By Jonathan Karp
Toward the close of Shabbat in Tel Aviv, as twilight drifts toward dusk, streams of people holding flags and dressed in black tee-shirts converge at the heart of Kaplan Street for what has become a new, weekly ritual. No, they are not a religious sect seeking to draw out the Sabbath to its last sacred second. They are ordinary citizens, some religious but most secular, who gather each week by the tens of thousands to – in their eyes – save their country from a government aiming to crush democracy.
It is a remarkable spectacle, mirrored in cities across Israel – teens, young couples, sometimes with children, bands of army veterans, comrades from one of Israel’s wars, as far back as 1973 or even ‘67, squads of women marching in formation – a great cacophony of voices and slogans periodically punctuated by a unified chant of “de-mo-crat-iya, de-mo-crat-iya” – democracy! Alternatively, when the visage of a despised government figure is projected onto one of the many giant screens lining the street, an image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich or National Security head Itamar Ben-Gvir, the shout morphs into an admonition: “Busha! Busha! Busha!” – shame, shame, shame!
I was in Tel Aviv for six weeks starting in mid-May, and I attended every one of the demonstrations during that period. I did so out of a combination of curiosity about, but also solidarity with, this unexpected popular outcry. The protests (hafganot) had begun shortly after the late December formation of the current government, headed by Netanyahu, which, with a coalition of ultra-religious parties and far right extremists, soon announced its intention to overhaul the Israeli Supreme Court. Neutering the Court, many feared, would free the government to do whatever it pleased: arbitrary, limitless power.
Exultant, if not exactly celebratory, the demonstrations have become more or less obligatory for politically conscious Israelis. Restaurants, bars and concerts are out; Saturday night is reserved for the hafganah. Back in May, when the country’s imagination was momentarily captured by the appearance of Yulia, a monk seal that had chosen the waters off of Tel Aviv’s Banana Beach as a favorite sunbathing spot, a cartoon in the newspaper Haaretz depicted her being casually asked, “Nu, are you going to Kaplan?”
Still the size, fervor and persistence of the demonstrations has surprised many observers who assumed that the Israeli electorate was totally demoralized by the seemingly endless string of bruising elections and failed coalition governments. And still today many Israelis on the left and center will tell you the situation is hopeless, that they are vastly outnumbered and that the demographics favor the right in league with the expanding ultra-Orthodox. Yet despite their professed pessimism, the protesters keep on turning out.
And though mostly peaceful, the protests are actually surprisingly militant, with speakers – including former prime ministers and retired generals – calling for mass resistance, general strikes, even “revolution” if the government persists in its plans. It is as if the vaunted “start-up nation,” land of cocksure entrepreneurs and techie-hipsters, had absorbed the spirit of the Paris Commune of 1870, with proletarian masses preparing to seize the means of production and drive the bourgeoisie from power.
But in truth, there appears very little economic or class-based in these displays. Perhaps most surprising in our jaded times, the protesters affirm with unabashed earnestness the sacredness of liberal values: freedom, independence and democracy. As you proceed down Kaplan Street toward the heart of the protest, you can hear a crackling recording of David Ben-Gurion’s historic recitation of the Israeli Declaration of Independence played in a perpetual loop: “The state of Israel… will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” The words are even projected in giant Hebrew letters onto the wall of a nearby building.
As I ambled down the street, slowly enveloped in the thickening throng, I found myself suddenly at a table laden with signs and shirts denouncing not just the government’s “judicial coup,” but the now 56-year-long occupation of lands conquered in the 1967 war. I thought I recognized the woman dispensing the merchandise. “Aviva, is it you?” “Yonatan!,” she responded, “you are here? But why didn’t you call us?” She was an old friend, though one I hadn’t seen for several years, since before the COVID pandemic. The spouse of a close academic colleague, she is a longtime activist with the volunteer organization Machsom Watch, comprised of Israeli women who monitor the military checkpoints to witness and document mistreatment of Palestinians entering Israel for work or family visits. It seemed astonishing that amidst this chaotic throng of protesters I would suddenly experience such a happy personal reunion.
There is no consensus among the protesters, let alone in the broader Israeli public, over the proper status of the territories, on which millions of Arabs live both directly and indirectly under Israeli rule. The current government certainly includes elements that aim to absorb the West Bank into a “Greater Israel,” while permanently subordinating if not ultimately “transferring” the Palestinian population.
Over the course of my visit extremist settler marauders, many of them key constituents of the governing coalition, launched repeated violent rampages against West Bank Palestinian villages. Various speakers at the demonstrations labeled these outrages literally “pogroms” whose perpetrators had darkly stained the reputation of the Jewish people. True, most of the organizers do not want to divide the opposition by entangling it with the divisive topic of occupation. But for some protesters the issues are inseparable. Their signs read “eyn demokratiya ‘im kibush” (“democracy and occupation cannot co-exist”) or “shataknu la-kibush, kibalnu diktatura” (“we were silent over the occupation, and so got dictatorship”).
As an American, I felt exhilarated, but also oddly disoriented, amidst this remarkable display of patriotic dissidence. These democracy protests seem to uncannily echo the democratic and egalitarian values professed in the American creed, ones so heartily absorbed by American Jews, but now also under threat from dark forces in the United States. The other side, the side of extremism, will not desist or simply fade away. It has to be fought. The Israelis are showing us how.
Jonathan Karp is a professor in the Judaic Studies and History Departments of Binghamton University and is the undergraduate director of Judaic Studies.