskel says.
The demonstrators are extremely dedicated. Most of them devote two or three days a week to the protests, traveling long distance to stand for hours in the blazing sun. "In the summer I suffer terribly from the heat," Haskel says. "In winter it's better, unless it rains and then I return home soaking wet."
In contrast to protests where the demonstration also serves as a get-together or a group-therapy session, the so-called lone-wolf protest offers no such comforts. Each person stands alone at an intersection, absorbing obscenities, and violence as well as honks of encouragement. Nearly all the participants say they have been physically assaulted by Netanyahu supporters, police officers or security guards.
Yafa Yousef, 66, of Jerusalem, points to a fresh scar on her cheek, a souvenir from a demonstration in Tel Aviv two weeks ago, during which a special forces police officer shoved her to the ground. "I was far from politics, but ahead of the first general election last year I thought that it would be a disaster if we were to have a prime minister under indictment," Yousef says. She holds a Ph.D. in Arabic language and literature. "Slowly, I got more involved and now I come nearly every day, on my own, with one sign: 'Bribery, fraud, breach of trust,'" the offenses with which Netanyahu has been charged. "I developed a technique in which when someone curses me out, I smile," Yousef says.
Haskel takes a different approach. "Two years I made the decision not to react at all, because every time the obscenities referred to my mother it would get to me," he recalls. "I learned that whenever I react, I always regret having stopped to their level."
When the protesters on Balfour Street are asked why they are there, three main responses come up, in various versions: the Yom Kippur War (and the protests that followed it); a sense of emergency; and, of course, their progeny. "I'm here for the children and the grandchildren, says Amir Hermoni, 71, of Yavneh. "My children understand and my wife doesn't, but that's all right. During the coronavirus lockdown I didn't go to a demonstration for two weeks and I was climbing the walls. It's something that someone who isn't here can't understand. It's something that burns inside me." Hermoni, who retired from Israel Aerospace Industries, has a full arsenal of messages. He wears one big sign on his body, with an Israeli flag on one side and on the other, the same flag but in black. "This one symbolizes democracy," he explains, "and this one, dictatorship."
A protest with fringes
It's difficult to follow the various sources and factions of the anti-Netanyahu protest. Some of the demonstrators are veteran protesters. A few protested after the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon in 1982, and a few took to the streets over the division of the natural gas royalties or the demand for equally sharing the burden of military service. Others are first-time protesters. They accuse the media of ignoring them, and on the fringes there are people with complex conspiracy theories according to which Netanyahu is an arch-villain who pulls the strings and exploits the coronavirus pandemic and the media to serve his needs. "I realized that this isn't the military, you can't bring everyone into line, and there are fringes," Haskel says. Still, it seems there is more that unites them than divides them. In addition to similar socioeconomic backgrounds, there's something else that nearly all of them share and that's their age. "I'd say we're 55 and up," says Haskel.
Ronny Yavin, 67, of Haifa, tries to explain that "The economic system that was built here forces the younger generation to be constantly preoccupied with survival." Yavin, a banker by profession, took early retirement at the age of 48 and now divides his time among leisure pursuits, travel, and political protest. "I don't want to sound frustrated, but I have no doubt that if young people don't take up the cause, [change] won't happen. I think that we don't understand the younger generation, we don't know what motivates them," Yavin says.
Adi Harari-Cohen, 66, of Tel Aviv, has a different take. "Young people gave up after the 2011 social protests," she says. "An entire generation has grown up knowing one type of government, one that's less democratic."
Haskel says that at one point he tried to recruit young people into the movement; he stood at a main entrance to Tel Aviv University with signs and flyers, but it ended in disappointment. "I asked them, 'Why don't you join in,' and the standard response was that the entire topic of politics doesn't interest them," he recalls. "They're not aware, they don't read newspapers. Today, a 25-year-old kid doesn't know any other prime minister."
Tali Etzion, 59, also from Tel Aviv, can identify with this. "At the rally after which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, I was pregnant with my daughter. Ever since my children have been old enough to think for themselves Netanyahu has been in power, they don't know anything else," she says, sorrow evident in her voice. "It's like the Soviet Union under Stalin," Etzion adds. Dorit Shinneman, a 62-year-old teacher from Kfar Vitkin, shares Etzion's feelings. "The younger generation doesn't know anything else," she says. "My girls tell me, "Mom, it won't help."
The sign that will be on the wall
Most of the protesters seem to identify with the left. Some have a history with the anti-settlement group Peace Now or other left-wing protest organizations. But there are quite a few exceptions. For instance, Meir Moscovich, a 62-year-old engineer who is currently furloughed from his job with the Israel Airports Authority due to the coronavirus crisis and is a well-known figure in the movement. Unlike most of his colleagues on the sidewalk, Moscovich calls himself a "centrist."
"For me, getting rid of Bibi is a means to getting rid of corruption; to [his comrades in the protest], the corruption is a means to getting rid of Bibi," he explains.
But Moscovich is not the most right-wing of the bunch. That distinction might go to 48-year-old Ori Nahman, a single mother from Moshav Kfar Baruch, in the Jezreel Valley – and a member of the Likud Central Committee. But she is fed up with blindly supporting the prime minister. "It's the product of years of propaganda and brainwashing targeting the right audience, religious people, the periphery, Mizrahim," she says. "I think Israel hasn't been a state for a long time. Israel has been seized by a crime organization."
As they sit on plastic chairs and eat food brought by supporters and passersby, they discuss what will happen on the day after Netanyahu, without being specific about how their protest will lead to the prime minister's resignation. "The economic crisis will touch everyone," Nahman says suddenly. "People will starve, and from the place of crisis they will come to cry out and there will be unity, we'll form a giant human chain. Like they did in Egypt and in Syria, we will tear down the gate and this black curtain [in front of Netanyahu's residence], which symbolizes the disconnect [from the people]. We'll tear down this gate and say, 'Here, we are the sovereign.'"
Yavin identifies with this sentiment. "Recently I've been thinking that it will end in a social explosion, that's a new option that came about during the past two months."
In the meantime, Etzion found herself repeatedly making changes to the sign she made when she began protesting. It has just two words: "Netanyahu resign." She says her daughter told her "'Let's frame it and save it as a souvenir.'" The sign faded, the handle fell off, "but I'm still waiting to frame it," Etzion says. "I'll do it eventually and hang it up in my home."