The demonstration in Tel Aviv last Saturday night was by far the largest seen in Israel’s liberal bastion in recent years. Held just days after Justice Minister Yariv Levin unveiled his plan for a major overhaul of the judiciary – which would effectively undermine the Supreme Court and throw Israel’s democratic system into turmoil – it drew up to 30,000 participants.
The protesters gathered at Habima Square with plans to march to another central destination in the city. They couldn’t agree, however, on what would happen at this next stop, and so, they headed in two different directions.
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The protest had been initiated by Standing Together, a grassroots movement of Jewish and Arab citizens dedicated to economic and social justice, and strongly opposing the occupation.
Dozens of civil society groups, with similar and overlapping agendas, soon added their names to the list of organizers, as did several organizations active in the anti-Netanyahu protests that took place several years ago in Jerusalem. (These were widely known as the “Balfour protests” because the demonstrators would gather outside the prime minister’s official residence on Balfour Street.)
Not all were on board with the program organized by Standing Together, however – especially its choice of speakers at the next destination: the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Those speakers included Ayman Odeh, leader of the mainly Arab Hadash party; Naama Lazimi, a senior member of the Labor Party and known for her strong socialist leanings; and Avner Gvaryahu, the director of Breaking the Silence (a group of ex-combat soldiers dedicated to ending the occupation).
Because many of the protesters who showed up at Habima Square did not necessarily identify as hard-core leftists, they did not feel comfortable with the direction the event was taking. Some also blamed Odeh for contributing, as a member of the opposition, to the downfall of the previous center-left government.
And so the protesters split up. The overwhelming majority ended up at the art museum, but many took off in a different direction.
Ran Harnevo, a high-tech entrepreneur known as an outspoken critic of the Netanyahu government on Twitter, went so far as to accuse organizations and politicians on the left of “hijacking” the event to promote their own agendas at the expense of what he saw as the more important issue at stake.
“The speeches we hear here having nothing to do with what the crowd came here for – the judiciary revolution is the real story!” he tweeted. “Ayman Odeh, Naama Lazimi and Avner Gvaryahu, with all due respect, are not the people we were waiting for (to put it mildly).”
Shikma Bressler, a founder of the Black Flags movement, which was a driving force in the Balfour protests, has been active in the new protests as well. She admitted on Twitter that she was tempted to join the crowd at Habima that split off in another direction.
“Ayman Odeh voted in favor of dissolving the Knesset because of narrow political considerations,” she wrote. “He holds direct responsibility for what is happening here and for the harm caused to the Arab community in Israel.”
Responding to these and other attacks on some of the organizers and speakers, the veteran Israeli anti-occupation movement Peace Now issued the following statement on social media: “On Twitter, there’s a bit of a ‘you’re hurting the struggle’ vibe. We have a long road ahead of us, so we’ll say this right now. To those of you who have a problem with the anti-occupation messages or agenda of us and our colleagues: Deal with it. We will not keep silent about what brought us out here, and we will not censor ourselves in the struggle for democracy.”
The split at Habima Square was, in many ways, a metaphor for the divisions that have long racked the anti-Netanyahu camp – and at great political cost.
Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the most recent election campaign when Labor refused to merge with Meretz. Running on its own, Meretz did not win enough votes to cross the electoral threshold, and tens of thousands of left-wing votes went down the drain, effectively handing Netanyahu his latest victory on a silver platter.
Prof. Gadi Wolfsfeld, who has written extensively on Israeli political protests, believes the problem runs even deeper. “Of course it would be nice if the center-left could get its act together,” says Wolfsfeld, a communications professor at Reichman University, Herzliya. “But I think the fact that people went off in different directions at this first big protest – that’s going to be just a footnote. The more serious problem is that the political parties on the center-left can’t get their act together and rally behind one leader.”
He noted that Benny Gantz, head of the centrist National Unity Party, continues to challenge the leadership of Yair Lapid, who heads the much larger Yesh Atid.
“Unlike the right, the center-left does not have any leader with consensual support,” notes Wolfsfeld. “If they only had one leader they could get behind, this would be a completely different story. And what we saw on Saturday night was a metaphor for this more general problem.”
Perhaps more than anyone in Israel, Amir Haskel became the face of the Balfour protests – which many Israelis believe played a key role in Netanyahu’s defeat in the March 2021 election. Years before these protests became a regular Saturday night event outside the prime minister’s residence, Haskel, a retired air force brigadier general, would show up at junctions around the country, often alone, carrying signs protesting Netanyahu’s corruption.
He is not overly concerned by the deep differences of opinion exposed last Saturday. “At the beginning, there were also many different groups with very different agendas at the Balfour protests,” he recounts. “It took time until they all found their common denominator, which was a belief that a person accused of criminal activity cannot serve as prime minister.”
Noting that mass movements inevitably include groups trying to promote different and sometimes conflicting agendas, Haskel says he believes the majority of those active in the current protests have begun coalescing around two overriding issues: “saving Israeli democracy and preventing a regime change.”
Dani Filc, a professor of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, was one of the founders of Standing Together and remains an active member of the board.
He also downplays any internal tensions related to Saturday night. “The government is planning lots of different things against lots of different groups, and so it makes sense that we’d see a very diverse movement – and it’s totally legitimate,” he says.
At the same time, Filc advises those protesters uncomfortable with his movement’s leftist agenda to think carefully about what fighting for democracy means. “We don’t believe there can be a true democratic movement in Israel that isn’t made up of Jewish and Arab citizens,” he says, “and we don’t think Israel can be a true democracy while the occupation is going on.”
Former Labor lawmaker Stav Shaffir was a prominent leader of the big social protests in the summer of 2011 focused on the high cost of living in Israel. While she understands why some members of the crowd may have come away from Saturday’s demonstration with a bad feeling, she doesn’t believe it will have serious ramifications for the movement’s future.
“It’s definitely important when you’re organizing a protest to set a clear goal and mobilize the crowd around it,” she says. “But it’s the nature of these things that people come with different agendas to protests, and you can’t start demanding that they present their résumés before letting them in.”
Bringing speakers to Saturday night’s event, she believes, was a mistake and unnecessary. “These rituals are unimportant,” she says. “What’s important is the turnout. The goal should be getting 1 million people out into the streets – and I believe we can get there.”