A critical look at the Balfour demonstrations

Demonstrators protest the government's mismanagement of the fight against COVID-19 and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of his Jerusalem residence, Aug. 29, 2020. (photo credit: MOSTAFA ALKHAROUF/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Demonstrators protest the government's mismanagement of the fight against COVID-19 and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of his Jerusalem residence, Aug. 29, 2020.
(photo credit: MOSTAFA ALKHAROUF/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Only once in my life did I participate in a mass demonstration: the demonstration that took place at Kings of Israel Square (today the Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv on September 25, 1982. The demonstration, protesting Israel’s alleged involvement in the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut by Christian Phalangists toward the end of Operation Peace for the Galilee, called for the resignation of then-defense minister Ariel Sharon. Following the demonstration, a National Commission of Inquiry was appointed, which found that Israel had not been directly involved in the massacre but had enabled it to happen, and recommended that Sharon be removed from office. In this the protesters were successful.
The demonstration was attended by over 200,000 persons, and it was there that I discovered that I didn’t feel comfortable in a large mass of people, even if I fully sympathized with what they were demonstrating about.
Though friends keep inviting me to join the current demonstrations near the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, I keep declining, even though I fully support the call for the prime minister’s immediate resignation, which is the main motif of these demonstrations.
The four main reasons for my support are that I believe: 
• No prime minister should continue to serve if he faces indictments on criminal charges;
Netanyahu has crossed the red line of what can be considered as proper and stately in his unbridled attacks on the police, State Attorney’s Office, the Attorney General, and the Jerusalem District Court and Supreme Court judges; 

• He seems to have lost all sense of judgment regarding what is true and what is false in his utterings in his speeches, declarations to the nation, tweets and other social media comments (he is almost as bad as US President Donald Trump in this respect); and 

• He has demonstrated a total absence of leadership and decision-making qualities required to deal with the current health and economic crises. 
In short, despite all his achievements in the past, including the most recent one of bringing about a normalization in Israel’s relations with two of the Gulf states, with Trump’s generous input, Bibi seems to be “losing it.”
HOWEVER, beyond the legitimacy of the demonstrations and of their main goal, and the importance of defending the basic democratic right to demonstrate, there are several aspects of the demonstrations that disturb me.
The first is the fact that all sorts of individuals and groups have joined the demonstrations, who are furious with Netanyahu for reasons completely different to those of the majority of participants, and are simply taking advantage of the visibility of the demonstrations and the media coverage they get, in order to draw attention to their own causes.
A good example is that of the Breslavs, who are furious with Netanyahu for having allegedly colluded with Prof. Ronni Gamzu – the national corona project manager – to prevent their travel to Uman in the Ukraine on the New Year, because of the pandemic. The Breslavs are not concerned about Netanyahu’s trials, his attacks on the law enforcement agencies, his constant lies, broken promises, or his total failure to stop the spread of the virus (to which they mindlessly contribute), or to counter the horrendous economic consequences of the lockdown imposed on the economy in the first stage of the pandemic (which will soon repeat themselves in the second lockdown to begin on Friday). They have come to the demonstrations to protest against the attempts to stop their going to Uman, and now perhaps also because of plans to prevent mass prayers in Israel during the approaching High Holidays. Many of the demonstrators are furious with the Breslavs (and other ultra-Orthodox groups) for sabotaging efforts to bring down th
e level of morbidity, but tolerate the Breslavs’ presence, since they add to the licentious festival atmosphere and create the illusion that all parts of the nation are represented in the demonstrations. 
Which brings me to the next problem. Though there is no proof that the demonstrators, who are crowded in a relatively narrow space, do not all wear masks, and do not avoid physical contact during the demonstrations, are actually responsible for spreading the coronavirus, and there is also no conclusive evidence that they are not (nobody is actually checking). It really doesn’t look good that while efforts are being made to stop mass weddings and religious gatherings, thousands (up to 15,000 at times) get together every week, while at least some of the participants deliberately clash with policemen, who try to keep them to stick to the basic rules, both in terms of measures to prevent spreading the virus, and in terms of avoiding making unbearable noise after 11 p.m., thus turning the lives of the residents in the area into hell.
One of the problems is that there is nobody really in control of the demonstrations from among the various organizers and the demonstrators themselves, and thus very frequently the whole performance moves to directions that are counterproductive in terms of the goals of the majority of demonstrators. For example, there are various elements among the demonstrators, who have turned the demonstrations into a sort of vaudeville, which many might find offensive. Though I am neither prudish nor a purist, I found the costume of the naked “Shoshke” worn by artist Zeev Engelmayer embarrassing, and the balloons shaped like the male sex organ disgusting and totally inappropriate. The sexual allusions to Netanyahu’s wife Sara simply add insult to injury, no matter what one may think of her conduct and hysterical reactions.
However, what worries me most about turning the demonstrations into licentious carnivals, is the fact that they turn off, and even disgust population groups that the “Bibi go home” camp must try convert to its belief that today Netanyahu poses a real threat to Israel’s democracy and to its social cohesion, so that it will have a chance to defeat Netanyahu and the Bibists (though not necessarily the right as a whole) in the ballot box.
The fact that there are currently two right-wing parties in Opposition - both of which are outspoken in their criticism of Netanyahu - indicates a change, but it is also necessary to try to get to the softer Bibi supporters to understand that Netanyahu has not always done well by them, and that his neo-liberal economic beliefs and his concentration on trying to avoid standing trial by all means, are not beneficial to them, nor to the State of Israel, in any way. Since many of these people are traditional and conservative in their beliefs and way of life, Shoshke and giant balloon pricks are not likely to help get them to listen.
The renewed lockdown scheduled to begin next Friday will undoubtedly reduce the dimensions of the demonstrations and might even stop them altogether. Hopefully such a pause will serve as an opportunity for those who set the tone of these demonstrations to take stock, and try to understand why, unlike the 1982 demonstration, the current demonstrations are unlikely in themselves to lead to the desired resignation.