On September 18, Bibi Netanyahu was set to arrive in Silicon Valley for a day of meetings, including a well-publicized private audience with Elon Musk. Early in the predawn hours, I drove to San Jose to position myself with an Israeli flag looking out at the airport landing strip where his private El Al plane was scheduled to land. Standing shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of Israeli protestors lining a large intersection, I held a sign that said “Democracy” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Israeli flags were waving everywhere, even though in the dark morning hours, it was almost impossible to make out the blue stripes and star. Around me, Israelis were greeting each other, smiling, hugging, even FaceTiming with friends in Israel.
I am an American Jew. Simply put, I had come to the protest because I am worried about Israel’s democratic and Jewish future.
Netanyahu was expected to land shortly. I hoped he would see that several hundred people had roused themselves in the middle of the night to hold him accountable. But I wasn’t sure he would be able to see us in the dark. I also wasn’t sure that he would be impressed by the size of our gathering, when the number of protestors in Israel number in the hundreds of thousands.
As we stood, every so often someone would get on the megaphone (“What do we want? Democracy! When do we want it? Now!”). Other times, a cry would bubble up from the crowd. Sometimes: Busha! Busha! I felt moved to tell a curious police officer that “busha” means embarrassment. He tentatively repeated the word after me: “boo-sha?” But the Israeli in front of me corrected my translation. “No, it means shame,” he said. I nodded. I know it’s a different verb construction in Hebrew but in English, aren’t shame and embarrassment the same thing? I wouldn’t realize until later what a big difference it really was.
All of a sudden, a hubbub. The person next to me asked, “Is that him?” I looked up to see a plane gliding down out of the sky, a perfectly obvious blue-and-white flag on its tail.
Along with everyone else, I screamed at the plane, “Busha!” Absurd, of course. As if he could hear our shouts from inside an airplane. At the same time, the noises out of my throat felt almost involuntary—more like pleas than protests. I know that it’s futile to shout down a plane with screams, and maybe it’s just as futile to try to sway Israeli policy from an intersection in San Jose, California. But as a Jew, I’m embarrassed by the Israeli government and their actions, so I had come to protest.
Every time I hear stories of suffering under the occupation, I feel dread that someone could think my Jewish values endorse such systematic disregard for human rights. Israeli courts are too often the last resort for minority rights, and I am distressed that the current government is attempting to hobble the independent judiciary, with potential consequences that even many mainstream secular Israelis find frightening.
From the megaphone, a catchy Hebrew protest song: “If there isn’t going to be equality, we will overthrow the regime. You have messed with the wrong generation.” In Hebrew, it sounds beautiful, rhyming, and strong. Threatening even. One of the protestors walked around, handing out red signs that said “Shame on Netanyahu.” And it was then, looking at those signs, that I understood. It wasn’t supposed to be me who felt embarrassed and ashamed. The “busha” is for him.
When my family visited Israel last spring, a friend-of-a-friend encouraged us to attend the Kaplan protest, the largest one.
“You go into Tel Aviv every week?” we asked her. This sounded inconvenient. She and her husband have young children, there isn’t parking nearby, and public transportation doesn’t start running until after Shabbat.
But she didn’t pause. “Of course!” Without missing a beat, she said, “We have to let Netanyahu know that he can’t get away with this!” She spoke as if she anticipated delivering an important message to the Prime Minister, not traveling to be a single voice in a large crowd.
And there lies the gulf between my own American feeling of futility and the energy of conviction that has sustained growing Israeli protests over nearly nine months. They’re not going to let him get away with it.
In San Jose, later in the morning, I stood with protestors outside of his hotel, unaware of when Netanyahu might emerge for his meeting at the Tesla factory. The Israeli entourage had private meals, information, comfort and the security of a sealed underground garage. It might have seemed like the power was theirs.
But even totalitarian regimes fall with enough pressure. People power will always triumph. This is the inevitability that the Israeli protest songs capture. Unlike the shy petition of the English chants asking “what do we want?”, the Hebrew chants put Netanyahu on notice. Another one goes: “Yes and yes and yes and yes. You destroyed the country, we will fix it.”
By the time the motorcade made its way out of the hotel garage, there were almost as many armed policemen blocking our way as there were protestors. Perhaps they couldn’t foresee that the group would have started to shift to the next protest site. Or perhaps they didn’t want anyone running into the street, which is what they said. But seeing those snaking large limousines make their way out of the garage, I shouted along with the rest of the protestors, “Busha!”
This time I meant: Shame. On Netanyahu.