Will the Israeli vaccination programme make Netanyahu immune against political critique?

Israel is getting a lot of global attention for its rapid vaccine programme. Or, who lives in Tel Aviv, just got her second shot. We talk about the vaccine over the phone multiple times, how it affects daily life around her profoundly. Just one week ahead of the general election on March 23rd 2021, she fears that the vaccination programme – quickly carried out to benefit prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s re-election – will divide Israeli society since there are so many public spaces which cannot be entered without a vaccination confirmation. The so-called green passport, which may be introduced all around the world. But while these new divisions are looming over the country, Or narrates the pandemic experience over the last year mostly as a discovery of a new togetherness, expressed in large protest waves against Netanyahu’s fourth attempt in two years to hold himself in power.

Inside – Locked in place?

I just came back from Jerusalem to help my sister who is at home because she just had a baby one and a half months ago. She has another two-year old and an 11 year old kid. All of them are currently at home because there is no kindergarten which makes it really difficult to manage work at home. Most families here in Israel are quite big. Having three children is really common, but you would also find families with seven or eight kids. The government organisation of education is really poor at the moment.

The life in Tel Aviv has changed since most bars and restaurants are closed, but some things are still happening outside these days. We still meet in the parks, or at the beach. A friend recently told me a joke, she said, there is a new trend in Tel Aviv, it is called relationships, because there are no parties, or other large gatherings. The city is dead, the only way of going out is if you are having a job as a delivery worker, you can get everything delivered. The government provides some support for people who lost their jobs, for artists, musicians but due to all the bureaucracy, there is a lot of uncertainty among my friends how to get by.

A few months ago, I went to a bar with a friend and at that time they were selling beer for take away, so people were sitting in front of the place, outside on the streets. We just started talking to random strangers. The need of seeing other people is so strong, being in a shared space together. It got late, so after a few hours we entered the bar and I stayed inside the bar with probably five more strangers – that was a feeling I have not had for a very long time.

I was supposed to go to a few weddings this summer. Only one happened in between the lockdowns with 15 people, the other ones were cancelled. Of course those restrictions to limit wedding guests to not more than 20 people is a huge problem for many sections of the Israeli society, for example orthodox families or those living in the Arab sector.

Due to the immense segregation of the country, there were also clear hierarchies rendered visible inside the city through pandemic governance. With varying degrees of information available between neighbourhoods, there were clear differences.

But then, in the end you could also see that there was a high number of sick people in orthodox neighbourhoods. And they got locked down, even though they protested violently about it. That is why you also had not only protests on the left, but you also had very strong demonstrations against the police and their lockdown enforcement in those Orthodox neighbourhoods.

Once I broke the lockdown. It happened during the holidays. I had visited a friend in Haifa for three days. After these days I wanted to leave for my sister’s place since she stays about half an hour from Haifa. It was a Sunday, I was in a really good mood. My sister told me that in case I would be stopped, she was willing to share the fee for breaking the curfew with me, which was around 500 Shekels (about 120 Euros). So on that day I drove in my car until I reached a village. When I was just about to leave that village, a policeman stopped me. When they asked me what I was doing, I told them, I was just visiting my grandmother, she is alone during the holidays, all those three days, so I had to meet her. The policeman just looked at my car, and it was a mess, because I had just moved apartments, and I was living in my car for a month basically. I tried to hide it by putting the seats down. However, the police said: “I smell something. Everything here is legal?” and I responded: “Yes of course, please be humble and let me return to my grandmother.” I even encouraged him to check my car, I told him he should have a look to see that everything was fine. Then he searched my car and found marijuana which I did not know was there. I forgot it was in the car and I felt so stupid that I had even told him to check. I started to cry, I really did the whole show because he had found me doing two illegal things at the same time. I was making him believe I had a panic attack. I was all in, maybe it was too much because he did not buy it and I had to pay a disastrous fee of 1500 Shekel – 1000 for the marijuana and 500 for breaking the lockdown.

Outside – Pandemic Politics and Protest

On March 2nd 2020, there was an election – the third one in a row as they are failing to set up a government. Right afterwards, the pandemic arrived. While we were under lockdown, coalition talks were held. As we did not know the virus, we were all in panic mode. Seeing those images from the situation in Italy was very frightening for us.

The first wave of protest started right from the beginning of the lockdown. It was very clear that the right to protest would not be abolished under lockdown regulations and that people would still be allowed to protest, especially in such a politically crucial situation such as negotiations to form a government. That also meant you had protests from two broad camps: the far right with supporters of Bibi and the Likud party on the one hand and centre-left Kakhol Lavan led by the former general Benny Gantz on the other. There were attempts to delegitimise the left protesters by saying that they are spreading diseases and that it would be irresponsible to participate, but there were never any laws against it. So it was always allowed to go and hit the streets. Ironically, such statements intended to harm the protest made the movement grow even stronger.

After students returned to school for a month and the lockdown was released for the holiday season, the protest got another spike in participation, but then the second lockdown followed. That was quite a serious lockdown as well. It was also the moment where the trust of society in the government was eroding. When you say that no one can go and see their families in the holidays and then you hear on the news that some ministers went all around the countries and got infected – that did not really help the government.

I became involved in the protest in April, that was the moment when many young people joined because there was a general feeling of unrest. I think people were deeply dissatisfied even before, not just about COVID, but also the feeling that everything is very static and that there would be never any change with regards to corrupt politics. It was just difficult to find a strategy how to respond to these issues, and last spring offered an opportunity to fight back. One key aspect of the protest was that it had no principal organiser, it still maintains to be a very collective movement of different groups. There are different themes – of course the largest one being the anger against Netanyahu and his desperate grasps for power to evade police charges. But there were also many other issues discussed within this platform, for example, it gave a voice to people who have small businesses, theatre professionals, and others who felt threatened by the restrictions.

The process of selecting slogans and integration of art was very inclusive. The colours of these protests were black and pink, everyone was wearing these colours and waving flags. The protest was not so much about clear goals and even though there were posters against the occupation and against other policies of Netanyahu, the aim was not so much about alternative demands from the government. It was rather a movement to define processes of inclusion, how to organise and live as a society. It was so powerful being together in the streets, the feeling that something is finally happening to change because you are doing something that is not allowed – the act of walking together itself being a sign of contention.

In the beginning it was mostly young people protesting but in the early autumn, about four months after the high peak of the pandemic, my father and others of his generation started to join the protest as well. So within these months, the movement became much broader again. My father is almost 70, so for him that was quite a dangerous step but still he chose to protest because the circumstances are so concerning.

We were pretty loud online as well.

There was a lot of humour in these protests, just being silly, for example there were slogans saying “Thank you, next”, or also “lech” which means “leave” using the same font as Netanyahu’s Likud party. This was opposed by slogans of “boi” which is the female form of “come” so, in a way it was meant to indicate that the days of patriarchy were to end and that it was the time of women to come. In the protest there were all kinds of areas, there were violent places, but also squares where people would just light candles, where people would meditate. A lot of people came up dressed up in costumes.

There were many things I started to understand during the protest. One of these things was the violent part. After ten or eleven o’clock in the night the police would come and tell everyone to leave, but of course no one wanted to leave and it started to escalate when the police started to remove people forcefully with water cannons, horses, arrests. They could do so on the ground that it is not allowed to be noisy on the streets after midnight. Around Balfour Square and all the other main spaces where the protests were taking place, these are all residential areas which is why these rules apply. Actually, in those areas where no curfew rules would apply, people would go home probably one hour after midnight as they would not have the power to maintain the protest longer than that. But if the police is telling you that you would have to go away, of course you do not want to go away. Still, the police was very aggressive.

In the end, the violent part was what brought the media to put the protests on their agenda and to be very present. So in a way, this made the protest visible. I did not participate because I did not want to but thinking about it now, it was important. However, there were still not enough participants for it to make a difference. At the height, there were probably about hundred thousand people in the entire country, if you count everyone together from the squares in Jerusalem to those on the highways, bridges, holding signs.

The core of the protest were tents in front of Netanyahu’s residence, it was like a settlement with people staying there permanently, sleeping there as well. But the police was also very violent there, with trying to remove the camp at five in the morning.

In Tel Aviv again, the demonstrations were very different. The source of the protests was in Jerusalem, but it also spread to Tel Aviv, with people demonstrating in front of the main police department. Most of the demonstrations happening there worked when we were just all taking a walk together. In the beginning, I was wondering a little, what are we doing here, just walking. But in the end it was very effective, because people saw us from their houses and became curious and joined. Plus, this act of walking together was very strong.

Currently, the protests are continuing but with much less volume. The routine to be out there in Balfour Square is still happening, people continue to stand outside on the road, blocking bridges all around Israel. But the coverage is much less in the media and people are participating less. I am not going to the protests so much anymore. I probably went twice or three times in the last three months. Now, there are also car demonstrations of vehicles going slow and honking on particular routes around Jerusalem.

I am not sure about the effects of this protest. Yes, probably it will take some time to evaluate how it affects the public. But I am skeptical about these long-term effects too. For example, in 2011 Israel saw huge protests against the high costs of rents and housing within the country. As a consequence, settlements increased and houses were built in the least politically acceptable places.

We are expecting our fourth election in two years as the coalition between Netanyahu and the others broke down. The vaccine programme is clearly part of this agenda. And it is interesting to see the entanglements between political power and the national health care system. My second vaccine is scheduled to take place within the next few days. My parents already got all two shots, my older sister as well. We have a lot of vaccines, there is no shortage of supplies. From what I heard, the first shot is quite alright, sometimes the second one after three weeks or so is a bit more painful. But it is better than nothing, that is why I am happy to get it. In the end, I got the vaccine because even though I am a bit skeptical about the entire process in terms of body politics, I feel like I do not have a choice, not only to leave the country and for example, to enter the airport, but also to move inside the country.

With Photo Credits to Or

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