An Insider’s Look at the Impassioned Pandemic Protests in Israel
By Joel Dzodin
Allies: Donald Trump and Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu have often worked hand-in-hand (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Political protests have been happening nonstop over the past several months in Israel. As an American-Israeli (or Israeli-American), as I’ve observed and taken part in these demonstrations, I’ve taken pride in the peaceful nature of the sustained protests against Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, especially as we witnessed from afar the violent excesses that roiled American society and tainted the legitimate protests against George Floyd’s murder earlier this year. Much of the anger fueling these demonstrations is due to the government’s failure to control the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting skyrocketing unemployment and economic hardship here.
In my own city, Holon, near Tel Aviv, these protests have been happening every Thursday and Saturday evening at three different locations. We never know how many people will show up each time, but those that do come hold aloft signs that are visible to the cars passing through the traffic circle. There’s also a loudspeaker playing anti-Bibi tunes and chants which are picked up by the assembled protesters. And sometimes the cars passing by honk a distinctive series of beeps that show support.
Following several potentially violent actions by supporters of Netanyahu, such as aggressive, in-your-face taunts and verbal threats and projectiles thrown from passing cars, police protection has been added to ensure our right to protest safely. A certain jovial atmosphere has emerged, so when pro-Bibi cars passing our protest slow down to shout “Rock Bibi!” (“Only Bibi!), we protesters shout back in unison ”IN JAIL!” It remains to be seen if these ongoing weekly protests will bear fruit and lead to increased public support for a serious change in leadership.
Ever since the first measures to restrict the spread of COVID-19 in Israel were implemented in March. 2020, the government has consistently preserved and protected the fundamental right to public protest, even during our two periods of sustained lockdown. But as calls for Netanyahu to resign have become more strident and turned into an ongoing fixture in the daily news, the Netanyahu government has unsuccessfully sought to curb such activities, in the name of public safety and falsely claiming that they had led to an increase in COVID-19 cases.
To date, each such challenge has been rebuffed by Israel’s Ministry of Justice, although limited restrictions have been adopted at times, such as during our second lockdown when protestors were required to remain within one one kilometer (0.6 miles) of their place of residence. By and large, protesters have observed the mandated social distancing of two meters (6.6 feet) , and the wearing of masks.
Photographing the weekly protests has been challenging. The venue of our activity is at a major traffic circle and the lighting conditions at night are poor. I’ve experimented using different lenses ranging from an old 1971 Nikkor f1.4 50mm lens to a more modern professional-grade f2.8 Nikon zoom lens. The key factor in getting semi-decent images has been to shoot at very high ISO settings and most of the images reproduced here were captured at ISO 10,000, using only ambient light on the evening of November 14.
From my vantage point, participating in these demonstrations has been an uplifting and inspiring example of how a democracy should function, both in terms of their peaceful nature and the official protection extended by the police to make sure we stay safe.
Both Trump and Bibi have been employing very similar populist dog whistles to energize their respective bases, while simultaneously dismissing, demonizing and marginalizing their opposition. Not that long ago, Netanyahu became the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history. He has succeeded in radically steering the nation’s direction toward the extreme nationalist right, including an increasing embrace of the settlement enterprise that has rent asunder the nation’s sense of unity and cohesion, and abandoned much of the vision of its founding generation. While it is true that we ourselves must make the hard decisions that directly affect our security and sense of purpose, we must also recognize the extent to which the right wing’s settlement enterprise has caused many nations to increasingly see us as a pariah state, heading toward a form of apartheid.
I suspect that not everyone who has been joining these demonstrations is against the settlements; many, if not most, are demanding a restoration of honesty and a repudiation of corrupt leadership whose failure to effectively deal with the pandemic has caused economic havoc to all segments of the political spectrum. Netanyahu’s pending trials on three serious corruption charges will play out at a crucial time when historic new alliances are being forged, as states try to respond to the growing power and influence of Iran, and events here will continue to impact American foreign policy, as we head into a new and radically different administration under President-Elect Joe Biden.
EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS BY JOEL DZODIN
The sign says LECH (GO!) and the stylized letter “lamed” is taken from Bibi's own Likud party logo
Acting now to pass on a better country to the next generation
The signs say “We're sick of you out-of-touch politicians” (l) and “Bribery-Fraud-Breach of Trust” (r)
Facing the traffic circle
Some drivers beep their support, while others express derision
One of the founding generation seeking change and reform
Eitan, a member of the founding generation, calls for social and political reform
Listening to Eitan's words of encouragement, which connect the weekly Torah portion (Parsha) read in the synagogue to the goals of the ongoing protests
The numbers refer to the criminal case numbers brought against Netanyahu
Reminding Israeli voters of the Netanyahu corruption cases, viewed against the background of one of Holon’s four sister city’s seals
Facing the voters driving in the nearby Holon traffic circle
Father and daughter, and thoughts of what she will inherit
Starting early. The sign is a play on words of a popular song and says “C'mon Bibi, Go home; Thank you and goodbye”
Not so many years from now, she'll vote and perhaps run for office
Father and son
In the midst of chanting slogans, a moment of meditation
At the barricade
It's rare to see protest signs in English
In German or Hebrew, the wish is the same. The sign says “Corrupt; Go Home”
Grandmother and granddaughter protesting for a better future
Marching for her. The sign says “Bibi, get out of my future”
Ask her and she'll tell you: “Bibi, Habeita” (Bibi, Go Home)
To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy: Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Israelis
Last but not least, the protection of the police is appreciated. There have been no projectiles thrown since they began standing guard some weeks back
Joel Dzodin is a former Detroiter now living in Israel. At different points in his life he has worked as an archaeologist, an IT Help Desk guy, and an online English teacher to adults around the world. Photography has long been a major passion and theme in his life, since taking his first photos at the age of 6, using a Kodak box camera. A lot of Joel’s photographs focus on the small unexamined details of everyday life, such as the beauty of minute water condensation that forms on cold bottles in the hot Israeli weather.
During Joel’s time in Israel, he has been fortunate to photograph the activities of the NGO PeacePlayers International, Middle East, witnessing firsthand how authentic friendships can be forged between Jews and Arabs despite long-standing and severe religious, cultural and ideological barriers. He is an inveterate hoarder of technological antiques, so that his young children once referred to his home office as "The NASA Control Room."
One of Joel’s major pleasures during normal times is to wander the fields and trails of Israel, stumbling over prehistoric and historic evidence of previous human settlement. During the pandemic, he has had to occupy himself at home by shooting portraits of ants and spiders also sheltering in place, using a mid-1970s Nikon close-up lens adapted for today's digital cameras.
Today, Joel lives near Tel Aviv with his wife Susanne, whom he met on a kibbutz in 1975. They have two adult children, one living in the U.S. and the other in Israel. During the current (second) lockdown, he has to practice social distancing outside with his three grandchildren, two of whom are already speaking English.