In Israel, coronavirus brings out a new generation of protesters

Why We Wrote This

Can a historic event shape a whole generation? In Israel, a younger demographic seen as apathetic by their elders have taken to the streets to protest the government’s handling of the coronavirus.

Oded Balilty/AP
Protesters block a main road during a protest against Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, early Sunday, Aug 2, 2020. Protesters demanded that the embattled Israeli leader resign as he faces a trial on corruption charges and grapples with a deepening coronavirus crisis.

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Israel’s once-lauded handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been marred by a rushed and sloppy reopening. Infection rates have soared. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly dismissed expert medical guidance, preferring to make the calls himself.

Now tens of thousands of younger Israelis have been gathering alongside older protesters across the country to denounce the policies and Mr. Netanyahu. In recent years, younger Jewish Israelis were the demographic most visibly absent from demonstrations. Older Israelis called them out as apathetic, seemingly content to put their energies into what felt like a world of opportunities. But in the COVID-19 era that world has vanished, replaced by record unemployment and a growing belief that Mr. Netanyahu has forsaken them and the country.

Merav Ferziger, 24, was bruised the first night police turned on the water cannons in Jerusalem. She was also arrested that night for the first time. “I’m here because I want to create a better future,” she says. “I feel like our leadership is just so rotten and unable to unite us.”

Getting arrested cemented why she wants to be part of this new struggle. “It made me realize what reality we are living in,” she says. “It changed my perspective.”

It’s a song for another season, one borrowed from the Hanukkah holiday and citing a need to bring light to banish the winter darkness.

But for a new generation of Israelis finding their own political voice as they protest the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic this summer, it has become something of an anthem.

Amid the beating of drums and blowing of plastic horns at the epicenter of the protest movement, thousands of young people filling the street facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence last Thursday raised their fists and shouted the lyrics.

Their voices reverberated like a roar, even through masks:

Though the night is cold and dark.
In our soul, there lies a spark.
Each of us, is one small light.
All together, we shine bright.

For the past month, tens of thousands of Israelis, many in their 20s and 30s, have been gathering alongside older protesters across the country. Their steadily swelling numbers produced a crowd Saturday night in Jerusalem that police estimated to be nearly 17,000 people and some activists to be twice that.

In recent years, these younger Jewish Israelis were the demographic most visibly absent from demonstrations. Fairly or not, older generations called them out as apathetic and seemingly content to put their energies less into politics and more into what felt like a world of opportunities – like post-army international travel and plentiful work in high-tech and creative fields.

But in the COVID-19 era that world has vanished, replaced by record unemployment, what is largely seen as a botched government response to the virus, and a growing belief that Mr. Netanyahu, who has been in power for most of their lives, has forsaken them and the country. He is more occupied, they say, with quashing his ongoing trial for multiple corruption charges, trying to annex the West Bank, and painting them as traitors and agitators.

“I feel the country has lost its way morally. It’s all hatred and division – a divide-and-conquer approach. That’s Bibi [Netanyahu], that’s his role. It’s how he wins,” says Achinoam Cohen, 31, who grew up in a religious, right-wing home. “I feel like he’s betrayed me. ... I feel like my generation has woken up and is talking about change and wanting to be part of decision-making.”

Israel’s policies, once seen as an example of sober, smart handling of the virus, are now a cautionary tale of a rushed and sloppy reopening. Infection rates soared. Mr. Netanyahu reportedly dismissed expert medical guidance, preferring to make the calls himself.

Some moves made him appear out of touch. With almost a million unemployed, the Knesset approved a tax exemption for him worth an estimated $145,000 to cover renovations to his private home. A close political ally crudely dismissed people’s claims they had no food at home. The young, many of whom work as freelancers and are not eligible for some government grants, have been hit disproportionately hard.

A July 12 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found 29.5% of respondents trust Mr. Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis, down from 57.5% in April and 47% in June.

What has changed: economics

The protesters say they are looking for someone they can trust. One who will not, they say, trample on democracy and threaten their future as part of his bid to remain in power. The protests are motivated by multiple causes but share one goal, to force Mr. Netanyahu out.

“I’m here because our government is corrupt, our prime minister is corrupt,” says Hagar Dotan, 21. “I was aware of what was going on in the country, but not active until now.”

She came to Thursday night’s demonstration with her friend Noa Noy, also 21, who notes, “there are people out there who don’t have enough to eat.”

According to Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, a professor of communications at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem whose research has focused on youth political participation in the digital age, young Israelis are more engaged in politics than some of their peers abroad when it comes to voting rates and political interest and knowledge.

But what has changed in bringing people to the streets, she says, is mostly economics, which has the clearest impact on their lives.

Oded Balilty/AP
Thousands of protesters chant slogans and hold signs during a protest against Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, Saturday, Aug 1, 2020.

“The energy is partially driven by that anger but also over their concern for the future of the country. They are saying, ‘We have these ideals we care about, and we are now worried about them,’” says Professor Kligler-Vilenchik.

In normal times “it’s easier for the public to ignore what is happening among politicians. It feels like a sphere unrelated to everyday life,” she adds. “But at the moment we cannot remove politics from everyday life.”

Violence against protesters

A rough police response to the protests seems only to have fueled demonstrators’ determination. The use of water cannons to disperse nonviolent protesters and the manhandling of others being arrested has left people bruised and injured.

Mr. Netanyahu has tried to delegitimize the protesters by labeling them anarchists or leftists (a derogatory term for many in right-leaning Israel), while offering only mild condemnations of far-right activists accused of physically attacking, even stabbing, demonstrators in Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

Merav Ferziger, 24, was bruised the first night the police turned on the water cannons in Jerusalem three weeks ago. She was also arrested that night for the first time. Since then she has not left the city; she moved into an encampment of young people at nearby Independence Park. She and her friends there see their role as helping create a spiritual support center for dialogue and connection among the demonstrators.

“I’m here because I want to create a better future. I feel like our leadership is just so rotten and unable to unite us. They prefer to talk about what separates us. I feel like my place in this is to be someone who connects and creates space for other people.”

Getting arrested cemented why she wants to be part of this new struggle, she says.

“It made me realize what reality we are living in,” she says, still surprised nonviolent protest would be met with what some are calling police brutality. “It changed my perspective.”

Where some young Israelis in the past may have felt more of an impetus to rebel by just leaving the country, decamping for cities like New York or Berlin, Ms. Ferziger says her friends want to stake their claim instead: “I feel like we are understanding how much this place is important to us, how much we want to be here and live here and enjoy this place.”

Professor Kligler-Vilenchik says research on political movements and youth show that such moments can shape a generation’s future political identity.

“For young people, finding voice and protesting can have a mark on them ... If over time they feel they have achieved something, to have had their voices heard and have some kind of outcome – it will increase their sense of political efficacy.”

Rumbles from the right

The demonstrations in Jerusalem – a city known for its predominantly religious and right-wing population – are attracting participants from constituencies that are normally more supportive of the prime minister.

Though the majority of the protesters are secular Jews of European descent, the socioeconomic message of the protests has appeal among both working-class Israelis who are a mainstay of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and national religious Jews.

Matan Barak, an 18-year-old graduate of an Orthodox Jewish high school in Jerusalem, participated in one of the protests and says he was bruised after being roughed up by policemen.

“What I liked about Balfour [the demonstrations outside Mr. Netanyahu’s residence] is that there wasn’t one kind of people there. I spoke to [ultra-Orthodox] Haredim there, and I spoke to Arabs there. There were secular and religious participants, right wing and left wing,” says Mr. Barak, who sees the government’s economic response to the pandemic as inconsistent and insensitive.

“If they just cared a bit more, the situation wouldn’t be this bad. Stupid decisions. Bibi puts his own needs before the country.”

Mr. Barak’s father, Mitchell, is a public opinion expert who says Mr. Netanyahu is vulnerable because many of his loyal supporters are susceptible to the economic shock caused by the pandemic.

“It’s not just a leftist thing going on here. Likud voters normally push aside their own interests and look for a strong foreign policy leader who stands up to the world,” says the elder Mr. Barak. “But now they are hurting, and they’ve lost their jobs. These are people who don’t have money for food.”

Correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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