“Ma Ha Pe Cha.” Thousands of Israelis chant rhythmically after each demand, belted out of a loudspeaker. Mahapecha (מהפכה) means revolution in Hebrew. Each Saturday night for weeks the people have fled into the streets right outside Benjamin Netanyahu’s prime minister (PM) residence to declare their unrest. I happen to have a unique perspective on this, as my dorm sits less than 100 yards from his residence. Saturday night, I watched from the balcony as people spent hours trying to exercise their right to protest while also “trying” to maintain social distancing. As coronavirus cases have risen sharply in Israel, these protests have come under fire for essentially being giant pools spreading Corona. On Saturday night, PM Netanyahu posted a photo to his Instagram (pictured in thumbnail). It is a split-screen: on the bottom, a photo of the streets outside filled with people, and on the top a picture of the Kotel, empty. While there might be a shallow point within this idea that while the whole country is locked down, these protests are the exception to the rule. The snarky post, most likely coming from Netanyahu’s staff, fails to acknowledge a simple idea: why are they protesting in the first place?
Crime Minister; Revolution; Bibi (is) divisive; Disgrace; Shame; Thou shalt not steal. Those were all the signs that I was able to loosely translate looking out my window Saturday night. As I write this the afternoon before Yom Kippur, when thousands will have to make the choice between going to shul or staying home, it feels to me that in these protests, there is a huge amount of energy that is being spent in the name of justice, all realistically for nothing. The phenomenon here is that when you have a government— more importantly, a prime minister— that clearly has no regard for the concerns of the protesters right outside his house, not much is going to change. We saw the same thing in 2011 when Israelis took to the same streets and set up shantytowns in the middle of the same intersection to protest the housing shortage; 9 years later, the same housing shortage exists.
The essential question at hand here is; is it worth it to protest? While normally I would say that a protest cannot hurt, having thousands of people in one place is an objectively dangerous concept when cases begin to skyrocket. I am not here to give an objective answer of “Yes” or “No” to the question posed, what I want to do is recognize that in a world desperately fighting a virus and rising political tension at the same time, there needs to be a conversation about how to balance the two. It should be no surprise that this dilemma is happening in more places than just in Israel, most notably with the mass demonstrations for Black Lives Matter in the United States. Finding the line between protecting the right to protest that is so fundamental to democracy while also keeping people safe seems nearly impossible, but we need to continue talking about it, or else we risk falling into a vicious cycle. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in his speech on Thursday that “the world is in crisis, and things are about to get much worse.” It is clear that things, in general, will not be getting better any time soon, so long as we remain ignorant to the realities on the ground.
I truly cannot tell you what the right answer is for any country— even Israel— specifically, but after watching a police officer swipe a woman’s card on his iPad to fine her 1000 shekels for breaking the lockdown last night, I can at least tell you, that is not it.