Balfour is everywhere

Waking up with a double whammy of confusion and frustration is no way to start a bright Shabbat morning, but these are lockdown times. Lockdown number 2, the sequel to the ordeal we suffered long months ago in this same awful year. This lockdown version is worse than the first. Then, the naïve among us had reason to suppose that in the face of an unpredictable virus maybe we should give the powers that be the benefit of the doubt. That was before more and more Israelis understood that there are no real powers that be, only this one-man-show that rules our lives in autocratic style. That was before that same one man under indictment managed to shut down the courts and shut out the Knesset. Only now, it appears the one thing Bibi can’t do is shut up the protestors. Not in Israel.

That, at least, gives hopeful Israelis something to build on. But for now, it doesn’t make things any less confusing. As we weighed our options for spending another Shabbat under siege, my wife and I decided to join the protest march that was coming our way. All that we knew about it was, like just about everything nowadays, perfectly ambiguous: The march started a few days ago in the northern Israel town of Tivon and was heading to the Prime Minister’s Balfour residence in Jerusalem. This while the Knesset is still debating the legality of demonstrations under lockdown constraints and the PM, at odds with his coalition partners in a dysfunctional unity government, is doing everything to suppress them. We also know that the police are keeping close tabs on the marchers, which is the point where confusion digresses into frustration. If the police are permitting the march, why are they discouraging it?

As we understand the new lockdown laws, demonstrating is permissible as long as you keep within one kilometer of home. This march all the way to Jerusalem was still authorized, perhaps as it falls within the realm of physical exercise that can extend beyond a kilometer and excuses the exercising person from wearing a mask. Unsure if this interpretation would convince a friendly law enforcer, or if walking through the residential streets of Netanya to catch up with marchers arriving at the nearest moshav can be construed as demonstrating, exercising, or just plain walking too far, we decided to play it safe and wear our masks.

As it turned out, we didn’t see a single patrol car in Netanya, or one policeman stick his nose into a synagogue to ensure that the congregants were following social distancing rules. This was not my concern. After all, if people have a right to demonstrate, they have a right to pray, and most responsible adults adhere to the Corona regulations without police scrutiny.

We arrived at our meeting point opposite the Beit Hagdudim Jewish Legion Museum in Moshav Avichail, where around a hundred marchers, all wearing masks and spread apart, were taking a break after their long morning trek from Hadera. The demonstrators comprised mostly old folks with long memories of a more idealistic Israel, as well as young men and women who are distressed about the 2020 version of Israel going off the rails.

One of the organizers of the march spoke with reverence about Beit Hagdudim, which commemorates the yishuv’s first Jewish battalions that were formed before World War One. He told us that a friend who fell in the Yom Kippur War was buried nearby, and said “how fitting that this worthy procession to save our democracy would pass by his gravesite.” Another speaker stressed that our march was part of an ongoing struggle for the image of the State of Israel. “We have no argument with the state, or with the police,” he vowed, and called for restraint on all sides.

In the backdrop, two cops in a patrol car observed our activity and took pictures of us. I wonder how they saw us: as concerned citizens, as troublemakers, or as restless civilians looking for an excuse to go outdoors on a brilliant autumn day? We took pictures of them too, and questioned among ourselves who they are: Bored cops just doing their jobs, law enforcers wanting to preserve and protect; would-be thugs in uniforms, or wannabe fascists? And apart from this familiar good-cop, bad-cop dilemma we also recall an altogether different class of police who investigated the Prime Minister and recommended his indictment. There lies the underlining truth: A man facing criminal charges whose very being and breathing reeks of lies and deceit and acts with conflict of interest should not be running our country.

Hence, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which is so sorely lacking here in these troubled times; the Black Flag protests, which state our disillusionment with a government that serves its own interests and distances itself from Israeli citizens who were hit hard by the pandemic; and the blue and white flag that is the most striking emblem of an authentic Israeli people’s movement.

The march continued down a winding path by the old Avichail pool, through a tunnel beneath Highway 2, on a country road along the pristine Emek Hefer landscape and into Kfar Yedidya. All along the way, local homeowners greeted us with jugs of ice water and lemonade and words of encouragement while a cop car crept behind. At neighboring Beit Yitzhak, where the marchers would be hosted overnight in separate homes, the procession came to a halt in a picnic grounds for refreshments. As we had our coffee and cake and talked about the struggle ahead, the cops saw everything and took pictures. Soon after my wife and I wished our compatriots well, took our leave and walked back to Netanya, where a bad surprise awaited us.

The news of the day was not the march we had participated in; that was news in the making. The more urgent business was stated by anti-Bibi demonstrations that were popping up all over the country at nightfall. So after we rested from our long hike, we asked our younger son to join us downstairs for a close to home, perfectly legal Corona-friendly demonstration of three. Right across the street from where we live, some of our neighbors heard our “Bibi go home” cries, saw the signs we carried and the blue and white flags draped around my wife’s shoulders and let us have it. “Balfour is not here,” they screamed at us, spewing venom. “Netanya is Right! Go back to Balfour! Go back to Tel-Aviv! Only Bi-bi!”

If that wasn’t ugly enough, a half-drunk, unmasked young Corona criminal called us stinking leftists and anarchists, spilled the contents of a wine glass he had handy, disgorged his poison and spat on my wife. The dreadful scene had all the makings of a lynch and the police were nowhere in sight. Luckily, passersby broke up the skirmish before a punch was landed or anyone, namely my wife and kid, got hurt.

Stunned but not stalled by this violent outburst, we continued on our way. Some well-meaning people told us what we should have known, that in a town where you can scarcely see anyone light a candle in memory of Yitzhak Rabin, this wasn’t a safe place to demonstrate against Bibi. Later on, a like-minded woman who saw my wife adorned in blue and white told us about a small demonstration within our one-kilometer range that had just ended, and encouraged us to join a WhattsApp group for future protests. Thus reassured that there are signs of sanity in Netanya, we went back home to call it a night.

But the news on TV gave us no rest. While many thousands of protestors were coming out in Tel Aviv and urban centers all over the place, the backlash that we had seen on our own block was a constant threat, and the police, who were supposed to protect us from that, were busy arresting peaceful protestors using excessive force, with the excuse that they were “enforcing Corona laws.”

The events of the past few days, in which one female demonstrator was struck by a hit and run driver and others were reportedly knocked to the ground by advancing policemen’s horses, was just a taste of the hostility we can expect as our struggle for a just Democratic society continues.

The bright side is that Bibi’s call for an end to the Balfour protests is backfiring, as now masses of protestors are coming out to the streets to vent their outrage. The cynical flip side is that maybe this is just what Bibi wants, to spread out the protests far and wide and rile up his most maniacal supporters.

The protests are all about preserving democracy in Israel. The backlash is a hateful expression of the creeping fascism that can destroy Herzl’s dream. Sometime soon, Israelis on the sidelines will have to take their pick.

About the Author
Avi Shamir is a freelance writer, editor, translator and the author of "Saving the Game," a novel about baseball. A Brooklyn College graduate with a BA in English, Avi has contributed to the Jerusalem Post, The Nation, Israel Scene, In English and The World Zionist Press Service.
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