Theatre of the absurd: BDS, Vegans & Counter-protesters in Tel Aviv

Benjamin Birely
Dec 10, 2017 · 7 min read

“WITHOUT VIOLENCE!” I yell in Hebrew as I push her away with my forearm. She couldn’t believe I was actually stopping her.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING? STOP THEM!” She shouts, shocked and exasperated.

“HEY, HEY! ENOUGH!” I shout at another man, knocking me out of his way in an attempt to rush three people holding up three, large, cardboard cutout letters painted bright red and covered in festive lights.

“Bro, what is this? What are those letters?”

I turn around amid the chaos and an obviously amused young guy about my age is looking at the scene as if it were some kind of joke; a clever skit from Eretz Nehaderet that must have an hilarious and, of course, cynical punchline.

“BDS” I said.

“What?”

“You know… boycott of Israel because of the occupation. These people support boycott, divestment and sanctions.”

“What…here? What are they doing here? This isn’t their protest! Those sons of bitches….” his voice getting more frantic with each word, as he pushes me aside to grab one of the letters.

“Shame on you! Go home! Shame!”

Voices from the crowd grow louder and louder as a small group of anarchists form a stubborn line in front of the three activists to distance the angry onlookers closing in around them. The police intervene for a few moments, but as the voices grower louder and the pushing more violent, they shrug and walk off. Once they walk away, it’s a free-for-all. One after another, young and old alike, force themselves forward and reach for the letters.

Meanwhile an enthusiastic young woman next to me with a megaphone is screaming at the top of her lungs: “Meat is murder! Freedom for animals!”.

She has a whole tribe of furious vegans with her, living in their own universe just a few meters from the three-letter drama unfolding before me. Dozens of young people are holding images of cows and chickens while projecting horrific scenes from a slaughter house onto the landmark HaBima, the Israeli national theatre building, in front of us.

Five minutes pass and nothing remains of the three letters.

Pointing to the ripped up letters scattered on the pavement, the activists seem satisfied with their bold attempt at testing the limits of free speech in what they believe is a fascist and racist apartheid state. A few anarchists are still standing around with their trademark flags and the vegans are now chanting a new slogan: NO TO CORRUPTION, NO TO SLAUGHTERS (a play on the similar words in Hebrew).

When I asked, the woman with the megaphone assured me that there was a direct connection between the two: Bibi and eating meat are two sides of the same, corrupt coin.

I decide that it’s time to call it a night…

Unfortunately, I didn’t make last week’s protest.

I biked home from the University gym Saturday evening, inadvertently avoiding the city center and the thousands who had gathered on Rothschild Boulevard to protest Netanyahu and his party’s latest attempt to shamelessly push legislation through the Knesset to protect their boss from mounting corruption investigations. Blissfully ignorant to what was going on 15 mins away from me, I enjoyed a quiet night at home. Only later on the news would I see the impressive images of a packed Rothschild— images that could only remind me of the bitter-sweet 2011 protests.

Secular, middle class Israelis are an interesting bunch. Ignore the fact that Israel has the highest poverty rate in the developed world, with 1 in 5 Israeli citizens living in poverty, and that 4.5 million of our neighbors are living a short drive away from us under the heavy fist of the IDF and the Israeli security apparatus in one form or another (against their will and with no real democratic representation) and a few more million of them are living in refugee camps and ghettos across the region still dreaming of return to their pre-1948 homes in Israel — issues that the vast majority of middle class Israelis aren’t going to care about anyway — there are still plenty of reasons form them to turn up on the streets on a chilly winter evening and be really pissed off: their government is in the pocket of the extreme, religious parties that seem hell-bent on creating some form of a Jewish theocracy here, their taxes are outrageously high, their salaries mediocre, they or their kids can’t afford apartments, our beloved “Start-Up Nation” has the public infrastructure of a third world country and…. let’s face it, living with the constant realization and buried rage that you’re a friar and getting screwed by your government (and your fellow citizens) year after year is enough to make anyone to turn up and flip some cars over, right?

Think again. Everyone takes it and just plugs along, content with their new i-Phone, weekends at the beach, regular trips abroad, family gatherings, a steady supply of marijuana, and the illusion that life here really is pretty groovy. Occupation Shmoccupation!

But one thing that will bring them out to scream “enough!” and “shame!” in significant numbers on a December evening is blatant and unabashed corruption, especially the kind that is allegedly so endemic in the current government.

I was determined to join this week and as with any adventure in this city, it turned out to be not only a bizarre journey through the different tribes of Israel but also a painful reminder of how disjointed, confused and lost we all are.

Tens of thousands, according to official estimates, packed Rotschild last night. The crowd was made up of the usual suspects of Israel’s center-left: secular and middle-class Israelis in their various flavors and manifestations. There were, of course, people of all backgrounds (there were many older people), but the overwhelming majority of the crowd could easily fit a specific cultural and economic profile. It wasn’t surprising that in two hours of walking through the crowd listening and taking photos, I counted only a handful of kippot. Despite the frequent chants about what “the people” want or how fed up “we, the people” are, this wasn’t really “the people”. This was one specific chunk of Israel living out it’s pissed-off (and legitimately so) narrative.

The crowd was indeed impressive. The street felt energized. It was exciting and the air buzzed with something reminiscent of 2011, but it lacked any kind of unity or direction. Different groups chanted different, often contradictory, slogans and half the time the protesters stood around restlessly and people-watched, looking for their next argument.

“Get that sign out of here!” An elderly man screamed at a woman his age as he leaned in closely, only a few centimeters from her face.

“This protest isn’t political! Get out of here with that!” he continues.

The woman’s sign says “It’s Left or nothing” with a Meretz logo at the bottom.

The man goes on shouting that Meretz shouldn’t even be there. “This is an apolitical march against corruption” his wife says, attempting to intervene. “Meretz is too far Left, put the sign away”.

The man wouldn’t stop yelling and eventually the woman lowered her sign and walked off to join other people sporting Meretz t-shirts and signs.

“Fascists!” screamed another elderly man at a group of counter -protesters waving Israeli flags and dancing ecstatically to the Rebbe Nahman M’Uman mantra blaring from two large speakers. Signs declaring “Habibi, there’s no one like Bibi” provoke laughter and scorn from passerbyers.

Flanked by two young guys in their 20’s chanting “Bibi is corrupt!”, the old man continues, “Fascists!” until his voice grows hoarse.

“Why are you so bitter? Ya lefties. We’ll continue to be in power and you’ll continue to be bitter!” Responded the right-wing ringleader behind a small metal fence surrounding the pro-Bibi demonstrators.

“Am Yisrael Chai! No one but Bibi! We’ve come to wake up the State of Tel Aviv. Ya snobs and elitists! The people support Bibi! Where are you when the Sudanese are raping our women in south Tel Aviv? Hypocrites!”

The police push the anti-Bibi protesters away and the pro-Bibi speakers blast a remix of a pop song by a popular Mizrahi singer.

The lyrics are about a weekend trip to Bucharest, not politics, but they seemed to resonate with the pro-Bibi people who jumped up and down ecstatically as they sang, “It’s the time of your life! Getting lost in ourselves, the excitement is overflowing my mind!”

Some of the small kids with the anti-Bibi protesters walking by started to bob up and down, as their parents laughed, clearly enjoying the euphoric vibe of the song.

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