So far, there is no doubt that we are winning. We will stop the thugs and killers of this so-called government in their tracks.
I don’t much like demonstrations. Never liked them. I feel foolish standing there, holding up a sign. It’s rare for me even to carry a sign. I like direct action, in the field, like with the shepherds. But for the last 16 weeks, like everyone I know, I’ve been in the protests—the big ones, always on Saturday night (last week there were 400,000 demonstrators throughout the country), and the smaller, episodic ones that happen every day, at dozens of sites. You can’t walk past the President’s house without encountering a protest by someone or other—reserve soldiers, feminists, economists, academics, law professors, teachers, Holocaust survivors– against the government. Israel—anyway, half of Israel—is stirring awake after half a century of moribund slumber.
Marching along last night, I was, as usual, tormented by the mystery of human evil—by the depravity that has no bottom, that plagues us, starting at the top. I wasn’t alone. Thousands surrounded me, enveloping me in a gritty hope. In spite of all their differences, all of them have come together, here in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, New York, New Haven, and god knows where, carrying signs.
From the radical faction, my people:
In a sign in Tel Aviv, the word “democracy” morphs from Hebrew to Arabic over the course of five repetitions.
A riddle: whoever solves it is invited at our expense to an ice cream at Moussaline (across from the President’s house. Best ice cream in Jerusalem. There are long lines there during and after every one of the demonstrations. Moussaline is undoubtedly thriving—the only positive result ever achieved by Netanyahu).
This week is Memorial Day for the fallen, and the signs of the bereaved families are painful to see.
Their signs read “In death they commanded us to be free.” or “Abba, we are continuing your struggle for democracy.”
Then there is the still-powerful slogan that has served so many protests throughout the world: “They thought they had buried us, they didn’t know we were seeds.” It may come from a Greek poem:
καὶ τί δὲν κάνατε γιὰ νὰ μὲ θάψετεDinos Christianopoulos, 1978
ὅμως ξεχάσατε πὼς ἤμουν σπόρος
What didn’t you do to bury me
but you forgot I was a seed.)
There is a chant that recurs like a refrain, the true motto of this revolution: “Oh-oh-oh, im lo yihye shivyon, if there is no equality, norid et ha-shilton, we”ll take down the government, nafaltem al-hador ha-lo nachon, you’re messing with the wrong generation.”
It’s a young people’s revolution, thank god. A miracle. David Grossman, speaking at the protests some weeks back, turned the slogan around. “Just looking at you, the thousands who are here, I see that this is the right generation.”
Relief. For years, and now in these last weeks of incipient dictatorship, I have been aching the ache of my language, the haunted Hebrew that brought me here fifty-five years ago. I can’t help it: when I hear the prime minister speaking lies, in God’s language, when I hear the shrieks of hatred from the mouths of the government ministers, when I hear the poisonous words of the Orwellian “Monster of National Security,” something dies in me. Many know about this, it was also true in Germany. Read Viktor Klemperer. They say “democracy” and they mean “totalitarian dictatorship.” They say “We are brothers,” and they mean, “We want to kill you.” There is no end or measure to this perversion, undoing the magic that inheres in the ancient syllables. I think the resurrection of the Hebrew language, and above all the juicy, racy, obscenely beautiful dialect of the streets is the one unequivocal achievement of this country. But amidst the protesters, it is as if the poisoned dregs of the language have, for the moment, drained away, and the music is back. Simple words, lucid sentences, truth.
Why are we alive, if not to protest? A wise person once said to me, “What is philosophy but a love for truth?” I notice, too, that hearing lies, whoever says them, but especially those like the prime minister who corrupt the public space, makes me weary, worn, blank. Also angry. Truth, by contrast, has the magical gift of restoring vitality and the lust for life. But are there not many, sometimes incompatible truths? There are. And sometimes this broad spectrum converges on a truth that is at once simple, subtle, and complex, that distinguishes right from wrong, or freedom from slavery. We know from inside what is right. We know about causing pain for the sake of causing pain. In India they say that in each of us there is an inner witness, the luminous sākshin, that is our truest self, that knows.
It is for that truth that we are fighting. Not just for the number of honest judges to be appointed to the Supreme Court, not just to prevent the government from taking control of the courts, not just to ensure that the Chief Justice will not be appointed by the politicians—though this is one crucial focal point of the protests—but for the possibility, at least that, that truth can still be uttered by ordinary, decent people. It is that possibility that they want to take away from us. All of us know this. And though I didn’t write the words on a flag and hold them high, I can see them burning in the sunlight or late at night: decency, integrity, truth. They say that when Rabbi Akiva was flayed alive by the Romans for teaching the Torah, he saw the Hebrew letters hovering above him, on fire. Truth is like that, or rather, truth is that: a flame.
2023 © David Shulman; photographs: where credited. We were unable to trace all photographs to their sources. Readers are encouraged to apprise us of any that are missing or incorrect.