‘If Netanyahu Wins, Turn Out the Lights’: Meet the Most Die-hard Opponents of Israel’s ‘Crime Minister’

"In these elections, if Benjamin Netanyahu is chosen as prime minister, we can turn off the lights."

That’s what Elisheva, an 80 year-old activist, told me at a protest against the Netanyahu government’s corruption. Her words echo an Israeli saying from half-a-century ago, from the period of intense existential anxiety before the outbreak of the 1967 Six Day Way, reminding the last person in the country to "turn off the lights."

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Elisheva has witnessed plenty of ups and downs in Israel, but she believes that Netanyahu represents a deep level of corruption unprecedented in Israeli history, and one that poses as existential a threat to the state as the prospect of war.  

Elisheva is one of a group that has been protesting in Petah Tikva, east of Tel Aviv, for more than two years. They meet in Goren Square, just 400 meters from the Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s home. They accuse the AG of delaying taking action on the slew of corruption cases facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

As a young Israeli studying abroad, I recently came home for a visit eager to discuss the upcoming elections with family and friends – but found an atmosphere of utter apathy. So I decided to go find people who were actually getting involved, and that’s how I ended up meeting Elisheva and her fellow protestors.

The Saturday night I went, the demonstrators were gathered for their 142nd consecutive weekly anti-corruption protest. Two years ago, thousands used to attend.

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These days, most of Israel’s right-wing media portrays the protests as an irrelevant side show of anarchists, intent only on noisy intimidation. 

But the protesters I met in Petah Tikva were a group of grandparents holding up Israeli flags and posters and passionately railing against corruption. I witnessed an older generation’s tragic attempt to fight for the simpler, more innocent Israel they held in their collective memory.

The middle aged and older protesters at Goren Square are lawyers, professors and aeronautical engineers. Petah Tikva lacks the dynamism of Israel’s social justice protests of the summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of young Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of living. They camped out for weeks on Rothschild Boulevard and fired up the imagination of a country.

Ultimately, they did not end up changing very much, although they did give rise to two new young Labor Knesset members – Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli.

Demonstrators against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alleged corruption in GOren Square, Petah Tikva, 20 October 2018. The sign says: ‘Not right, not left, [just] straight [honest].’ Ilan Assayag

The only young people I saw in Goren Square were a small group of volunteers from the newly-formed Democratic Camp party. A major demonstration, called to protest Netanyahu's attempts to ensure himself immunity from criminal prosecution, did attract tens of thousands in May in Tel Aviv, including plenty of younger voters – but that momentum was short-lived, and no protests similar in scale followed. Perhaps the other young people my age are too busy with work, kids and their mortgages – or maybe they are no longer able to imagine a different reality.

Israelis are no strangers to government corruption; former prime minister Ehud Olmert (2006-2009) was convicted and imprisoned for bribery. Former Interior Minister (1988-1993) Aryeh Deri served time for taking bribes.

But the Submarine Affair – in which Netanyahu’s close associates are alleged to have been part of a massive graft scheme – concerns many here in Petah Tikva because it is about national security, a hallowed concept for Israelis who have both served in the army, sent their children to serve, and grown up in homes with bomb shelters and sealed rooms ("mamad.")

When I asked her why there are so few young protesters present, she replied that she thinks they have no hope. Her own son has moved abroad.

Despite the focus on corruption, there is clearly something deeper at stake here. Elisheva’s parents belonged to the pioneer generation who founded the state, a generation often characterized as prizing altruism and moral leadership. This older generation of demonstrators seems to sense that a world is slipping away from their fingertips.

Demonstrators in Goren Square, Petah Tikva, protesting Netanyahu’s alleged role in a mega defense corruption scandal, accusing the Attorney-General of collaborating in his defense. 5 August 2017Tomer Appelbaum

It is unclear whether they even possess the proper vocabulary to articulate their sense of loss – an endangered democracy, selfish leaders, loss of moral values and vision, even Israel’s deteriorating relations with American Jews. Maybe only the retrospective gaze of historians will be able to provide them with the appropriate vocabulary.

In the meantime, they continue to come week after week, rain or shine. Their numbers have varied over the years from the dozens to the hundreds and the thousands – but they always show up.

Although the protest is apolitical, most of its support comes from the center and the left of the political spectrum.

In this sense, the movement is strangely reminiscent of the 1980s, when the old leftist elite, which included writers like Amos Oz and Meir Shalev, mourned the loss of a world and its replacement with a new reality under the right-wing Likud party. The decline of the kibbutz during this period represents the demise of a dream of an alternative society which was voluntary and based on complete equality.

This transition took place in the context of a changing world. Israel’s dramatic transfer of power from left to right coincided with the rise of Thatcher and Reagan. Similarly, the Petah Tikva protests are concurrent with a worldwide decline of democracy, a crackdown on freedom of the press and the rise of populist leaders.

Protesters at a pre-election demonstration against ‘Crime Minister’ Benjamin Netanyahu’s alleged corruption. Tel Aviv, May 25, 2019Ilan Assayag

This new reality seems to defy the traditional binary divide between left and right. But it also still lacks a fitting terminology – and an obvious political home.

Petah Tikva may represent more than the irrelevant side show it is sometimes made out to be in the press. There is something tragic about it that fits quite well into Zionist historiography.

According to Anita Shapira, there is a long tradition of Zionist pioneers who identify themselves as the heirs of the Jewish fighters of Masada (73 A.D.) who continued to fight against all odds for their truth against the Roman troops who rose up to destroy them; Israel's idealistic leftist pioneers often saw themselves as the last stronghold against a hostile reality.

Chani Gelman may be a modern manifestation of this tradition. Her 25 and 28-year-old daughters do not join her in the protests, but she remains determined to fight for her grandkids. "It’s us. It’s us that remain," she says holding her "Crime Minister" sign up for all to see. "It’s not easy."

But unless more members of my generation are willing to take up the fight for a better country, their efforts really will be in vain.

Anat Peled is an undergraduate student in the History department of Stanford University. Twitter: @AnatPeled1