Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

The Protests? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Protest on day 274 that Israelis are held hostage photo Credit Samuel Heilman

I have been going to the demonstrations against this Israeli government from their earliest days. As a boomer who grew up in the once robust democracy of the United States during the 1960s, the idea of peaceful protest became for me the most natural response to injustice. We were equal opportunity war protesters: starting with opposition to the war in Vietnam against the Democrat Lyndon Johnson and continuing with the struggle against Republican Richard Nixon. Our dramatic successes in chasing the former from running for re-election and latter and forcing the criminal Nixon to resign in disgrace left many of my peers and me with the conviction that sustained and sincere protests in the street that placed public pressure on our elected representatives could create the necessary conditions that would lead to improvement of our national condition. We could aspire to topple failed leaders, and did.

To be sure, looking back from my position today as an elder protester, I am not certain that the lasting impact of these short-term victories did not come at the high price of continuing culture wars that in America remain as powerful today, if not more so, than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. While we were correct about the stupidity and hopelessness of the war in Vietnam and the need for improving civil rights in the US we left behind a lasting resentment among those who opposed us, some of whom are part of today’s Republican party.

Now, years later finding myself as a citizen of Israel where I have chosen to join my children and fulfill a lifelong dream to return to the land of my forbears, I once more find myself out in the streets with my fellow-protesters – most of whom are of the generation of my children and even my grandchildren – demonstrating on behalf of a change of government from one that seeks to keep a fruitless war going as well as to curb the civil rights of its population. Sound familiar?

But the optimism and hope that once drove my protests in America when I was young has been sapped in my sunset years by the discouraging sense that the nation whose hopeful rebirth occurred in my lifetime guided by celebrated leaders who founded this country to be Jewish and also democratic is no longer a reality. A nation governed by people who knew when it was time to listen to the people and who understood that one governs at the people’s pleasure and not to impose its will upon the majority in favor of a corrupt and self-serving minority is not what we face today. Those founders, not without fault, had an ability to nurture hope and promise for a people who had suffered attempted genocide and generations of hatred. They sought to demonstrate to the world how we could remain “free in our land,” in the words of the national anthem and democratic. Alas, they did not share this with the non-Jewish citizens of this country, but until Rabin’s assassination after the Oslo agreement, fomented by some of those still in power today, there was hope that democratic principles might lead to a more equitable future for all Israelis. We also remained committed to returning Israeli captives no matter how difficult the task and at all costs.

But Israel today is led by an altogether different leadership, driven by a corrupt and power-hungry Prime Minister and allies who seek to turn the state into an institution to be used to further their personal, religious, and institutional interests and to perpetuate their hold on power. Such people do not respond to the pressure of even the most sincere and widespread protests because the “people” are for them irrelevant except as tools for their political machinations. These are leaders who put captives and hostages as a secondary concern.

Forty-eight years ago, under Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, among the country’s founding generation, Israel launched a daring raid to return 106 Israeli hostages who’d been held barely a week in Entebbe by terrorists. During that raid Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan was killed. Now a generation later as the memorials for our lost and fallen mount, our current Prime Minister, that same Benjamin Netanyahu, has allowed 120 hostages to linger a full nine months in a far more punishing captivity even as he also supports a continuing assault on Israeli civil rights. While assaulting the judicial system, maligning those who oppose him, and fleeing responsibility and moral values, he refuses to cease this endless war for which he was unprepared and for which has no strategy to end, and has so far left us no more secure than we were on October 7, 2023. Its end also risks his hold on power, which for him matters most of all.

Memorials in Dizengoff Square Tel Aviv: Photo Samuel Heilman
Gathering in Paris Square Phto: Samuel Heilman

Even as Hamas has dropped its demand that Israel vow upfront to end the war, although seeks mediators’ guarantee that Israel will continue to negotiate a permanent ceasefire deal once the first phase of a ceasefire goes into effect, this government does all it can to resist the deal. This all is happening even as a clear and growing majority of Israelis favor a ceasefire in exchange for the hostages.

Regardless of growing protests that share a desire to end this war and replace this government as the best way to bring home the captives, the government continues its efforts to enshrine its anti-democratic changes to the justice system and moving forward with a deal. Instead it fills the time until its next recess at the end of the month allocating money on such questions as changing the names of various ministries, spending more money on an official residence for the Prime Minister, building a wall on a main road into the center of Jerusalem near the Prime Minister’s private residence to insulate him from protestors, and other inanities.

While the people gathering to protest once again continue to grow in numbers, and my wife and I join them more in a lingering memory of protests that once worked, the truth is I have no sense that in the face of the government’s self-perpetuating desire to remain in power that these protests will find success. The corruption, and stubborn intention to remain in power regardless of the cost to the nation, the contempt for the voice of the populace and resistance to protesters’ demands while insulating themselves from our actions is the hallmark of these undeniably worst government in Israel’s history. Only if members of the political parties in power find it in their hearts to put the people of Israel above themselves – what we once used to expect from Israel’s leaders – can this reprehensible and dangerous government be toppled. That includes people like Edelstein, Barkat, Gallant, and a few others. I’m not holding my breath.

Protesters march in Jerusalem Photo Samuel Heilman
About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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