Every once in a while, a Knesset member will wake up or come out of a meeting to find his or her phone overloaded with thousands of messages, all saying pretty much the same thing, usually calling to vote a certain way.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis, Kulanu MKs Rachel Azaria and Roi Folkmann and MK Yoav Kisch of the Likud and others in the coalition all faced that reality Sunday when secularist advocacy group Be Free Israel disseminated their private cellphone numbers and told supporters to accuse them of “closing Israel on Shabbat.”
The text message campaign followed last week’s first reading of the “minimarkets bill,” which gives the interior minister discretion to authorize municipal ordinances opening or closing stores on Shabbat. The bill only applies to municipalities that want to pass new local ordinances on the matter, and will not proactively change anything in towns that want to keep the situation on Saturdays as it is.
It also only applies to stores and not to restaurants or places of entertainment.
Yesh Atid Chairperson, Yair Lapid, in a speech in the Knesset against religious coercion by the government, December 14, 2017. (Facebook/Yesh Atid)
Be Free Israel called the bill a form of religious coercion and demanded that MKs vote against it.
The method of protesting by sending thousands of WhatsApp messages has become increasingly popular recently, with activists against the government’s natural gas plan or the evacuation of the Amona outpost, among others, using it.
In the past, some lawmakers have complained about the tactic, while other MKs have distributed their information freely, even in radio interviews.
MKs who were hit by a wave of messages on Sunday said they don’t find them offensive – but not particularly convincing, either.
“I have to say that its effectiveness is zero,” Kisch said, “but if they want to do it, I’m not going to make them stop. I think it gives them publicity... The phone calls aren’t effective, but it creates a public debate and that’s their game... I’m not one of those people who think it crosses a line. Good luck to them.”
Azaria said that in addition to the calls and thousands of messages – many of which she doesn’t have time to read – activists put up signs near her home.
Still, she said, “Democracy is a great asset and it’s very important for people to be involved.”
Azaria took the protests in stride, “It’s not easy being a public servant, because we are a nation that doesn’t like its leaders. We even irritated Moses. So I think it’s fine... I don’t have a problem with the concept. I ran organizations.”
However, Azaria also argued that the “minimarkets bill” isn’t an appropriate use of what should be a doomsday tactic.
“Specifically on the minimarkets bill, this annoys me, because it’s the wrong battle. It’s a bill that’s empty of content. This is just populist... They didn’t do this with 1,000 other bills on religion and state that I fought for without support, and now they’re making this out to be everything... This bill was meant to allow the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) to back down on their threats,” she said.
Similarly, Kisch said the people sending him messages “overinflated something small and insignificant... that keeps the status quo.”
“I don’t want religious or secular coercion, but I don’t think this is a change of the status quo. It’s just a political war between Yisrael Beytenu and Shas,” he added.
Be Free Israel director-general Uri Keidar said he doesn’t see a problem with the tactic.
“You influence the lives of millions of people and you can’t handle some messages? That’s ridiculous,” he scoffed. “The minimum you can do is have a connection with the public. That should be seen as a good thing.”
Keidar also pointed out that MKs tend to give their phone number out to many party activists.
“When we did a campaign with Labor youth to fight the natural gas plan, some MKs reacted unhappily, but I think this creates an equal status for the broader public that doesn’t usually have direct access to lawmakers,” Keidar explained. “Israelis don’t have their congressman who they can call, and that’s a problem. If MKs stand behind their decisions, they shouldn’t have a problem explaining them to the public.”
Tomer Avital, founder of the NGO 100 Days of Transparency, controversially hired private investigators to track down the restaurants in which MKs like to hold meetings outside the Knesset, but still said he considers lawmakers’ right to privacy before giving his supporters their phone numbers.
“We know that emails go the assistant, so if it’s urgent and you want to create a shock wave, swing a digital ax, I think there’s a place for it,” Avital said. “These are the people who run the country, and that comes with privileges and responsibilities. I think texting is relatively tame, but we use it when there’s no other choice.”
As for its effectiveness, Avital said he’s not sure. Recently, he spearheaded a message campaign in relation to a bill instating a fee for filing class-action suits, and Shas MK Michael Malkieli received hundreds of messages. Avital felt it may have had the opposite effect on him.
“Sometimes I wonder if it’s too much,” Avital said. “It’s an art form I haven’t learned yet.”
Then, there’s the matter of “doxing,” a term for posting people’s personal contact information on social media. Twitter considers doing that without the person’s express permission to be “one of the most serious violations of the Twitter rules” and explains that it “may pose serious safety and security risks.”
Facebook’s rules say, “You may not publish the personal information of others without their consent.”
Be Free Israel’s Facebook post, featuring lawmakers’ phone numbers, was removed.
Avital suspects that Facebook has removed content he posted for that reason, and therefore he disseminates lawmakers’ information on WhatsApp, instead.