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  • Writer's pictureRony Alfandary

We do not want to be ruled like this - The Civil Protest in Israel 2020-2021

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

A Hebrew version of this essay was published by Alaxon on December 2020.

A year of public protest all over Israel began in June 2020. I was an active part of the protest as well an avid photographer, as is shown here.

It all started for me on June 27th 2020 and then continued on July 4th, July 11th, July 18th, July 25th, August 1st, August 8th, August 13th in Haifa, August 15th and in Caesarea, August 22nd and in Caesarea, August 29th in Jerusalem, September 5th, September 12th, September 15th, September 26th, October 3rd, October 4th, October 8th, October 10th, October 17th, October 24th in Jerusalem, October 31st, November 5th march (and video), November 19th march (and video), November 21st in Caesarea (and video), November 28th Caesaria (and video), December 3rd march (and video), December 12th in Caesarea (and video), December 25th in Caesarea, where the march took place right outside the PM residency (see newspaper reports on Haaretz, Walla News, Twitter and video), and to end 2020, December 31st in Binyamina (see also video), January 2nd, January 9th, 2021 on Route 65 (video), January 16th in Caesarea (and video), January 30th , in Jerusalem February 6th, (video), in Pardes-Hanna February 10th, (video), Pardes Hanna March 5th (video), Pardes Hanna, March 12th (video), March 23rd Election Day, April 10th Pardes Hanna, 17th April Pardes Hanna, April 24th Pardes Hanna

June 2021 Update: as a new government has been formed, it is possible that Israel is entering a new era.

Israel has known tough times since its establishment in 1948. Wars, difficult economic situations, continued hostility from neighbouring countries, unsettled international borders, ethnic and religious tensions and more.

Something else has been taking place over the last year. Not only its Prime Minister, who is facing criminal charges, is hanging on to his seat for dear life, the country, like the rest of the world, is dealing with an on-going threat from the spread and impact of Covid-19 and its social and economic implications.

Since June 2020, there is a popular protest on the streets of Israel, focusing especially on the PM residency at Balfour Street in Jerusalem, his private but-paid-for-by-the state residence in Cesarea and hundreds of junction all over the country . Tens of thousands of people belonging to various groups that have sprung up spontaneously, such as the "Black Flag Protest (BF)", "Crime Minister" and more, take part in it. Every Saturday night and often during the week, crowds gather at hundreds of intersections across the country and in front of his residencies.

These are not ordinary protest events. True, there are speeches, placards, sit-arounds and all the other familiar elements from demonstrations in Israel. The presence of the police, who sometimes responds too aggressively in their line of duty to the extent of being suspected of hidden political motives, is also an integral part of the events.

The element that in my opinion distinguishes these events from previous political protests, including the 2011 protest, is the carnival element. Anyone who visited one of the protest centers, and especially Balfour, could not help but be impressed by the clown circles, street performances, huge puppets, the singing and meditation circles. Even Netanyahu's family members could not help but notice this element and called the demonstrators aliens.

What is the purpose of this protest, beyond the repeated call for the resignation of Netanyahu, who is serving his tenth year as prime minister, and against whom a trial is being held for bribery and fraud? Seemingly, the answers are plain and can be read about in the newspaper. Right vs. Left. Secular vs. Religious. etc. etc. I would, however, like to offer a slightly different interpretation of this mass occurrence and its underlying purpose. I believe that it is precisely the carnival presence in this protest that points to a deeper structural crisis than the apparent economic and political hardship. I will argue that the existence of the carnival at the heart of the popular protest indicates that the tens of thousands of people who take part in it, and the hundreds of thousands who support it from a distance, whether for fear of the Covid-19 or other reasons, are resonating profound structural change in Israel.

I base my argument on a sentence by Michel Foucault, we do not want to be ruled like this, from What is Critique (1984), as being at the one at the heart of popular protest. There are two assumptions here which needs clarifying. The first one is the very existence of the system of governance as regulating the relationship between the sovereign and and the people. The second element is the particular mode of governance that exists under certain social conditions. The defiance expressed in this statement, we do not want to be ruled like this, which is symbolized and amplified by the carnival element, is constituted by the sense of the real threat to the democratic regime. This threat is not necessarily new and can be said to be rooted in historical events that have taken place since the establishment of the state, such as ethnic and religious tensions and the question of sovereignty over the Palestinians. There is, however, new focal point th the threat which I summarize as a conflict between monarchism and democracy.

The first element, the very existence of government as an organizing practice of human conduct, describes the relationship between the state, the knowledge and the power structures and practices that take place in the field in which the three are found. Foucault describes power relations as maintaining a reciprocal relationship between power and resistance, when one does not exist without the other, when one relies on the other for its existence. If so, the Balfour Carnival could not have taken place without the current type of government against which it is defiant. The two are part of the same matrix.

The second element in Foucault's analysis, to be thus governed, is based on an in - depth analysis of how the administration in 18th century Europe, especially in France and Germany, was outlined by the Church and the clergy and in the very term that the basis of democratic regimes as we know them today. At the heart of the second element is a reference to time. It used to be like this and now it is like this. Once upon a time there was a king and now there is a republic. And maybe now the king can come back .... what is this course of time that Foucault is talking about? This is the birth of history.

The birth of the Subject

In his book "The Order of Things" (1970) Foucault deals with this question of time and the crisis that he believes occurred in the last years of the eighteenth century. Foucault identifies points in time when there was a change in the way human knowledge was organized , allowing for misguided practices to develop that changed the way knowledge was regulated and disseminated as a mechanism underlying the regime. He pinpointed the crucial event in our era to the French Revolution that replaced the monarchical regime.

Foucault defines and identifies the event that characterizes the way in which the era of modernity in which we still live began as the transition from monarchy to democracy. He explains how thought processes change. What is the law or event that triggers such a change? He suggests that the nature of the change relies upon the break-up of the sense and experience of continuity that existed during the Classical period. The way in which knowledge was organized has changed and does not rely on previous modes of organization such as identity and difference relating to a uniform imaginary axis in front of which these comparisons can be made and which can be maintained as a platform.

The inner experience of a uniform and universal structure (represented for example by the statement: "Only Bibi"), has lost its continuous and linear envelope and has shown itself to be composed of crises and fragments (see the endless split that characterizes the political parties to the left of the Likud). Is it possible to argue that part of the political unrest that is also expressed through the "coronation" of charismatic but undemocratic leaders to democracy such as Netanyahu and Trump indicates that we are on the verge of a new founding event, one that seeks to restore the monarchy?

The characterization of classical thought as chronological and serial, leads to sovereignty being passed on from a father to son, while modern thought creates a different kind of lineage based on the organizing characterization of an analogy between phenomena, such as democratic elections. It is this characterization that gives rise to the empirical experience that creates history. Foucault emphasizes that the change does not result from deepening factual knowledge, that is, from a gradual process of developmental evolutionary progress, but rather because of the same fundamental event on which Foucault pinoints his interpretation.

Since we are still living within the modern age created by that event, Foucault points to our difficulty in perceiving the event that established modernity. At the same time, he points to signs of its existence such as the emergence of positivist sciences, the emergence of literature, the inward contemplation of philosophy and the emergence of history, the duplication of expression as knowledge and the empirical mode of thinking.

The hallmarks of the event revolve around the idea of representation. If in the classical age representation pointed seemingly simply to other representations and made a linear and causal connection with them, in the modern age this simple connection was severed and again one could not expect a representation to simply point to the thing it represents. If in the past the king was such by virtue of being king, the democratic sovereign was forced to explain and justify his appointment in a long line of arduous acts.

The change that Foucault points to is that what matters is not what is visible and apparent. The line that separates the various categories created in the field of life sciences is not a line that can be seen from the outside. The internal investigation and tracing of the internal structure of phenomena creates a new classification that revolves around the axis of life and death, the axis of organic life forms and non-organic phenomena. This axis reveals the vector of two forces that are always in opposition to each other, the confrontation between life and death and the way in which one nullifies the existence of the other, the way in which one sustains the other. In this context, it can be argued that the emergence of the carnival elements as part of the Balfour Protest did not come to amuse the participants, but to elicit a more covert and subversive motive, the purpose of which is not apparent.

Foucault continues this line of thought as he turns his attention to the field of language. The study of language until the end of the eighteenth century was based on the study of the representational value of words. On this basis, comparisons were made between the different languages, diachronic studies were conducted regarding the origin of the languages ​​and their common basis. Foucault argues that as a result of the change, the basis for research has changed. The direction of research examining the relationship and similarity between languages ​​continues, however it is based on other parameters. The basic unit under study has changed and is no longer the most fundamental abstraction of all words but rather the way in which this abstraction, the root of the words, is skewed. The inflections and not the roots of the words are the ones that establish the relationship between them and point to the common denominator.

Emphasis on biases as the organizing principle introduces a new element to the system that focuses not on the meaning of the words and the way they indicate representations, but on the contexts and attitudes in which they are organized in relation to each other. These connections point to the internal mechanism of language which is neither visible nor condensed in the relationship between representations and things themselves. This mechanism that organizes the relationship between the words is the basis for comparing the different languages ​​and it, according to Foucault, marks the entry of history into the picture. Thus it can be seen that the placards carried as part of BF protest come not only to express frustration or protest but to suggest a different order.

Due to the exposure of invisible internal mechanisms, a new space is created that is outside the representational, outside the visible space. This inner space introduces the reader to the character of the psychological Subject. This event is the founding of the psychology that presupposes the existence of hidden internal mechanisms that drive the visible functional conduct in the world.

This crisis point at which the connection between things and their representation is severed constitutes the transition from the classical era to the modern era. The space that was once inhabited by the dominance of the ruler (the king) collapsed. Because of this crisis, because unity can no longer be found as it was in the classical age, the various movements are created that try to rediscover connection points. These movements are the sciences and the creation of human sciences to fill the space created.

Foucault maintains his point of view on the change that has taken place as dual, as having a positive and negative pole. The event is the creation of the hidden inner space, psychology, where representations are no longer invisibly related to things. The classical age was characterized by the ability to analyze things as they appear while the modern age revolved around the experience that things are not as they appear. A negative description of this crisis describes the futile, Sisyphean experience of empirical science research that unsuccessfully seeks to clarify things and those present (a prime minister accused of a crime cannot rule the country with discretion), while a positive description shows how the loss of absolute ability brings into play the Subject , his mortality and his relative point of view. I suggest that the struggle taking place on Balfour is indeed deeper than it is described in a "classical" way as a struggle between right and left. The deeper layer is the struggle between the democratic camp that seeks to preserve the democratic foundations of the modern state, including the principle of separation of powers, and the monarchist camp, which seeks to establish a regime based on the granting of governmental powers not based on democratic foundations which allow the ruler to enjoy the pleasures of power even if it involves "minor" offenses against the law.

The BF protest is not a "classic" protest of a legitimate struggle between different ideologies, but is a struggle over the very essence of the regime in which we live. The question is no longer who you will vote for in the next democratic elections, but whether elections should be held at all or whether governmental powers should be given to a sovereign who relies on a complex system of capital-government relations that allows him freedom of action free from democratic restraints. The word "rule" no longer represents a stable thing in which both sides are interested. The dual state that brings together the phenomenon of exact sciences based on empiricism on the one hand versus the phenomenon of ideologies that seek universal explanations for phenomena in the world ("only Bibi"), creates a crisis which popular protest responds, while relying on the carnival element.

The crisis is not just a semantic one, or just a crisis of control of knowledge or of power relations. It is each of these and more. It may not be a crisis at all but a description of the emergence of a situation, of new power relations. Either way, Foucault does not ask or suggest what can, or should, be done in face of the situation in which we live, a state of alienation between the individual and his environment. The struggle in Balfour is a struggle over what the current solutions to this crisis are - the continuation of democratic rule or the application of governmental monarchism that focuses on the cult of personality of a dominant figure who uses the political field as its private playground.

I would like to suggest an answer given by by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar (1914-1984). In 1982, Cortázar gave a lecture which was later published under the title "The Writer and His Mission in Latin America" ​​(1989). In this lecture, Cortázar details his conception of the possibilities of the author's involvement and activity in political events. Cortázar was already a world-renowned author and his writings were distinguished by the way he used the blurring of reality and imagination and linguistic innovation. Reading a Cortázar story is like playing, sometimes amusing but sometimes also threatening. One can certainly think of his works as Uncanny. Pablo Neruda wrote about Cortázar saying that anyone who has not yet read Cortázar is doomed to a sadder and poorer life, like someone who has never tasted a peach.

Cortázar "woke up" to political activity in the 1960s around the student demonstrations in Paris, where he lived and wrote until his death. Following this “awakening” he began to ask himself how he could contribute to the political struggle of revolutionary movements in South America like the Sandinista in Nicaragua. Cortázar was no stranger to the experience of alienation. He wrote extensively on the desire to bring about change through writing and addressed the question of the price an author pays when he stepped into a political struggle.

He refrained from synthesizing what he experiences as the inner creative urge for subjective expression and the desire to be part of a cultural framework that requires sacrifice and renunciation of the intellectual in order to be politically active. The conception of social change, even revolutionary, was not of taking to the streets or of overthrowing the regime.He pointed to the failure of the present attempts to bridge the gap created between the intellectuals and the society in which they live and on which they are trying to influence. He attributes this failure to the fact that the tools used by the intellectuals are part of the problem, part of the gap, and therefore fail to bring about change and rapprochement. I think one can read here Foucault's analysis that refers to the place of the cultural critic within the same culture he criticizes.

The solutions that he offers for intellectual involvement are very concrete and include sending books by mail, increasing radio broadcasts, writing comics, recording videotapes, introducing new lines to folk songs and more. If he was writing today, he would probably include Instagram and Tic-Toc in the list. He suggested that these solutions may be perceived as childish and silly and therefore he believes in them. For him, the introduction of the playful (carnival) ability into the intellectual political activity is the revolutionary act itself. In doing so, he directs the bulk of the change he is trying to bring about into the activities of the intellectuals themselves and does not target them as actions against the government. According to him, it is the change in the methods of action of the intellectual that will make his efforts relevant. The intellectual does not preach change, but executes it in his very field of action.

In this way, in my opinion, he responds to Foucault's statement. By changing the nature of the individual's action, in his case of the South American intellectual and in the case of Israel the carnival's participants, the power relations that sustain the administration can be influenced. I would like to suggest that the carnival atmosphere that is taking place in a considerable number of protests in the summer of 2020 is not an expression of the protesters' gaiety but a concrete and subversive expression as Cortázar suggests. It is difficult to argue that the terrible economic situation in which Israeli society found itself in the wake of the Corona crisis will provoke joy. To explain the presence of the carnival, I would like to turn to Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1970), a Russian thinker, whose work has been devoted, among other things, to finding chronotypes in Western literature throughout the ages.

In his article on 16th-century French writer François Rabelais, Bakhtin explored the enormous impact of the carnival on literature. He argued that the central element in the essence of the carnival is crossing the familiar social lines and creating a new and subversive order of reading the familiar social signs. During and at the center of the carnival, everything that is perceived as marginal becomes central. Everything that is forbidden on a daily basis, such as a demonstration of love including physical acts gets permission and is even celebrated. Secluded and underprivileged social groups take center stage. The rulers are ridiculed. The carnival goes against the daily reality and challenges it by putting to the test everything that is precious and sacred to it (see, for example, the position of the bare-chested protester on the symbol of the Menorah in Jerusalem).

Bakhtin attributed to the carnival a central and deep role in the life of society, every society, in all that it offers a wild, "anarchist and alien" alternative to the governmental routine characterized by hierarchy and social alienation. The "other" is freed from its shackles, imaginary and real, and fills the center of the stage. Traditional power institutions, the police for example, are becoming a target of contempt, ridicule and parody. The spectacular visual performances and original signs that fill Paris Square in Jerusalem are helping to break through the usual social barriers. Sex, race, and age differences are erased to allow for a new kind of social being that produces new communication on the basis of free and liberated contact. But the essence of the carnival is not just about turning reality upside down - on the contrary, the ultimate goal is to unite what seems contradictory in order to create a new and different social reality in which alienation between the individual and the environment no longer has a place.

The element of carnival, which in my opinion is an essential part of the popular protest, was created to express the great social tension that also accumulated due to the many restrictions imposed on the public in response to Covid-19, but especially as an expression of deeper anxiety. The carnival came to arouse the primordial passions in the democratic parts of Israeli society in order to stand firm against the attempt, which in part is unconscious in the way Foucault proposes, to impose on society a monarchical regime in which the sovereign is omnipotent and whose right to rule is given as a Messianic gift.

Days will tell whether the protests that will take place in the summer of 2020 throughout Israel will indeed lead to a fundamental social change and the strengthening and upgrading of the democratic foundations, as implied by this interpretation of Bakhtin's words. But it can already be said that it is a resounding answer to Foucault's words - we do not want to be ruled like this.

In March 2020, the government decreed various forms of social distancing, economic shut down and other measures to try and curb the spread of the virus. A few months later, it seemed to have worked and the restrictions were again lifted, only to be followed by a rapid increase in the spread of the virus and an increased rate of infection, particularly amongst section of the population that did not heed to the warning during the first few months. Consequently, the government took some severe legislative measures to stop the protest, including a temporary ban of public protest during September 2020.

Alongside the protest , which is taking place outside the PM residences in Jerusalem and Caesarea, and in over 200 hundreds junctions all over Israel, a few pro-government demonstrations sprang up, always in opposition and on the same site as the BF protest. They were funded the Likud party, enjoying many resources that the popular, grassroots movement did not have, despite false allegations that it was funded by foreign elements, hostile to israel. The nature of those counter demonstrations, legitimate as they were, is often violent and abusive towards the anti-government protest. There have been several cases of actual physical violence and verbal abuse is a common feature. The police is doing its best to protect the BF protest, which often bears strong carnival features, signifying the desire to "not be ruled like this", as is typical of carnival activities.

Since the beginning of October, it has become temporarily illegal to protest anywhere which is more than one kilometer from your place of residence. This measure only brings more people to the streets.

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