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Benjamin Birely
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Jerusalem’s underbelly: Skunk water and Jewish unity

At a protest after Hamas released a video of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, Israelis clashed, conjuring the pre-Oct 7 era
The moment the skunk water hit. Courtesy.

I reek of skunk water — so much so that I can’t fall asleep

My brain also has some of tonight’s heated arguments on replay.

Earlier this evening, like many Jerusalemites who have joined the weekly protests for a hostage deal, my heart stopped when I saw the video of 23-year-old Hersh Goldberg-Polin shared by Hamas. I don’t know Hersh, but as someone whose circles overlap with Hersh’s world, I feel like he could be a younger brother, a cousin, or someone I would have met in my 20s.

I see him and I see so many people I’ve known here in Jerusalem. It could have been any of us. It could be any of us in captivity right now.

It’s been seven excruciating months. It’s imperative that everything is done to bring them home — even at the price of ending this war.

When I heard the spontaneous protest gather down the block and saw updates that far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir also happened to be at an event tonight around the corner, I knew I was in for a long night. The warm evening, the protestors, the counter-protestors, the police on horses, Ben Gvir’s dramatic appearance getting in his car as dozens of protestors rushed forward, and the awful skunk water all — sadly — felt like pre-Oct 7.

Right-wing counter protestor faces off with pro-hostage deal protestor. Courtesy.

Unlike in Tel Aviv, protests in Jerusalem always involve heated arguments with right-wing religious onlookers. Some come wanting to engage in dialogue, some to argue or provoke and others just to watch in awe as skunk water is used on secular Israelis (some Haredim think it’s only ever used against their protests).

Tragically, in Israel’s tribal landscape, the hostages and the push for a deal to release them have become a political issue that falls along many of the pre-October 7th fault lines in Israeli society.

My appearance, my accent and my kippa always make me a magnet for exhausting, yet fascinating, interactions with religious right-wingers that usually leave me dazed, confused, profoundly depressed and sometimes hopeful.

The usual Likdunik characters hurled curses at me for being “a leftist Ashkenazi American traitor” and yelled at me to take off my kippa (the irony being that they weren’t even wearing kippot themselves). One told me I’m not really religious, the kippa is just a facade, I’ve been planted — planted by whom or why, I don’t know. When I told him this was about the hostages, he responded with more curses against Ashkenazim. Netanyahu’s years of ethnic and tribal incitement really have paid off.

One looked so burnt out from screaming “leftists are traitors”, I went to buy him a bottle of water. He refused to take it from me. He doesn’t accept water from leftists.

A middle-school-aged boy sitting a few steps away jumped up, “I’ll take it!” But he was skeptical. “Are you a Hapoel fan? Are you a communist SOB? I won’t take water from a Hapoel fan!” he declared, referring to a football/soccer team with fans associated with being left-wing (ironically, Hersh is a fan). I told him the water was definitely a leftist SOB and he laughed. At least he agreed to take it.

Protests tonight in Jerusalem calling for a hostage deal. Courtesy.

Pairs of young dati leumi (religious national) guys floated around the crowd and argued that “the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim (the redemption of captured Jews) can’t come at any price, the public good must come first”. The more rational among them argued that they supported the families of the hostages wholeheartedly, but they couldn’t stomach any deal that meant releasing terrorists who would kill more Jews. The more irrational just walked among the crowd to look for secular leftists to get into yelling matches — which were drowned out by the megaphones anyway.

The most fascinating conversations, however, were with the Haredi onlookers who stopped to engage with protestors on the sidelines.

An older Israeli litai/yeshivish father and his sons from Bnei Brak told me that the protest was against the Torah and was full of secular people “who hate all things Jewish, don’t believe in God and eat Chametz during Pesach”. Since I was part of the protest, the father argued, I’m a non-believer and hate the Torah too.

A Sephardi Haredi man with his young sons standing by tried to dissuade him and come to my defense: “No, he’s from chul (abroad), he’s naive! He doesn’t understand how things work here. Jews abroad are naive!”.

The yeshivish father was adamant and went in hard: this isn’t about the hostages, this is about hating Torah. 

An Israeli Breslov baal teshuvah around my age in his Chol HaMoed bekishe sitting on his electric bike agreed.

“If you join them, you’re one of them. This protest is against the Torah — they don’t believe. You’re associating yourself with them.” When I insisted this was a protest for the hostages, he claimed only 10% of the people who showed up at the protest care about the hostages. The rest? They just hate Bibi and Torah.

Another Israeli Haredi man claimed that the “secular anti-Bibi protests” make him feel less empathy for the hostages.

Realizing I was out to sea in the depths of Jerusalem’s underbelly, I was ready to exit when a Belz Hasidic couple from Manchester stopped and joined the conversation.

By now the entire protest had dispersed and only one woman was standing with a megaphone outside the tent that families of the hostages have set up outside the Prime Minister’s official residence on Aza Street.

We didn’t agree. Both the husband and wife argued that giving into Hamas’ demands makes us weak.

“I know how deals work,” the husband said, “We can’t give in. You’re right, okay? This cause is just, I would be demanding the same thing if it were my family members, it’s right to demand a deal… but it’s not smart. We can’t show weakness”. The wife added, “there’s no good answer”.

Jerusalem, April 24, 2024. Courtesy.

After a friendly discussion about why he’s not a Zionist, why he loathes Gantz and is against “everything the Left does” and supports Bibi for his economic policies in the ’90s (His wife laughed and said “because you’re a capitalist!”), we ended up sharing how much we were both thinking of Hersh and the 132 other hostages and how stupid all these arguments are.

“This is the first Seder ever that I cried,”  he said seriously. “I cried for the hostages that couldn’t be with their families”.

Surprised at the tone of our conversation and how much we respectfully agreed to disagree, the Israeli Breslover tried to get us back into a heated argument.

When he saw that the Belz Hasid and I laughed him off and went back to talking in English about how much we have in common, the wife turned to the Israeli and said: “in chul (abroad) we don’t have the luxury to hate one another, we’re all we have. All Jews are family”. Her husband added that in Manchester Jews are Jews, it doesn’t really matter what their politics are.

The Israeli Hasid looked at me with an exasperated shrug: “Well welcome to Israel, here everyone hates everyone”.

For the sake of Hersh and all the hostages who can’t wait another day, Israelis must learn from diaspora Jews. In times of chaos and tragedy — we’re family. All of us.

We’re all we have.

About the Author
Benjamin made aliyah in 2011 and lives in Jerusalem. Over the past decade he served as a lone soldier, completed a B.A. and M.A. in Ancient History at Tel Aviv University, and worked in Israel's tech industry. He will begin his PhD in Fall 2024. See his account HolyLandSpeaks on TikTok and Instagram.
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