The Heartbeat of Balfour

A convoy of around fifty private vehicles gathered last Sunday afternoon in a Paz gas station on the coastal road in Netanya, where like-minded Israelis from post-army to post-retirement age could already feel the heartbeat of Balfour. We decorated our cars with placards inscribed with anti-government slogans and listened to instructions from Yuval and Neta, the organizers of this caravan to Jerusalem. Our trek would culminate in a demonstration at Balfour, the first, and maybe the last, in the current lockdown. “Follow the Corona restrictions,” Yuval cautioned us. “Wear your masks, and keep your noses covered.” The rules of the game were clear, and though we disdained the lockdown in general and some of the rules in particular, we understood that the law was on our side. After all, we had the legal right to demonstrate, and our convoy was being coordinated with the police – well, sort of.

With sweet expectations, we set off on Route 2 at 60 km/h and were greeted at every overpass bridge with demonstrators waving flags and banners as we motored by with our flashers on, honking horns. The heartbeat of Balfour gathered momentum on wheels as strong-willed Israelis drove with uncharacteristic civility and safety in single-file.

My wife and I had to pick up our son in Tel-Aviv, which was off the route, so I changed lanes and stepped on the gas with the aim to rejoin our group later on Route 1. At the entrance to the Ayalon highway we ran into the first police roadblock. I told the cop where we were going, and at the sounding of “Balfour” he waved me through. Sometime later, with our highly motivated older son in the backseat, I eased back into the right lane as we spotted the convoy crawling up Route 1 by the airport. My wife took note that the motorcade had absorbed vehicles coming from different directions and grown way beyond the fifty cars we started out with.

“This convoy is going to make history,” I enthused.

“Balfour is making history,” my son corrected.

After a pit stop in Latrun and a long delay caused by another roadblock, we got back on Route 1. I was thinking about finding a good parking spot in Jerusalem. We were at the tail end of the caravan, and I didn’t want to be the last one in the designated parking lot in Givat Ram. So I switched lanes and proceeded to bypass my fellow in-transit protestors. It was getting dark and everyone was driving with their lights on. Looking ahead towards a bend in the road, the snaking traffic in the right lane stretched as far as the eye can see. By the time I slowed down to rejoin the convoy, I could see the same sight in the rearview mirror. By then, the caravan had grown to well over a thousand cars.

At Sha’ar Hagai and points east, roadside demonstrators with signs and smiles on their faces waved and cheered us on as twilight descended over the uphill road to Jerusalem.

“This is the real demonstration,” my wife ventured. At the time I didn’t realize that she was presaging future protests.

Somewhere past Abu Gosh we got word on the WhatsApp group that the police had set up a roadblock by the main entrance to Jerusalem and were giving incoming drivers a hard time. Still kilometers away, we could feel the traffic jamming and the convoy swelling into the adjoining lanes on this slow approach to the capitol, where a clueless government and police force that couldn’t organize panic in a pandemic was figuring out how to handle a demonstration.

This didn’t spoil the atmosphere of the convoy, it rather enlivened it. Passing cars with rolled down windows emitted sounds of laughter and song. One woman with a megaphone ad-libbed a derisive ditty about a beleaguered Bibi. My son noted that she had a strong Mizrachi accent, and told his mom “so much for what you said about this being an all-Ashkenazi protest.”

In a WhattsApp text that was left open to interpretation, Yuval and Neta recommended a route from the city entrance to the Israel Museum. They also thanked everyone for participating and wished us a Shana Tova. It crossed my mind that some drivers might just turn around at Mivasseret Zion and go home.

My son, who had no intention of giving up or getting trapped in a police-induced bottleneck, turned on Waze and got us out of there in a hurry. This entailed a detour north to go south and quickly delivered us to the museum parking lot, where someone asked me if I can point him to Balfour. “East of here,” I said with a grin. “Where we face when we pray,” he smiled back.

We angled towards Ramban Street with other newly arriving demonstrators and walked briskly through quaint old Rehavia, breathing in the crisp mountain air of a late summer night. We could hear demonstration noise as we passed by a building with a For Sale sign on the ground floor, which seemed to suggest that having a shady Prime Minister for a next-door neighbor could be arranged at a bargain price. We rounded the corner and saw a lit-up Paris Square silhouetted by the besieged Balfour residence, a fortress walled in by fear of what was going on in the street, a stronghold losing its grip.

The night was electric with light, resplendent with song, swaying in rhythm with the gathered throng, dancing to the collective heartbeat.

“This is great,” I said excitedly to my son.

“This is what it’s like here all the time,” he told me.

The masked hordes waving a sea of flags, many of them colored black, just as many colored blue and white, all venting an outburst from a gut sense that comes out crying to be heard. A sense of betrayal and outrage. A perception that, in the worst of times, those entrusted to lead us have violated that trust. The certainty that we are being taken for a ride on a dead-end street. The fear of freefalling down a rabbit hole to hell. And above all, a strong conviction that we can do something about it.

As my son put it so well, “I don’t want to wake up one morning and find that I’m living in a dictatorship.”

A picture comes to mind of Thailand, a would-be paradise my wife and I once visited, where the streets of Bangkok are lined with larger than life murals of the Thai King, Queen and Prince. The mere thought of Jerusalem festooned with frescos of Bibi, Sara and Yair is enough to induce nightmares.

Yet with all our dark thoughts, it was a happy crowd. Happy to be outdoors in a lockdown imposed by bungling politicians, a closure that could have been avoided and many experts say is still unnecessary. Happy with the thought that in spite of all the blockades, confusion, and rules that seem to change by the hour, we made it to Balfour. Happy to be wearing our masks, if only to demonstrate that breaking the law is not why we came here; or, for those among us with bitter experience, if only to avoid getting fined, arrested and manhandled by nervous cops. Happy to know that even when things get a little too hot and it’s getting hard to breath, we can always scream behind our masks.

It was also a thoughtful crowd, as expressed by numerous homemade banners. My favorite was “Bibi is not the Likud,” which states the diversity of political leanings and converging forces among the protestors, particularly young men and women who come from right-wing homes. Another placard showed a Hebrew rendering of a quote from Martin Luther King that censures the good folks who stand silently on the sidelines. Other signs conveyed radical themes such as clean government and responsible leadership, along with a return to normalcy and democratic principles.

For that, they call as “anarchists.” That’s what happens when more common curse words like “left” become passé.

Taking a time-out on the front steps of the Kings Hotel with Paris Square in view, we got word that a Jewish driver who tried to run over a group of protestors was being held by police. It was unclear if the driver was in his right mind or if he just thought that his targets were anarchists.

Leaving Balfour, we walked up King George Street with the overflow from the demonstration and turned down a side road. We left before the police came and put an end to it with eleven or so arrests, like they were meeting a quota. I won’t waste space trying to explain what I can’t understand, why a peaceful protest has to end this way. Nor will I harp on the point that on the night before the demonstration, for some reason the very same Jerusalem police gave up on a plan to form “capsules” and enforce social distancing.

We were heading back to the parking lot by the Israel Museum, and we still hadn’t heard the last from our law enforcers. We got word that the last drivers from our caravan who were detained for hours at the roadblock by the city entrance were just now making their way to Balfour. But the worst was yet to come, as another roadblock awaited us on the way out! For the first time since 1948, Jerusalem was effectively under siege.

The message was clear: If on Sunday night there was no law keeping us from going to Balfour, there was also no law keeping the police from harassing good Israeli citizens to kick off the new year.

So much for law enforcement under an indicted prime minister who uses a public health crisis to change the rules when it suits him and acts with conflict of interest, all for the purpose of avoiding his day in court.

Opponents of the Balfour protests are now saying that the “anarchists” caused the lockdown. As if Corona manager Roni Gamzu hadn’t come up with a better plan for differential closures that the government rejected, letting things get out of hand. As if Shas leader Aryeh Deri didn’t call for a shutdown of the whole country rather than allow Gamzu to “single out” his haredi communities. Politics call the tune and all logic goes out the window in these insane times.

Some things just can’t be changed, though. Those who need to have their voices heard will continue to make noise any way they can, like in any country that calls itself a democracy. At the time of this writing, another caravan is on its way to the Knesset… Presently, the convoy has arrived and everyone is honking their horns at the Crime Minister, who may or not be there, but there is nowhere to hide from the noise. There is no stopping the heartbeat of Balfour.

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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