Over the past five years, social activist and criminal lawyer Barak Cohen has kindled a new form of protest in Israel.
His strategy is simple. “I hold people personally accountable for their actions and I bring it to their everyday life and aptly use social media,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “In the same way that it is personal for me that the bank’s debt collectors arrive on my doorstep to collect my girlfriend’s belongings – even though I’m the one in a financial bind – I’ll show up outside the bank CEO’s home to voice my protest against their hoggish policies.”
In 2000, due to a debt he owed to Bank Leumi, the bank ordered the confiscation of Cohen’s girlfriend’s belongings from their apartment, even though a few weeks earlier, according to Cohen, a judge accepted his appeal that his debt shouldn’t endanger his partner’s property. In response to the bank’s actions, Cohen started a movement in 2014, that would later draw significant public and media attention, which he named “Ba’im labanka’im
” – “Going to [confront] the bankers.”
For two years Cohen and his followers harassed top Israeli bankers – CEOs and directors alike. Armed with a camera, Cohen took his protest to places like the home of Bank Leumi’s CEO, and interrupted the CEO of Bank Hapoalim while he was dining in a restaurant. In an act that evoked significant public controversy, Cohen showed up outside the Bank Leumi’s CEO’s daughter’s school and shouted with a megaphone that her mother is a thief.
ON MAY 15 this year, the Israel Bar Association suspended Cohen from practicing law after several bankers filed a complaint against his activities. The complaint demanded his suspension from the association until the standing criminal case against him – he is accused of blackmail, harassment and slander – is concluded in the courts.
This is only the beginning. The morning of the day that our interview was initially scheduled to take place, Cohen lost in a different slander case against him. In 2014, he provided legal advice to Beitar Jerusalem fans and got into a dispute with an undercover police officer who tried to penetrate the fan base. Cohen claims that the officer conducted his work unlawfully; the latter maintained that he was simply doing his job, trying to identify violent fans who were throwing stones and committing arson attacks (the fans were protesting the decision of the club’s management to sign up Muslim players from Chechnya). The Jerusalem District Police intelligence officer charged Cohen with slander after the lawyer exposed him and called him a “green-eyed snake” in a song that went viral.
A week after that court ruling, we met on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. Cohen pointed to a shellfish restaurant across the street and asked, “Do you recognize the place?” He was referring to his most recent claim to fame: a viral clip he uploaded a few months ago of his encounter with Culture Minister Miri Regev outside the restaurant.
Cohen attacked Regev in the video: “Are you strong only against the Ashkenazi Meretz party? You cannot answer a Mizrahi democrat? [You are] an undemocratic piece of garbage. I s*** on your entire family. Racist crap.” When Regev walked into the restaurant accompanied by her family he said, “They serve shellfish there. You eat prawns? This is your Judaism?”
PEOPLE DENOUNCE Cohen for his brutal language and aggressive behavior, but in person, the man nicknamed “the Left’s bully” and “banker terrorizer” is soft-spoken, articulate and thoughtful.Why do you choose such language for your struggle?
“When I was young, I used to think that the political struggle here was about ethnicity, that the whole story was about the Ashkenazi elite oppressing Mizrahim. However, when I grew older, I saw that there are other factors influencing society beyond the Ashkenazi/Mizrahi power dynamics. My political discourse was shaped by my experiences here, but it was also affected by reading philosophy.
“I’m fond of Socrates. Do you remember why he was brought to trial in the Apology
? At the time, the Sophists were setting the tone in Athens. And what were they about? Rhetoric. The appearance of justice, not justice itself. I seek to shatter the image of hypocrites, who, like the Greek Sophists, appear to be just, while in fact they are unjust.
“A minister appears powerful on TV, but when I trash talk him and he turns mute, this image of a strong minister is shattered. This is what I’m after – to show that they don’t know what to say because they are afraid it will damage their public image; they tremble when they don’t have their public relations advisers to whisper in their ears what to say or what not to say.
“These people live off this image, that they are not common people, that they are above us. I reveal that this is only appearance. They are merely men and women like us. I take away their fictional power that stems not from the essence of who they are and what they do, but from the image they are able to create. That’s where they are weak. I don’t have respect for them. They do not represent me.”Why the vulgarity?
“I’m blunt, not vulgar. I called Regev ‘racist crap.’ Do you want to tell me that a racist person isn’t trash? God gave me a wide spectrum of words to choose from. I choose my words intentionally. I don’t use the same sort of language in my everyday life. I’m not blunt in this manner when I lecture, speak with a bus driver or with my friends. This is a tool in my struggle.
“In my earlier days, I was vulgar. What shaped me was the feminist discourse. It showed me how language is also a means of oppression. I wouldn’t use the words “whore” or “son of a bitch” anymore. As for “racist crap” – that’s kosher l'mehadrin.
“I try to expose the hypocrisy of these politicians. Regev pretends she cares about Judaism. She posts items about the weekly Torah portion, but then she doesn’t keep Shabbat.
“Want to hear something crazy? After this incident happened, I was investigated by the police. The only thing they asked me about was why I said she ate at that [non-kosher] restaurant. That’s also the only thing that worried her, because it damaged her public image. I’m not judging her religiosity, only her double standards. She acts – with her racist rhetoric against atheists, Arabs and African refugees – as though what she cares about is Judaism. I’m here to expose her confusion between the Jewish tradition and Israeli nationalism.
“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is of the same stock. He pretends to be the savior of the Jewish people. I don’t believe that. He, too, eats insects, so who is he to speak in the name of Judaism?” What led you to take this form of protest, to treat people on such a personal level?
“First things first: It is personal. The people I protest against make decisions that affect all of us personally. I don’t accept the false perception of the system they are hiding behind.
“Moses introduced me to this idea. God sent him to Pharaoh, telling him, ‘Go to the Nile.’ Why the Nile? Rashi [a medieval commentator on the Talmud and the Bible], explained that Pharaoh was revered as a god of sorts. Moses was serving the real God, the God of truth. One of the ways in which Pharaoh presented himself as a god was that he didn’t use the toilet. Obviously, that was a lie; when he needed to go, he hid by the Nile. That’s where Moses went to see him because that was where Pharaoh was vulnerable. He exposed Pharaoh’s divine lie.”Still, doesn’t it cross a line when you involve family members, such as when you paid a visit to the daughter of Bank Leumi’s CEO outside her school?
“I don’t, in principle, attack family members. In the case of bankers, it was relevant; however, because part of what we were trying to underscore is that the banks’ policy also involves family members. For instance, if you are 19 and owe money to the bank, the bank will go after your parents. Is that fair? Your mom wouldn’t be happy to have bullies coming to her house and intimidate her. It’s a scary situation.
“The bankers perhaps justify this, but I don’t buy into it.”
COHEN WAS born 40 years ago in Jerusalem. At 12 he left home for a boarding school, and at 18, after he “didn’t show enthusiasm” about enlisting, the IDF discharged him for medical reasons. He decided to study law at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, which was then a young college with a “great atmosphere and familial spirit.” His choice to study law, he says, had to do with his love of reading and writing and gravitation toward understanding the relationship between community, society and authority.
At 24 he started working as a criminal lawyer.
“Criminal cases say on the cover page, ’The State of Israel against X.’ Anyone that the state is against, I’m on their side,” he declares.
During his years of practicing criminal law, Cohen developed a complex political worldview. He attributes his ideological turning point to the effect of two lecturers he attended during his MA degree at the IDC: Uriel Reichman, a law professor and former politician, and Aharon Barak, who served as president of the Supreme Court and currently lectures at Yale and the IDC.
“They spoke at length about the necessity for a constitution. This stirred the pot for me. I started thinking about it practically and conceptually. They think that the Israeli parliament has the authority to draft such a document. I disagree. I think that this mandate belongs to the people of this land.”Who do you mean by “people of the land"?
“All the people who live in this land or were expelled from it.”How can you draft such a document? Is it possible to reach the needed social agreement?
“Before we sit down to write a single word, we need to know each other better. I grew up in a haredi neighborhood, but I barely knew them. So the most significant work now is in creating relationships between different groups, both on the personal level, and becoming more familiar with the variety of cultures and identities that flourish here – especially since the government is always trying to separate people. That’s what, with God’s help, I’m aiming to do.”
COHEN’S TENDENCY to tie his activity both with extreme right-wing Beitar fans, haredim who don’t want to enlist, the Ethiopian struggle and far-Left, feminist and Palestinian groups, sometimes confuses people, who claim he flip-flops. He, on the other hand, maintains that he is consistent.
“Let’s consider, for example, religious Zionism,” he says. “In the morning a man might put on tefillin, but in the Knesset he sanctifies rules that are an abomination to his tradition. That’s a contradiction. Religious Zionism mixes religiosity and nationalism. I don’t have this confusion. I know how to distinguish between the two.
“The way I see things is that there is a government here that oppresses people, no matter who they are. I’m not fighting my own fight. I’m privileged. But I join anyone who needs and wants my shoulder. I support the struggle to free Avera Mengistu [an immigrant from Ethiopia who crossed into Gaza in 2014 and is being held there]; I support haredim; I support the struggle against administrative detention; I support the struggle for public housing. They, the communities, do the work; I’m there when they need me to show solidarity.
“One of the most despicable things is to present a false image to the world. As if – and I’m sidelining the Palestinian issue for a moment – we realized salvation, that at last there is a Jewish home where no one is being persecuted and everyone has a chance to develop. The reality is that the government oppresses most of the people who live here – Jews and non-Jews alike.”
MANY CONSIDER Cohen a radical and an anarchist, and dismiss him as slightly insane. However, walking the streets of Tel Aviv with him, it seems as though every second person recognizes him and every third asks to shake his hand. He recently took part in protests against Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit for delaying legal procedures in cases involving Netanyahu. These protests are in the same spirit. Cohen preaches the following: treat politics personally, hold decision-makers accountable, and don’t be afraid to take the fight to a politician’s home – such as outside Mandelblit’s home in Petah Tikva.
Cohen abandoned the practice of law in favor of political activism. He hopes to take his activism to the next level and form strong bonds between different communities. In the meantime, he continues to surprise the Israeli public with his inimitable style.