The People vs. the High Court

Judging by the sentiments of the masses who joined the protest against `Jenin Jenin,' a new chasm has opened in Israeli society.

The expanse between the government complex and the Knesset in Jerusalem has seen a great many demonstrations and protest tent camps. In all of them, the participants were very unhappy citizens who were angry at what the government had done to them as individuals or groups. In this respect the protest tent that stands there now, right at the end of the area, is no different. Yet its location exemplifies a difference.

The people who set up the protest tent, which went up last Wednesday, gave up convenience of access and even its prominence to passersby. It was purposely erected a bit out of the way, but as close as possible to the Supreme Court. The bereaved families and the fighters of Operation Defensive Shield, protesting the decision of the High Court of Justice to allow the screening of Mohammed Bakri's film "Jenin, Jenin," were directing their outcry at the Court. They were demanding reconsideration of the decision with an expanded bench, and are content - for the moment - with the interim order issued on Wednesday, which prohibits the screening of the film until that decision is handed down.

There is one factor common to all the demonstrations along the axis of the government institutions in the capital: The harsh contrast that exists in this country, which demands so much from its citizens, but gives them so little in return. This feeling was also at the center of the protest against the screening of "Jenin, Jenin." Among the dozens of placards adorning the protest tent, the one that, in a Hebrew play on words, expressed the idea "The High Court of Justice has betrayed us" summed this up best of all.

A new gap

During the Defensive Shield operation, Yisrael Caspi abandoned his business in real estate and volunteered for reserve duty, even though he was 50 years old. His service did not end with the end of the operation; Caspi went out on a mission and came back enlisted for his entire life. Now he has gone back to his original profession as a lawyer, and is acting as attorney for the fighters in their request for a reconsideration of their petition. Caspi is doing this because he feels he has no option: In recent weeks he applied to many well-respected lawyers, but all of them refused to take on this case.

"They didn't believe in the chance of winning," says Caspi bitterly. "There is complete alienation. The suave people with the fancy wingtips can't understand the people with the military boots." Thus another gap has been added to the social lexicon, embodied in the height of footgear.

The biggest and most frightening chasm is the one that has opened between the public and the Supreme Court, not only among the bereaved families and the fighters who are the subject of the film, but also among the masses of people who came to the tent to express their solidarity. "If the issue had to do with us, we would be half a million people here to protest against the Supreme Court," said an ultra- Orthodox man who came to the tent.

"I can definitely understand this protest," said another ultra-Orthodox man of 37 who stood near the tent but refused to give his full name. "Criticism of the Supreme Court is always attributed to the ultra-Orthodox. I was at the big ultra-Orthodox demonstration across from the Supreme Court four years ago. `A threatening black bloc' is what it was called. Now, these people are no longer the blacks [so-called because of the traditional garb of the ultra-Orthodox] but the fighters, who are always depicted as our negative," he summed up cynically.

And Caspi, who is decidedly secular, says that back then, when the ultra-Orthodox gathered en masse at the Supreme Court, he thought it inappropriate. Today he thinks that perhaps he was wrong.

Battle for a narrative

There was also fear prevailing at the tent, which was being manned in rotation by the bereaved families and the fighters. It was difficult for them. The bereaved families had to enlist energies that are really beyond their powers; the soldiers and the officers who had left jobs and homes behind for prolonged stints of reserve duty, found it hard to absent themselves again in order to participate in the protest. Nevertheless they came.

Among those present was Lieutenant Colonel Yoram Lavie, the commander of the reserve battalion that lost 13 soldiers in Operation Defensive Shield. His buddies were called up again for reserve duty in the territories on the very same day that the High Court of Justice handed down its decision allowing the screening of the film. Also there was Lieutenant Colonel Aryeh Kadosh, the commander of the special operations unit that participated in Defensive Shield. All his buddies from the battalion are again in Jenin and Ramallah.

In the prolonged experience of occupation and terror, the dividing lines between past and present are blurred. The struggle is not being conducted only for the memory of the fallen and the reputation of the soldiers. This is a battle between the future Israeli narrative and the Palestinian narrative, as it is perpetuated by Bakri's film.

Kadosh said that during a visit he paid to the soldiers in the territories last week, he realized that a huge chasm has opened up between them and the Supreme Court. "Come down from Olympus," said Kadosh, referring to the Supreme Court justices. "For 20 years we've been doing reserve duty and we have no interest in being an occupying people."

Dr. David Zengen, a pediatrician from Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem who served as a brigade physician in Operation Defensive Shield, was also at the protest tent. He said that the demonstration across from the Supreme Court was being held out of deep concern for this important institution. "We have not come here to hurt it, but we don't want the court to hurt itself with this mistaken decision," he said.

In any case, in Israel's fragile democracy, something else has cracked. Hagai Tal, the brother of Ro'ie Tal, who was killed, went to study law after his brother fell. He said that he couldn't really understand yet how he found himself demonstrating in front of the Supreme Court. "Maybe there's a juridical dictatorship that's the real censorship," he mused in a pained voice. Tal related that his friends, who are about to go on reserve duty next week, were telling him how they were planning to evade it by lowering their profiles or getting out of combat service altogether. They fear that the same state that sends them into battle will abandon them afterward. He has also been told this by dozens of youngsters about to be conscripted who came to the tent to sign the petition.

"What a state this is," said a cabdriver who parked his taxi by the roadside just in order to sign. "All they take into consideration is the Muslims' feelings and they punish those who threw a pig's head at them. There's no need to take Jews' feelings into account."

Feeling marked

All the distortions and ills of Israeli society flowed into this protest tent. On Monday, Penina Yasakov, the widow of Avner Valery, who fell in Jenin, was at the tent. With repressed anger, this fragile woman related that nothing in her life had prepared her for struggles of this sort. She said that when she demonstrated in front of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque while Bakri's film was being screened, people called her "murderer" and hissed "Go back to Russia."

Surprisingly, Penina Malik, mother of Gedalyahu, who was killed in Jenin, said: "I'm worried about my own personal security. Maybe it's paranoia, but I feel like I'm marked, in real physical danger. And it's not just me. There are soldiers and commanders in the Israel Defense Forces who are with us in this struggle and don't want their names and pictures made public for fear that they will be marked as war criminals."

Malik is not just afraid of being marked. She is also hesitant about revealing the fact that her son was born and raised in Kiryat Arba, before they moved to Jerusalem. She knows that Kiryat Arba is not just a place name, but also a code name that is accompanied by clear assumptions. Malik and the other members of her family spent many long hours this week at the protest tent, committed to the struggle for the reputation of the son, who managed to do so much during his short life, as if he knew that he did not have much time.

"My son was killed because instead of entering a house in Jenin with grenades, he went in with tweezers, in order to protect the terrorists' family," she said, "and then along comes Bakri's film and says that in fact my son deserved to die, because he is a war criminal."

Malik says that if the High Court of Justice ruling had been the other way around, another part of the public would have felt discomfort: "In every democracy there are situations when half the people are satisfied and half aren't. With us, it isn't half. It's the majority."

As we conversed, another person showed up to sign the petition. "We are shooting ourselves in the foot as a country," he said angrily. "Soldiers were killed because we didn't want to bomb from the air, and then the state comes along and does them harm. The Americans are allowed to do everything, and we're not."

No sooner did he leave than someone else came up. "I heard that they're going to screen this film, and I felt a need to come," he related. "In a situation where the whole world is against us, after surveys like that about anti-Semitism in the world, we're going to beat ourselves with a hammer."

America and anti-Semitism were recurring motifs in the conversations in the tent. America is invoked in the discourse as a model of a democracy that knows how to limit the freedom of the individual when necessary; anti-Semitism is cited as another reason to protect ourselves in a hostile world. In this sense, the tent at the edge of the government complex was a reflection of the whole country. The reality here is split in two: There is "the state," which is the government with the barren heart as embodied in the Supreme Court, and there is "the people," in a kind of new version of the phrase "the state against the voice of the people."

The voice of the people was also heard from Nehama Rivlin, the wife of Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who made it her business to visit the tent every day. Her son served in Operation Defensive Shield and her heart was with the demonstrators. "I come here, even though I know it won't help you," she said to those manning the tent, as if she were talking about some arbitrary decree handed down by a hostile element. On the table at the entrance to the tent a letter of support for their position that her husband - who could not come in person "because of his official position" - had written was proudly displayed.

However, Deputy Minister of Public Security MK Yaakov Edri, coalition chairman MK Gideon Sa'ar and MK Roni Bar-On, all of the Likud, did visit the tent in person. Edri, who was stationed during Defensive Shield at the Salam base, to which the bodies of the soldiers were brought, promised to persuade his minister to have the police issue a warning that screening the film could promote riots by Israeli Arabs that might endanger the public.

Sa'ar and Bar-On, both of them lawyers, addressed the issue of the status of the Supreme Court. "I am fearful for the status of the court as a result of a ruling that most of the public finds difficult to understand," said Sa'ar. "The Supreme Court derives its authority from the general public, and it is appropriate that it examine its sensitivities in this matter."

"The wall of the Supreme Court has cracked and I am afraid to think what will happen down the road," declared Bar-On. Then he explained that he feared that in the future the Supreme Court will justify "not only words," as in the film, but "also deeds" - for example, putting Israelis on trial at war crime courts. This too is part of what is taken into account in Israel, 2003.

It was not only Likud people who joined the criticism of the High Court of Justice ruling. Forty-eight Knesset members signed a petition calling for a reconsideration of the original ruling, among them Shimon Peres, Amram Mitzna and Haim Ramon, all of the Labor Party. In deepest confidence, the people who were manning the tent related that there were "other signatories from the left," who asked that their names not be made public. They too are afraid of being "marked," in a booby-trapped reality in which everyone seems to be walking through a minefield - one they may have laid themselves.