An Orthodox rabbi was surrounded and harassed by an anti-government mob on the streets of Tel Aviv just hours before former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Israel’s ongoing anti-government protests would end in bloodshed.
Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, one of the heads of a military preparatory academy in the town of Eli in Samaria, required police protection after he was attacked and chased in Tel Aviv by irate protesters on Tuesday night.
In footage of the harassment, protesters shout, “You are nothing, you have no God. You are scum. You are not Jews. Get out of here.” Others yell, “Go away, fascist. Go back to the settlements. You don’t belong in this place.”
The protesters numbered about 300, according to reports. They targeted Levenstein for opposing the integration of women in the military and for speaking against homosexuals, calling them “deviants.”
Levenstein told Army Radio after the incident that “there used to be a liberal state here; everyone could express their opinion. Recently, I feel that this is not the case. People who claim liberalism as their banner prevent others from expressing a Jewish opinion.”
“The violent incident touches the core of our values as a country—a free country and the right to express an opinion. Even if there are disputes, it is legitimate. But silencing voices is not legitimate,” Levenstein said.
“The fact that I want to teach Judaism to people who are interested in Judaism, in the first Hebrew city in which the flag of pluralism flies above it, and policemen have to protect me with their bodies so that I can teach a lesson—this is something that goes against all the basic values of the country.”
While the anti-government protests have ostensibly been about opposition to judicial reform, given that the bulk of the demonstrators are secular leftists they have also taken aim at ultra-Orthodox Jewish institutions and the Jewish settlement movement in Judea and Samaria, what they call the “occupation.”
Surprised by savage hatred
Rabbi Levenstein came to Tel Aviv to lend support to Israel Zaira, who heads Rosh Yehudi, a nonprofit that seeks to connect young people in the city to Judaism.
Zaira was holding an event at the group’s synagogue related to the municipality’s decision to ban partitions separating men and women, a necessary fixture for Orthodox Jewish prayer services. Zaira’s group holds annual Yom Kippur services at Dizengoff Square in the city.
Zaira was chased together with Levinstein.
“I thank the Holy One, blessed be He, and the police who protected us and saved us from a pogrom,” Zaira told Channel 12.
“There was spitting, pushing and an attempt to deal us light blows with Israeli flags. There was no severe violence but definitely a pursuit. I was chased for half a kilometer and there was a police security cordon around me. They hoped they would stop after a hundred meters and that did not happen. In the end, they placed me in the second Rosh Yehudi center. The protesters deployed around it and the police shut down the place,” Zaira said.
“We were surprised by the intensity of the hatred, the blunt words and the violent behavior of the mob,” he added, saying they acted like “savages.”
“At the same time, we understand that they came to scare us on account of the activity of the yeshiva and the mass prayer we will be holding at Dizengoff Square on Yom Kippur,” Zaira said.
Barak predicts bloodshed during anti-reform protests
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak predicts a descent into bloodshed amid ongoing protests against the government’s judicial reform initiative.
“[The opponents of reform] will not stop. We will block this attempt on the life of Israel as a democracy and we will win this battle,” Barak told CBS in an interview.
“There will be ups and downs, it might take time. Some people might lose their lives along the way. I told the people we will have to face toil and sweat and tears; hopefully no blood, but there might be some violence. … We will put an end to it whatever the price will be,” he added.
In July, Israeli Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel-Atbaryan, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, exposed what she claimed was Barak’s longstanding plan to bring down the government.
In the Twitter post, Distel-Atbaryan described an interview with Barak from July 2020 on Forum 555, a group of retired pilots and navigators. The plan, she noted, included deliberately inflaming the civilian population, creating a false representation of a danger to democracy, and bankrolling protests, including purchasing flags.
Asked during the interview about a possible reprise of the “success of 1999,” when he was elected prime minister, Barak said, “A friend of mine, a historian, once told me, ‘Ehud, they will call you when bodies are floating in the Yarkon River [in north Tel Aviv].’ I wish to stress: not the bodies of illegally residing Palestinians from the territories will be floating, and not Israeli Arabs. The floating bodies will be of Jews that were killed by Jews.”
In an address to London-based think tank Chatham House in March, Barak went into greater detail regarding how protests could bring down a government.
He referred to the research of Professor Erica Chenoweth and political scientist Maria J. Stephan, who co-authored the 2012 book “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.”
Barak said the two researchers looked at hundreds of civil protests from 1900 to 2006, and “they found a common denominator”—protests that succeeded included 3.5% of the population, or roughly 8% of the adult population, and “tenaciously and persistently” kept up the protests, boycotts and civil disobedience.
“At the end the government either falls or capitulates,” said Barak. “We already crossed this number in less than three months so we are heading in the right direction.”
Last month, the Likud Party denounced Barak for posting to social media a video that compares Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler.
Israeli Transportation Minister Miri Regev recently sent a letter to Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara calling for a probe to be opened against Barak for allegedly inciting a coup d’état.
Reform opponents cross red line by bringing dispute to US, critics charge
As the months pass, protests against judicial reform have become more extreme, raising concerns even from sympathizers, who wonder whether calls for “paralyzing the economy” or “an uncompromising struggle” will do their cause more harm than good.
Now, as the problem spills outside the state’s borders with protests against Netanyahu during his US trip, critics say opponents of reform have crossed a red line, one that sabotages Israel on the international stage.
“We are seeing protests against Israel being carried out by people who are joining with the PLO, with Iran and others,” Netanyahu told the press on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport before his departure to the US.
His office issued a clarification shortly afterward, saying that when Netanyahu used the word “joining,” he meant that Israeli citizens would be protesting separately, but simultaneously as PLO and BDS supporters, which “has never happened before.”
Two incidents on Monday fanned the flames of debate about the limits of protest. First was a remark by Shira Eting, a member of the protest group Achim L’Neshek (“Brothers in Arms”), on “60 Minutes” suggesting that the Israel Air Force bombs Palestinian children.
The second was a letter signed by more than 80 senior Israeli security personnel to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accusing Netanyahu of tearing apart the Jewish state and jeopardizing the US-Israel relationship.
Ahead of Netanyahu’s Monday arrival to the US, protesters projected digital billboards on the side of the United Nations headquarters in New York and Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco. The first read: “Don’t believe Crime Minister Netanyahu. Protect Israeli Democracy,” and the second, “Welcome to Alcatraz Bibi! Netanyahu Dictator on the Run.” The latter included an image of Netanyahu behind bars.
In New York, anti-reform organizers scheduled a full week of protests, starting on Tuesday at Times Square, followed by one Wednesday to coincide with Netanyahu’s meeting with US President Joe Biden. Another is set for Thursday outside Netanyahu’s hotel.
The main protest will take place on Friday during Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly, followed by an all-day “Farewell to Bibi” festival and “Final Goodbye Protest” on Saturday.
Undermining not just Netanyahu, but the Jewish state
“When Israeli protesters, who absolutely have the democratic right to protest in their own domestic milieu, export those protests against the Israeli government outside of Israel to the UN and San Francisco, they are actually undermining not only the government, but in international eyes, the very legitimacy of the country they claim to be saving,” Dan Diker, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told JNS.
“They are unwittingly converging with Israel’s worst enemies,” he said, noting that when protesters say Israel is an “undemocratic,” “fascist” and “apartheid” state, they are providing ammunition to Israel’s adversaries. “The UN itself has labeled Israel as an apartheid entity; one of the worst slanders in the 21st century.”
“In a world in which cellphones and selfies determine policy, the pyrotechnics of this are very dangerous,” Diker noted.
A protest on Tuesday by about 30 people at 61st Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan appeared to bear out Diker’s warnings. More an “anti-occupation” protest, and likely not officially connected to the anti-reform demonstrations, it nonetheless borrowed heavily from anti-reform messaging.
A large sign read: “Oppose Israel’s Authoritarian Government—Demand Democracy for All.” Protesters chanted, “Shame, Shame,” in Hebrew, a typical cry at anti-reform rallies. Several signs accused Israel of apartheid. Others read: “USA: Stop Funding Bibi and his fascist friends.”
Bibi’s to blame?
Offir Gutelzon, founder of UnXeptable, the chief group behind US protests against the Netanyahu government’s judicial reforms, defended himself against critics, telling JNS, “The only one who went too far is the indicted Prime Minister Netanyahu and his extreme right-wing government, which is tearing Israel apart by promoting the judicial overhaul that undermines Israel’s democracy.
“The Israeli and Jewish communities in the US are part of this historical protest movement of people who love and care about a free, just and equal Israel,” Gutelzon said. “The days of Netanyahu speaking uncontradicted on the world stage are over. It is our responsibility and mission to expose his real goals and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel, fighting for Israel’s democracy.”
Lauri Regan, a board member of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) and one of the chief organizers of a counter-demonstration set for Thursday outside the Loews Regency New York where Netanyahu is staying, characterized Gutelzon’s remarks as “disingenuous.”
“My response is: I’m sorry you lost the last election [in November 2022]. Elections have consequences. We have to live with them. That’s democracy,” she said. “Next, you go to the voting booth. You don’t block the Knesset from functioning. You don’t block hospitals. You don’t threaten to shirk your responsibility in the military.”
Regan noted that Israelis from across the political spectrum have called for judicial reform for years, including former Prime Ministers Yair Lapid, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, who are among the leaders of the anti-reform protests. “Yet, now that Bibi’s doing it, it’s a threat to democracy. Their message is anti-Bibi, under the guise of ‘democracy.’”
Protesters have imported an Israeli domestic issue to the US, she said.
“Americans for the most part are not deeply engaged in Israeli politics. They only know what they’re reading in The New York Times, or mainstream media, which is not covering this passionately. So they’re being dragged into a conflict that they hear nothing about for the sake of an ideology which lost the last election in Israel.”
For Regan, “the saddest thing” is that at a time of growing antisemitism and anti-Israel animus globally, the protesters have chosen to target their “democratically elected prime minister.” This was the impetus that moved her and others to organize a counter-rally.
“The protest is going to be very positive. While their message is very negative—’Bibi is destroying democracy’—we’re going to have videos showing Israel intervening in tragedies across the world,” she told JNS.
“Israel is a beautiful, powerful force for democracy and peace in the world. And Israel has contributed unbelievably to the world. It needs to be recognized in the face of what I think these really ugly people are doing in the streets of New York,” Regan said.
With reporting by David Isaac and JNS.
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