I first participated in a demonstration when I was an impressionable 16-year-old, some 65 years ago, in those far-off days when England was a nuclear power and still held on to most of its empire. My friends in the youth movement (Bnei Akiva) were going to the CND march, so I went along too. I wasn’t too clear about nuclear disarmament and all that, but it seemed like a good idea, if somewhat unrealistic, to join in the demonstration or march to protest against it. ‘You’re mad,’ my father said. ‘No government will take any notice of a group of crazies, even if they are led by Bertrand Russell.’ The photograph of the event that I still possess shows me sitting with a group of friends holding the pole bearing the Israeli flag, enjoying the weak London sunshine. I don’t think we got as far as Aldermaston, the ultimate target, but we had a nice time.
Of course, in the end, many years later, England did abandon its nuclear weapons, for practical rather than ideological reasons. And probably it had nothing to do with any protest made then or subsequently.
Since immigrating to Israel in 1964, I have not been involved in political activity in any noticeable way. Yigal and I briefly joined a demonstration led by Motti Ashkenazi protesting against the failure of Golda Meir’s government to prevent the Yom Kippur War. That government was eventually re-elected, but called a general election in which it was defeated and replaced by Menachem Begin’s government. I’m still not convinced that we benefited from that change.
A few years later, when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister and encouraged soldiers serving in the Gaza Strip to ‘break the bones’ of inhabitants of the area who were attacking them and throwing stones, I participated in a demonstration against that policy. I have a vague recollection of spending a Saturday night somewhere with a group of like-minded individuals. No slogans were shouted, and the whole idea was vague, albeit high-minded. We were taken back to our point of departure, and the result was – nothing (until Arik Sharon came along several years later and abandoned the idea of controlling that ungovernable area).
The peaceful demonstrations that have been continuing in Israel for several months aim at stopping the legal revolution which the current government is trying to push through. I have written about it but until last week was unable to participate, mainly because of my own physical limitations (I am 81 after all and no longer a sprightly teenager). But last week I finally managed to make the effort, and joined the local demonstration not far from my home. This was held on the bridge over the main road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
So we stood on the bridge with our flags and were ‘treated’ to loud music followed by speeches over a loudspeaker system. Some of the cars passing on the road below flashed their lights or tooted their horns to indicate their support. A handful of police and border guards stood at either end of the bridge, though I’m not sure whether they were there to protect people from possible opponents or to ensure that the demonstrators didn’t get out of hand (which was highly unlikely since most of them were pacifically inclined). The event ended, as planned, after an hour when, protected by the police, the demonstrators all moved into the road, blocking the bridge for five minutes or so and singing Hatikva, before dispersing and returning home.
It is consoling to know that all over Israel like-minded people continue to join these demonstrations, showing their opposition to policies that they feel are harmful to society and the body politic. So far, however, the government has shown itself to be impervious to these protests. I would hate to think that demonstrating peacefully is turning out to be an exercise in futility.