‘Anyone who isn’t jumping is a leftie,’ chant the settler youths at a right-wing election rally in Tel Aviv, the site of a larger anti-Netanyahu rally a week earlier. Netanyahu the ringmaster is in control of his audience, and the rally itself has the quality of a victory parade.
Video by Camilla Schick
They came, they saw, they cheered. Around Rabin Square Sunday evening, the streets of Tel Aviv were unrecognizable: thousands of settlers, hilltop youth and national-religious had come from across the country (and from over the Green Line) in order to attend a right-wing rally in a location usually reserved for gatherings of the Left. Originally intended as a public gathering, the decision of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to appear and speak turned it into a political electioneering event, as ruled by the Central Election Committee earlier in the day. Additional controversy was caused by the subsidizing of transportation from the West Bank to the rally using public funds: among the local government bodies helping fund the rally were Gush Etzion, Har Hebron and Binyamin — all in the West Bank.
I am in a taxi on the way to the rally when the driver switches on the radio to listen to the 7 o’clock news. The lead item is the Election Committee’s decision, and the fact that as a result of this ruling, musicians cannot take part in the event and it cannot be televised. My driver grunts and shakes his head in disgust. I lean forward to ask his thoughts on the matter, and then think better of it. Still haunted by the anti-Left violence that swelled during anti-war demonstrations last summer, I am busy deciding how honest I should be if anyone strikes up a conversation with me.
Ibn Gabriol Street, which leads to Rabin Square, is filled with evidence of the largesse of the aforementioned West Bank regional councils. Bus after bus lines the road, many with signs in the front window indicating where they are from. Huge Israeli flags are everywhere, as are posters of all the right-wing parties. Flyers imploring people to support the Right litter the streets and cafe tables. People push past me, saying, “Only Bibi, only Bibi” (in Hebrew). Balloons are everywhere, carrying both party names and calls to continue building in “Samaria.” Table stalls selling hardback religious texts abound; in the distance, I see and hear a group of hilltop youth jumping up and down and singing: “anyone who isn’t jumping is a leftie.” Signs attacking Herzog, the Left, and MK Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List (“If Ahmed Tibi is on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who needs enemies?”) dot the air. Yehuda Glick walks past.
Making my way into the square itself, I feel that I have fallen through the looking glass; for an evening, the Tel Aviv bubble has shattered. While the atmosphere is carnivalesque, and many children are in attendance, the level of baying tribalism makes me nervous. I notice people looking at me strangely (including Glick, who caught my eye as he passed), and wonder what it is that’s giving me away. As I stand as innocuously as possible, discreetly (or so I think) making notes, I see edgy frowns peering my way. Someone asks me in Hebrew what I’m writing. I lie. The frowns melt away and are replaced by smiles; my chief interlocutor even shakes my hand. After a few introductions, I am comfortably embedded with the group around me, free to continue observing.
People continue to stream into the square. Im Tirtzu acolytes are in attendance, and the orange flag of Gush Katif flutters a few meters away. Next to it, the flag of Ariel. Giant helium balloons covered with HaBayit HaYehudi posters drift over our heads, and cardboard stand-ups with life-size photos of Naftali Bennett give his fans the opportunity to make it look as if they are posing with him. The circus has indeed rolled into town — but ultimately, it is Bibi’s show.
As he takes the stage to give his speech, the crowd roars its approval (even as several individuals I speak to privately voice their disapproval of him, confessing that they simply see no alternative). His speech is the expected hodge-podge of arrogance (patting himself on the back for his speech to Congress), calls-to-arms and scare-mongering — from waxing lyrical about “the Jewish spirit, the Zionist spirit, our spirit,” to warning of the dangers of a left-wing government and declaring that he will never divide Jerusalem. With each mention of Israel, Likud, Bibi himself, and Zionism, the crowd cheers. With each mention of the Left, the Zionist Camp, and a potential Palestinian state, the crowd boos.
Netanyahu the ringmaster is in control of his audience, and the rally itself has the quality of a victory parade. Groups jump up and down, calling Bibi’s name; the slogan, “the land of Israel for the Israeli people,” rings out from the stage and from the crowd over and over; and the continuing football chants of hilltop youth lend their aggressive edge.
Netanyahu steps down from the stage, and Bennett steps up. He takes up the same tone as Bibi on the threat of a divided Jerusalem if the Zionist Camp gets into power. I’ve had my fill of the event — the crowd is overwhelming, and I hear mutters around me about how dangerously low the number of people is: 15,000 are in attendance, according to police assessments (not remotely close to the 100,000 figure that was tossed out by a speaker at the beginning of the evening). I start to fight my way out, and as I leave my group, the strange looks return. A girl collapses and is carried to an ambulance.
As I emerge into the street, I run into a journalist friend who is covering the event for an English-language Arab news outlet. I mention that I lied when asked about myself, and she half-smiles and tells me that she brought her old press card for a national Israeli newspaper that she used to work for. We walk past another ambulance where another girl that has fainted is being lifted in. I continue on my way, and as Bennett starts to lead the crowd in singing “Jerusalem of Gold,” a group of purple-shirted youths with knitted kippahs and long sidelocks dashes past me, yelling that the lord is king.
As the people around me finally start to thin out, I look up at the windows of the apartments that sit above Ibn Gabirol’s commercial strip, and see two giant Meretz flags hanging from a pair of balconies. A few people are gathered, looking out at the rally, holding up signs. I want to wave to them, but my arm stays by my side. I look down and quicken my pace, grateful that the circus is only in town for one night.
Follow Camilla Schick at: @CamJourno