On the one hand…
I have never been so inspired in my life.
Tonight, over 7,000 Israeli protestors gathered in Rabin Square to demonstrate against the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza. (Even in my words, I have thrown my own interpretation of the demonstration into the mix. Some call it a war. Some call it a genocide. Some call it an operation. All of these interpretations were present.) The message, despite the pluralism of opinions, was clear: violence is not the answer.
Amidst the crowds, it was beautiful to see familiar faces abound. There was no shortage of hugging and smiling, friends greeting friends:
-an Israeli professor who had helped advise my undergraduate thesis
-a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace rabbinical council
-an Ir Amim intern
-another Ir Amim intern
-a member of the Ir Amim staff and their partner
-former Solidarity activists whom I had interviewed for my thesis
-a staff member turned friend from the Jerusalem Open House
-All That’s Left activists
-a dear Ta’ayush activist
I had never before surrendered to the release of chanting at a demonstration. But tonight, waving my sign (Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies), I could not help but be swept away by the energy. I chanted, with all of my might, surrounded by thousands of other Israelis, demanding an end to the violence. There were elderly women. There were young political activists. There were mothers with children. The most touching were the children. I looked to them as we chanted together, “In Gaza and Sderot, children just want to live!”
And the speakers. The Israelis and Palestinians from Combatants for Peace who shared their stories. The French-Israeli professor Eva Illouz. The Israeli woman from “Kol Acher” (Another Voice), living on a Kibbutz bordering Gaza and demanding a nonviolent, political solution. Ben Kfir, of the Bereaved Parents’ Family Forum, whose daughter was murdered by a member of Hamas in 2003. And the amazing, amazing MK Dov Khenin. Hands down, the best public speaker I have ever heard.
After weeks of roaming the streets in fear, nearly being attacked at a demonstration in Tel-Aviv, and watching helplessly as hundreds have been wounded and murdered, this the sort of deep affirmation that I needed. I looked to the crowd, awed by the courage of so many to come out despite the threat of sirens & right wing attackers, and knew: these are my people. And in the grand arc of Jewish history, human history, I’ll be damned if I don’t seize this moment to be a part of it. I am so damn proud.
Toward the end of the protest, as the crowd dispersed, a small group sat around a candlelit vigil for the dead. Photos of Israelis and Palestinians, killed in recent weeks, laid strewn among candles on the ground. The lights spelled out the words “I’m Sorry,” in Hebrew and Arabic. Almost in a whisper, the group began to sing “Shir LaShalom” (A Song for Peace).
I flashed back to high school, when my Hebrew class put on a play for “Israel @ 60.” The entire school sang a rendition of Shir LaShalom together, parents and children, singing at the top of our lungs. It’s strange looking back at it…we were both so innocent and so cruel. Singing songs of peace, genuinely believing in our own sincerity, while simultaneously putting on a one-sided play about Israeli independence with no acknowledgement whatsoever of the Palestinian people. It’s odd…while former classmates and teachers from my Jewish day school continue to decry the Left for its betrayal, the Left is the only place in Israel today where we can still sing that classic song of peace we sang as children. It might be a cheesy, outdated, overplayed song. But it’s my childhood, and it was a blessing to finally sing it authentically.
On the other hand…
This demonstration was impressively safe. As left-wing activists & Palestinian citizens of Israel have been targeted by right-wing attackers across the country, some beaten to the point of hospitalization, Israeli police have come under criticism for not doing enough to protect its citizens. But tonight, things were different.
The buffer zone was wide, delineated clearly by blue dividers. Israeli border police were everywhere, some riding horses, prepared to keep the aggressive right-wingers at bay. As the anti-war demonstrations of thousands went on, the the pro-war right wingers remained off to the sides, chanting things like “Death to Arabs” and “Go Die in Gaza.” So long as they weren’t physically attacking us, I was satisfied.
As the demonstration drew to a close, we began to wonder what the exit strategy might be. Weren’t the hundreds of right-wingers waiting for just the right moment to attack? How would we get out of the enclosed Rabin Square and walk away safely?
I asked a border policeman if it was safe to leave.
“What?” he asked.
“I mean, are there people out there to protect us?”
“Yes, yes, there are plenty of police out there.”
My friends stayed close, some joining hands, and began to make our way out of Rabin Square. The right-wing counter-protesters had rushed to meet us at the exit, and border policemen were struggling to keep them at bay. In the crowd of people yelling “Death to Arabs” and “Go Die in Gaza,” I saw a familiar face. It was the man who often makes my lunch sandwich, down the street from the office. We have developed a friendly back and forth over the past few months…he even met my boyfriend. And here he was, all of a sudden aggressive and terrifying. I contemplated turning around and yelling his name, waving. But it was too scary, and I made a mental note to talk to him this week over lunch…
Over the next few minutes, a scene unfolded in central Tel Aviv that would be shocking to anyone who knows Tel Aviv. Hundreds of aggressive, angry right wing protestors blocked the main roads, took up whole sidewalks, and began to chase left-wing protestors. Border police ran through the streets, also blocking traffic, surrounding and arresting them. My friends quickly hopped into a cab, which couldn’t move. There were violent confrontations all around us, and I rolled up my window. Eventually, the cab driver was so fed up that he began to honk and drive head on into a group of right-wingers blocking the road. They dispersed quickly, chanting together “Let the IDF Win! Finish Them Off!”
One scene that will forever be etched in my mind:
Right-wing protestors, swarming the sidewalk in front of a hip Israeli bar, waving giant Israeli flags, and blocking traffic. Border police bombarding the right-wingers on horseback, on horseback! Israeli patrons of the bar whipping out their iPhones and snapping photos of the insanity.
We sped off in the taxi, the driver cursing under his breath.
“Why did they have to have a demonstration now? Don’t they realize there is still a war going on? Is this a time for protests? Do we need to have two wars, one in Gaza, one in Tel-Aviv?
He said it, not me.
(I wonder what our driver would have thought of this piece, by Israeli writer Etgar Keret.)
My friend Mori didn’t fare so well tonight. Please read his important piece here about getting pepper-sprayed in the eyes, and caring for a young activist beaten in the head by an aluminum crutch.