The yellow Gadsden flag depicts a rattlesnake and the slogan “Don’t tread on me.” The flag, which dates back to the struggle of America’s original 13 colonies against the British Empire, has become the icon of the extreme right in the United States. It has been flown, among other things, at Libertarian “tea party” events and was one of the prominent symbols during the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
Last weekend the flag flew in Tel Aviv. It wasn’t during a demonstration of the extreme right or of supporters of a free market. It was during a protest against government policy relating to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, it was actually a protest in the spirit of the demonstrations held over many months near former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. Prominent figures, rhythmic chanting and hand-painted signs. But this time people weren’t decrying corruption and castigating Netanyahu – but voicing their opposition to science and to coronavirus vaccines.
“Forced vaccinations = crime” was the slogan on one sign. “There’s no pandemic. It’s a fraud,” read another. “No media, no pandemic,” were the words on a third.
When it comes to opposition to vaccinations and to spreading conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, Israel is an anomaly. In most of the world, the people who challenge the medical mainstream, who are caught up in wild ideas, disparage the severity of the pandemic and refuse to be inoculated, are by and large conservative, religious and not well-educated. In Israel, however, the vaccine-opposed and the doubters are not only found in weaker and conservative communities, including Israeli Arab locales, but also in the liberal camp. Among educated people, from upper classes, who were shocked to their core at the time by Trump’s and Netanyahu’s “alternative facts,” and scoff at creationists and climate-crisis deniers.
Among the prominent members of this group are the veterans of the Balfour protests – young and older, in whom seeds of doubts about the reality of the pandemic and the importance of vaccinations were sown during the Netanyahu era. Apparently their prolonged struggle against the former prime minister and the entire political establishment has turned them into fertile ground for a basic lack of confidence in the system and belief in conspiracy theories.
Their claims and actions vary. They are demanding transparency and publication of the minutes of Israel’s coronavirus cabinet meetings and of details of agreements with the Pfizer pharmaceutical company; fighting with all their might against the slightest infringement of privacy rights even during a global pandemic; and going as far as adopting deep conspiracy theories about corruption at the World Health Organization, Israel’s Health Ministry and the drug companies, the belief in international plots and charges that data has been concealed about people who have died from the coronavirus vaccine.
Many of these individuals, it seems, have decided to accept ideas sponsored by the huge echo chamber that is social media, which emerged during a time of struggle against a ruling entity without oversight or differentiation between self-appointed experts and researchers, and doctors who are actually dealing with the crisis.
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It’s impossible to disconnect the pandemic from the Balfour Street protest. The lockdowns and the public rage against the previous government regarding management of the crisis were serious fuel for the fire. On the margins of the anti-Bibi protests there was always a group of coronavirus-deniers, who called on protesters to remove their masks and called the pandemic a lie. But the protest leaders always made sure to push this group aside out of concern that it would taint the greater struggle. However, now, after the victory over Netanyahu and his departure from the official residence, it seems that these margins have spread to the mainstream. They are riding a wave of instinctual mistrust and have grown during the years of protest.
Split in the Balfour camp
Many of the leaders of the Balfour Street struggle are deeply frustrated over the direction other activists have taken with regard to the pandemic. They say, apparently rightly, that this is just a handful of noisy activists and that most (former anti-Bibi) demonstrators heed the recommendations on vaccination. Meanwhile, however, there are questions splitting the ranks.
Shmulik Grenstein and Abie Binyamin, two of the veteran Balfour Street protesters, have over the years stood shoulder to shoulder near the attorney general’s residence in Petah Tikva, at Balfour Street, in front of the courts and at the Knesset. But they are on opposite sides when it comes to the vaccinations.
“I’m losing my best friends, but I’m against the conspiracy,” says Grenstein, who refuses to be inoculated.
Binyamin: “It hurts my heart to see them, they’ve lost their way. If they were true social activists, they would have lent a hand to real social activism and gotten vaccinated.”
“I came to Goren Square [in Petah Tikva, site of anti-government protests] out of curiosity four and a half years ago, and the more I learned about the submarines and the corruption, I realized how things work and how everybody toes the line,” Grenstein says, referring to suspicions that associates of Netanyahu were involved in Case 3000, the so-called submarines and missile ships affair. “The vaccinations in my opinion are a huge crime. In the World Health Organization there’s a lot of corruption and you can’t trust them. We’re guinea pigs and the whole world is watching us,” he adds.
'I think that the first decision of the Health Ministry should have been to open the official meetings about the coronavirus and to open up the agreements with Pfizer'
Asked about the data showing that the danger of serious illness and death are six times greater among the non-vaccinated, Grenstein replies: “I feel like in the Yom Kippur War. Even then it was dangerous but there were people who volunteered to go into combat and there were even a few at the [Suez] Canal. Yes, it’s dangerous, but that’s the struggle.”
Binyamin, for his part, says he’s heartbroken by the conduct of his former comrades-in-arms: “The mistrust of the government Netanyahu headed, which was justified because Bibi really exploited the coronavirus for his own political ends, has continued when there’s no reason for it. There are people who are the most extreme fighters for freedom imaginable and any restriction seems to them to be the end of the world. They are looking through the prism of ‘don’t tell me what to do.’ It seems as if someone has lost control. Every snot-nose who writes that his mother got the vaccination and died – now go prove that there’s no connection.”
Roi Peleg was one of the most prominent protesters at Balfour Street and has been particularly adamant about establishment of a commission to investigate Case 3000. Now he’s one of the activists expressing doubts over the current government’s pandemic conduct, especially the matter of transparency. “More and more people are dying of heart failure, silencing and disregard, and concealment of side effects. Meanwhile, there is secrecy about all the agreements,” he wrote in a post last week, referring to Israel’s deals to purchase vaccines from Pfizer. “Where is the red line?” he added.
In a conversation with Haaretz, Peleg explains that “Balfour and the struggle now over the future of the state – that it be better and more transparent – is the same struggle.” The public is seeing only selective data, he continues: “Why don’t they bring to the table discussions of experts not only about health but also about education, economics and other things that the coronavirus impacts. There’s no transparency, they choose what data to emphasize and on the other hand delegitimize one group or another.” While Peleg’s declarations seem to end in exclamation marks, he admits: “I don’t have answers, only question marks.”
Another well-known figure among the Balfour crowd was attorney Eldad Yaniv, who posts popular video clips every day attacking the current government with regard to its policies on the coronavirus. “I’m not an NGO and not an organization. I’m a private person with an iPhone,” says Yaniv, who rejects the claim that he may be adding fuel to the fire of the pandemic-deniers.
Yaniv: “There’s coronavirus and its terrible, I’m vaccinated and everyone I interview is vaccinated, everyone believes in science, everyone believes in the vaccinations. But I think that the first decision of the Health Ministry should have been to open the official meetings about the coronavirus and to open up the agreements with Pfizer. Science believes in facts and in casting doubt, and we are in a crisis situation in which anyone who dares raise doubts is silenced the way Bibi silenced the leftists and said they were traitors. So now they say a man like Prof. Eitan Friedman [an oncogeneticist] is a coronavirus denier. A leftist is not a traitor and Friedman is no coronavirus denier.”
Daniel Ohana, also a prominent anti-Bibi activist, openly admits that he is not inoculated. His workplace requires him to be tested every 72 hours, he says, and he has no intention of stopping his fight.
“There’s a certain group from Balfour for which human rights are important, and the same way we fought last year against corruption, from our point of view there’s a strong stench of corruption coming from the Pfizer agreement, which is confidential,” says Ohana. “From my point of view, I’ll consider getting vaccinated but I have a few simple questions. Let them publicize the agreement because I won’t involve my body in some experimental event. The efficacy of the vaccination, which is much less than what was expected, is less important than the transparency.”
Yishai Hadas, who founded the Crime Minister movement and was a prominent presence at anti-Netanyahu protests in Jerusalem, admits today that he’s worried that people who oppose the vaccine will retroactively paint the previous protests in their colors. “I was vaccinated three times. If anyone asks me whether to get the shots, I’ll say, yes, I was vaccinated – but I won’t preach to people to go get vaccinated. This is something very personal I don’t want to be an agent of the vaccinations.”
'To say that the Balfour protests are now against the vaccinations is to go very far'
According to Hadas, “there were many people and many voices at the Balfour demonstrations but there was one main voice: Bibi go home. The protest now against the vaccinations draw a few people who were also at the Balfour gatherings. They are a marginal minority. To say that the Balfour protests are now against the vaccinations is to go very far. Sometimes, among other things, there are issues associated with the concealment of information, with transparency – and that is one of the points that has been part of the current [anti-vaccine] protest because the moment there are people who are denied information or have a feeling that there is a government that has something to hide – then it’s logical that some of the people who were at the Balfour protests will also show sensitivity to these issues. During those protests there were also people who demonstrated against the vaccinations. Topaz Luk, Netanyahu’s adviser, took the trouble specifically to try to tarnish us at the time as if we were against the vaccinations – but we are separate from those guys. They were sidelined and must not taint the whole Balfour protest.”
Sociologists observing some Israelis’ rejections of coronavirus policy say the mistrust that started during the Netanyahu era is continuing. “A protest gives many people meaning in their lives in the positive sense of the word and the moment one protest is over, they look for the next thing. There was something at Balfour that was very anti-establishment and a deep expression of mistrust. Therefore, it’s not surprising that it also manifests itself in other ways,” says Dr. Guy Shani, a sociologist at the College of Administration and at Bar-Ilan University.
“The whole subject of opposition to vaccinations cuts across socioeconomic classes and levels of education in Israel. Part of the information that’s given comes from rabbinic or religious sources and part comes from people who offer their own interpretation of the data,” says Dr. Nathan Stolero of the communications department at Tel Aviv University, who is monitoring digital discourse on the subject of inoculations. “This issue has a very important components of trust, and I suppose that the left has a higher proportion of people who mistrust the system.”
“Hesitation or opposition to vaccinations can come from a low level of confidence in the government. The fact that the government has now changed apparently did not change the low levels of confidence in government by that same group,” observes Dr. Erga Atad, a media and political communication expert at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. “And this conforms to opinion polls conducted at the beginning of the crisis and thereafter, which showed low levels of confidence in the prime minister and in the government ministries in dealing with the crisis.”