Kenneth Bob

Protesting on Kaplan St., a Personal Perspective

On the last Saturday night in February, I got on a bus near my apartment in Jaffa packed full of people all going to the same place, armed with flags, stickers and signs. While critics of the pro-democracy protests in Israel from both the left and right have criticized them inaccurately as being primarily older and Ashkenazi, my co-passengers included a large group of young Mizrachi female friends, couples of all ages and three generation families with young children. And I observed the following exchange: A young Israeli man struck up a conversation with three young Australians who are participating in a gap year program. The conversation came around to him and he revealed that he was an active-duty soldier in an intelligence unit. As the bus got to our stop, he lifted up the handmade sign he brought that identified the prime minister as a criminal and told the young Zionists to follow him. The bus took us to as close as one could get to the rally due to road closings and I walked the remaining 15 minutes with a growing stream of people in the direction of Kaplan Street, the site of the weekly pro-democracy demonstrations in Tel Aviv.

I am a child of the ’60s and participated in countless marches and demonstrations opposing the war in Vietnam, in support of civil rights, calling on the Soviet Union to let my people go and at the United Nations decrying the resolution defining Zionism as racist. However, the crowd that Saturday night and the subsequent four weeks while I was in Israel were among the largest that I have personally witnessed and an inspiring display of solidarity. How did this happen?

Early in the protests against the Israel government’s proposed judicial reforms that would effectively neuter the Supreme Court, the group of ad-hoc movement leaders discussed how to attract a maximum number of citizens to the cause. A decision was made to privately produce massive numbers of Israeli flags, hand them out at the protests and set a tone that it was patriotism and love of Israel that was driving people into the streets. This effectively blunted the government’s attempt to label the demonstrators as “anarchists and leftists”, and ultimately led to hundreds of thousands of Israelis attending weekly rallies in 150 locations all around Israel. Coverage on Israeli TV channels produced interviews with many protesters who identified as Likud voters and people who have never been to a demonstration before. During the the various “days of disturbance” on weekdays, there were themed protests including parents and children shutting down streets by writing pro-democracy messages in chalk on the street, under the watchful eye of the police as they stopped traffic.

Another important factor that has set the tone of the protests has been the leading role that IDF reservists have played, including a weekday march to the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. This due to the strong support of the ultra-Orthodox parties for the government’s proposed legislation which include providing special benefits to their community, include complete exemption from military service. In an attempt to defuse the tension that day, local residents greeted protesters with songs, snacks, drinks and even cholent, the staple of the Shabbat menu. This led to a sighting of my favorite handmade sign among the multitudes at a demonstration: Translated from the Hebrew it read: “thanks for the cholent, we would prefer that you enlist. “

Since the Kaplan Street rallies, attended by up to 200,000 people, took place on a lengthy city street and not in a square or field, most of the participants couldn’t actually hear the speakers, despite additional screens and loudspeaker equipment. This resulted in many independent groups bringing their own electronic megaphones and drum corps, generating enthusiasm through chants and songs. These included activists for separation of religion and state, climate control, LGBTQ rights, Jewish-Arab solidarity and more. Two in particular stood out.

The group “Bonot Alternativa,” building an alternative, emerged as the leading women’s voice at the rallies distributing their distinctive red t-shirts and initiating one of the most striking visuals of the demonstrations; a circle or line of women in red robes and white caps walking with their heads bowed,  dressed as characters from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale, representing the fear of treatment that women will face if the legislation passes.

Well organized groups focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have a high profile at the demonstrations, holding signs stating that democracy and occupation cannot coexist, calling for equality for all from the river to the sea, funding for poor neighborhoods, not settlements and others. Tens of thousands walk by this display on a weekly basis and are further sensitized to these issues.

After the dramatic events following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aborted firing of Defense Minister Yoav Galant, the legislation was paused and negotiations led by President Isaac Herzog between the government and opposition leaders have begun. This temporary delay has not had the government’s desired effect of stopping the demonstrations. This past Saturday night the streets and junctions around Israel were once again full of protesters, including an estimated 170,000-200.000 in Tel Aviv. I am experiencing a bit of FOMO and am reduced to supporting the demonstrators from afar and reading news reports. For a life-long activist, there is no replacement for being in the streets and demonstrating for your values. I hope to be back on the bus from Jaffa to Kaplan Street again soon.

About the Author
Kenneth Bob serves as the president of Ameinu, a progressive Zionist organization, as well as chair of Project Rozana USA which focuses on building bridges of understanding between Israelis and Palestinians through healthcare.
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