Picture the Protesters — They're Worth a Thousand Terrifying Words
We've seen these signs before, in the last days of Yitzchak Rabin. Are we really willing to head back there?
Late Shabbat afternoon, November 5, 1995, my mother-in-law stopped by our house in Los Angeles. She was clearly shaken, and — knowing that we didn’t use TV, radio or internet on Shabbat — said simply, “Yitzchak Rabin has been killed.” We stared at her in silent disbelief, at which point she added, “By a Jew.”
One of our kids, about six years old at the time, heard. He probably didn’t know who Yitzchak Rabin was, but he understood what his grandmother had just said. He looked at us, confused: “But I thought Jewish people aren’t allowed to kill?”
Turns out it’s not that simple.
As of this writing, it appears that Israel may be headed for a very different government. We’ll know more in the next hours, or perhaps a day or two, but it is quite possible that Benjamin Netanyahu’s days as Prime Minister are about to end — at least for now. It ain’t over yet, as they say, but his camp is panicked. So the protests have begun.
Many of the protesters are people who voted for Yamina, the party headed by the right-leaning Naftali Bennett (with Ayelet Shaked also playing a significant role). Yamina is, in some significant ways, to the right of Netanyahu, so the fact that Bennett has publicly declared that he is committed to breaking with the right for now in order to unseat Netanyahu and to form a government with the decidedly centrist Yair Lapid (along with parties far to the left, as well) has enraged some of those who voted for him.
Each of the past four Israeli elections over the past two years has been a referendum on Netanyahu — nothing more, nothing less. Netanyahu has served as PM for the past eleven years running (he also served for three additional years, from 1996-1999). The means that Israeli teenagers and soldiers have no memory of anyone else in the office.
Those disappointed Yamina voters, as well as many others on the political right, are appalled by what they see as Bennett’s betrayal. In good Israeli tradition, the protesters are carrying an array of signs at their protests, but in what is sadly also an Israeli tradition, those signs are more than worrisome — they have parts of this country holdings its breath with dread.
Some of the signs [see above, for example] portray Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked above the phrase ha-mashtapim shel Lapid — “Lapid’s Collaborators.” “Collaborator” is a dirty word in Israel. Mashtap (mashtapim is the plural) is an Israeli acronym (for meshatef pe’ula) usually used to refer to Palestinians who work undercover for Israeli intelligence. The information they provide is critical, but when they are discovered — and that happens not infrequently — they end up dead.
Calling Bennett and Shaked mashtapim is a warning and a threat, and there is no one in Israel who does not understand it. The police have significantly raised the level of protection they’re providing to both Bennett and Shaked.
Other signs now proliferating [see below, white and red on black background] read smolanim bogdim — “Leftist Traitors.” No one here misses the point of that one, either. Yitzchak Rabin was commonly called a traitor in the weeks prior to November 5, 1995.
Like the mashtapim, Yitzchak Rabin ended up dead.
One of the purposes of Israel from the Inside is to cast light on dimensions of Israeli society that do not often make the international press. We want to look beyond the conflict to politics, art, culture and religion, in order to better understand the complex mosaic of viewpoints that makes up Israel. We also want to point to stories that are making the international press, while highlighting dimensions of those stories about which few are speaking. This week’s political placards, and their implicit threats, are a case in point.
There are iconic images in American life, and seeing them — or memes based on them — evokes emotions that Americans readily understand. Iwo Jima. The JKF motorcade. MLK and the I have a dream speech. The list goes on. Israel, too, has such images, some of which are posters, rather than photographs.
The left and center images below are from 1995, when Yitzchak Rabin, who had embraced the Oslo Accords (which by 1995 were failing miserably), was portrayed as a Nazi [left] or in a kaffiyeh [center], suggesting that he was “really” an Arab, in essence, a collaborator. Now, the meme is appearing once again, this time [right] not with Rabin, but with Bennett. It is impossible not to see these protests or these posters without feeling a deep dread — are we going to have a new Prime Minister, only to watch our democracy threatened once again?
One iconic photograph of those horrible days in 1995, not much discussed outside Israel, is the photo below, with Bibi Netanyahu standing on a balcony, addressing a protest that had gotten ugly and threatening. There was, under the balcony, a sign accusing Rabin of being a traitor — that was still the pre-smartphone era, and it seems that no photograph that includes the sign below survives. Still, Netanyahu has been widely accused of having incited violence against Rabin by standing on the balcony with that sign beneath him. He, of course, denies knowing about the sign, and rejects in no uncertain terms the accusation of incitement.
Many observers in Israel, though, couldn’t help but note the difference in tone between Bennett and Netanyahu when they each addressed the nation this past Sunday evening. (Videos of the two with English subtitles are hard to come by — you can see a segment of each, with English, in this CNN video). By calling Bennett the “deception of the century,” Netanyahu is saying about Bennett precisely what the right said about Oslo — and thus, about Rabin.
Away from the international spotlight, which is still focused on the just-ended war with Gaza and the battle between Israel’s political parties, many Israelis are focused on the battle of words, images and threats that has the nation in its grip once again. Police assessment of the danger to Bennett and Shaked is now at the next to highest level.
What will unfold, no one knows. But as we wait to find out, this is a nation holding its breath. Israelis are waiting to see not only who will be our next Prime Minister, but whether, since 1995, we as a nation have learned anything at all.
In our continuing series of podcasts, available to subscribers to Israel from the Inside, we interviewed Yotam Ben-Hillel, a noted Israeli civil rights lawyer, who explained the complex legal background surrounding the possible evictions in the Sheikh Jarakh neighborhood, a subject which contributed to the passions in the region that finally exploded in violence. We’re making a brief excerpt of the interview publicly available here.
Forthcoming soon — interviews with people who lived through the attacks in Lod — what life was like before, what happened, and where the city might be headed.