The summer of concerned Israelis

The demonstrations against Netanyahu remained strong in October, even with the second lockdown, as thousands protested weekly across the country against the prime minister. I was where when it began this summer, with the concerned Israelis in Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, because I too was concerned. I saw my country changing to an Israel I could no longer recognize, and set to out explore what went awry with Israel’s democracy. This is a three-part story.

It was unusually hot in Jerusalem in the early evening hours of July 14. Even the thought of keeping on a face mask grew increasingly unbearable while I stood with hundreds more on the verge of the city’s Balfour Street. But masks were largely kept on in the compound we were jammed in, barricaded by movable fences and police checkpoints. The exceptions were the smokers and those who wanted to start a conversation, which required some lip-reading amid the cacophony.

The man standing next to me, his shirt suggested he was a retiree of a security force, pulled off his mask and aired a complaint about the heat. “The country has gone,” he said next, and I understood what he meant. We were standing opposite the prime minister’s residence, protesting for an Israel each of us had lost in different ways and at different times.

To me, it happened after a phone call with my mother, early March, from Central New Jersey. I left Israel last August to start university as a foreign student in the US, and by March, it has been the longest I’ve been away from home. On the phone, the day following the March 2 elections, the third round of the year, my mother told me how a group of young Netanyahu supporters who were staffing a stand for his Likud Party met my father and her as they were going to vote.

As my parents approached the polling station, my mother explained, the group inquired as to her voting intentions. When she replied with an anodyne comment as if to end the interaction, in her Russian accent, they attacked, calling her and my father traitors “like all the Russians.” The Netanyahu people were referring to Avigdor Liberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party and Netanyahu’s longtime coalition partner and former adviser, whose refusal to join a Netanyahu government after the first election round bought him a place on the premier’s blacklist.

Liberman, who bears a thick Russian accent himself, has long been seen as the political leader of Israel’s over a million Russian speakers. His defiance of Netanyahu’s terms made him, in Netanyahu’s world, a leftist — and thus, a traitor. By extension, so were his constituents.

My parents immigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel in their late 20s. It was in Israel that they first learned about freedom of expression, political discourse, and respite from anti-Semitic persecution. Israel’s political culture was, for them, a life changing revelation. When I was born, a first-generation Israeli, I developed my idea of the country much through their eyes. As concerned as we were about Israel’s many problems, the notion of it as a haven of safety, the only place that had granted my family belonging after centuries of deracination, stood at the basis of my understanding of this country. But on March 2, what my parents had fled from in the Soviet Union remerged in their own neighborhood. “Not since leaving the USSR was I called a traitor,” my mother said. “Israel won’t feel the same.”

I left Israel well-versed in the toxic political discourse and polarization that have dominated the country since the April 2019 elections, the first round of the year, at least in abstract terms. Five months earlier, in November, I watched with exasperation how Netanyahu unleashed unprecedented attacks against everyone involved in his legal predicaments after being indicted on three corruption charges.

Around that time, Zvi Barel, the Middle Eastern affairs analyst for Haaretz warned about the cold civil war that was raging in the country. Ostensibly a battle over Netanyahu’s legal fate, it was a battle that ran much deeper than the question of the premier’s political survival. Unfolding was a battle over the very nature of Israel’s democracy and its rule of law. I was optimistically skeptical at the time. The brunt of Israel’s burgeoning illiberalism proved hard to grasp in abstraction. Not until it hit home did I realize my country was changing its face.

Amos Oz said that “every destruction begins with the destruction of language, when you call things by names which are not their own.” That my parents and I were distressed was because in the polling station incident we saw the first personal manifestation of the erosion of the Israel we had chosen and grown to love. Netanyahu’s idea of Israel — a place where people like my family and me are more of an obstruction than citizenry — became our lived experience.

To see your country change its face is deeply disorienting. It infringes on the deepest held notions of the place you knew so well that you may have taken for granted. It’s effective for the perpetrators because it manifests in self-deprecation — I felt so small after my parents’ incident when I realized how far the change extends beyond my individual faculties — and so one may tend to suppress it. You may know the feeling. But when that change becomes a tangible moment in time, when it can no longer be dismissed or downplayed, it is only a matter of time before it becomes common property.

I returned home unexpectedly two weeks after that phone call. As the pandemic exploded in America, my college sent students home before spring break, and I found myself on the first available seat on an El Al flight. I came back to Israel searching. I sought out more Israelis who felt like my parents and I did, who had their ideas on this country’s democracy trampled; whose concern for this country departed abstraction.

Four months later, I found myself in Balfour Street when the protests erupted in full force, on July 14, and I set out to explore. Has my country really changed its face? How imperiled is Israel’s democracy under Netanyahu? What could the protestors in Balfour achieve?

In the following posts you’ll find some of my answers to these questions.

About the Author
Jonathan is a political science student at Princeton University. He is originally from the northern town of Nahariya, where he was born and raised as a son of immigrants from the Soviet Union. This partly explains his interests in the complexities of the Israeli identity and the state of Israel's democracy.
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