Israel was in a prolonged crisis of political legitimacy, marked by five consecutive elections held in the span of four years between April 2019 and November 2022. Three of these elections ended in close results that favored Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been the prime minister since 2009. In the fourth election, an eclectic coalition managed to emerge and displace Netanyahu, but it ultimately collapsed, leading to Netanyahu’s return with an overwhelmingly right-wing alliance.
Negotiations with the Palestinians have stagnated since the failure of the Kerry mission in 2014, and the U.S. Administration has allowed the expansion of settlements and occupation policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Tension with Islamist groups in Gaza has led to military operations against them. The peace process has deteriorated, further staining the United States’ record in the Middle East after the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos.
Despite these challenges, Netanyahu and his close partner President Donald J. Trump advanced normalization agreements with other countries in the Arab world, particularly with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, against Iran. Israel has also experienced an economic growth, particularly in the hi-tech sector, and has positioned itself as a commercial partner to India, China, and Russia.
Israel’s younger generations however, have experienced hardship due to high housing prices, and minorities have suffered under a prime minister who publicly shows disdain for them. Netanyahu’s government also advanced discussion and passage of the controversial 2018 Nation-State Law that declared Israel the “national home of the Jewish people,” giving rise to heated debates over the implications of enshrining one ethno-national group’s identity as a fundamental characteristic of the state.
Since 2009, except for one brief period of the Bennet-Lapid government, the left and center-left parties have been progressively shoved to the sidelines of Israeli politics and have been unable to challenge the consolidation of predominantly conservative-religious coalitions led by Netanyahu from 2015 onward. Netanyahu faces multiple cases of corruption, deception, fraud, and breach of trust, yet despite being increasingly unpopular, the prime minister did not see massive mobilizations against him until the COVID-19 pandemic, which aggravated the political crisis and caused a rampant economic crisis worldwide.
The Israeli public took to the streets to express their frustration with the political elites they felt were out of touch and estranged from rising costs of living and housing and unaware or negligent of how corruption leads to social and economic crisis. The association between the need for a more transparent democracy and prosperity was quickly picked up by the Israeli protesters identified with movements such as “Crime Minister,” “Black Flag,” and “Pink Bandana.” Most of their banners, signs, and colors expressed anger toward restrictions of liberties.
The failed Bennett-Lapid government precipitated the November 2022 elections, which once more proved the people’s disappointment with the moderate, center-right Blue and White party; the progressive parties of the “old politics” such as Labor; the left-wing Meretz; and the divided Arab parties as credible alternatives to put an end to the crisis of representation.
As of 2023, protests against the current judicial overhaul that Netanyahu and his far-right allies, such as Otzma Yehudit’s Ben-Gvir, are attempting to invigorate the Israeli public. It is unclear, however, whether the protests, whose slogans and chants speak of corruption, lack of accountability, and the urgent need to defend democracy, will give cultural diversity an equal place in their demands.
Between Political Crisis and COVID-19
The protests that erupted in Israel against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2020 and 2021 were fueled by accusations of corruption, lack of transparency, and social inequality. Despite the participation of people of different ages and social backgrounds, the demands for change were not focused on a vision of a more inclusive society that recognizes the diversity of its population.
The main question that guided these protests was how to oust Netanyahu, as expressed through the Hebrew word “Lech”1 (go) on multiple signs. The lack of a clear roadmap for change, however, left the demonstrators without a concrete way to address issues such as unemployment, high housing prices, and discriminatory practices against the LGBTQ community and other minorities, including Palestinians.
In March 2020, Netanyahu declared a state of emergency and implemented strict quarantine measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He also approved a law allowing the intelligence services to access cell phone data to monitor people infected with the virus and their environments. This move was met with a massive online protest, with about 65,000 people participating and 597,000 people viewing it through Facebook.2 The protesters challenged the prime minister’s legitimacy to decree such measures and questioned who would audit the use of the sensitive data.
After three consecutive elections and intense negotiations, Netanyahu agreed to a unity government with his main rival, Benny Gantz, in April 2020. This deal, however, led to Gantz’s loss of popularity as the leader of Blue and White and ultimately paved the way for the March 2021 elections. On April 19, 2020, about 2,000 people gathered at Rabin Square in central Tel Aviv to protest against the unity government. They demonstrated with masks and posters against the corrupt prime minister responsible for the political and social unrest. The symbol of the protest was the black flag, which represented the rejection of Netanyahu and his impunity. Fines for protesting ranged from NIS 475 to NIS 5,000 ($133- 1,400), but protesters refused to pay them.3
Frustration over a postponement of Netanyahu’s trial, severe quarantine measures, and the arbitrary shutdown of the Knesset led to massive protests, with many taking to the streets in defiance of control measures. Thousands of people saw it as their civic duty to protest against the impunity that enables Netanyahu to remain in power despite legal proceedings against him. The protesters adopted different repertoires of social action to make themselves heard and managed to bring out crowds to express their indignation over what they perceived as an affront to their freedoms.
The recent cases of the gillets jaunes (yellow jackets) in France or the use of green in the movement in favor of the decriminalization of abortion in Argentina acquired worldwide notoriety. These are examples of the wearing of distinctive colors that involve the identification of a group with an array of ideals, values, and demands and highlight their power to produce chains of interclass solidarities that cross the social fabric in other dimensions as well.
In Israel, the black flag and the pink bandana represented the demand for a drastic change in the country’s political life, while orange was used in 2005 by settlers when the disengagement from Gaza began. Despite the defense of democracy and social equality, the protests did not explicitly address the need for a more inclusive society in ethno-national terms by including Israeli Arabs, Druze, and Bedouin, among other groups.
Black and Pink
Protests erupted after the closure of the Knesset and the halt of legislative activities in the middle of the negotiations between the Likud and Blue and White. As an immediate popular response, more than 100 vehicles headed to the Knesset, although many were stopped before reaching Jerusalem.4 This strategy complied with the Ministry of Health’s social distancing requirements; nonetheless, some protesters were arrested when exiting their vehicles.
Unaffiliated voters such as the Schwartzman siblings called for the organization of a convoy of vehicles and also demonstrations from balconies, terraces, and windows through social media. The badge they used was a black flag that they wove in iconic places such as Ben-Gurion’s tomb and the Yitzhak Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv, among others. The Black Flag protests spread rapidly, attracting participants of all age groups, regions, and classes who wore various black garments as part of a repertoire of social action. This color symbolized their rejection of the unity government and the preventive quarantine measures, understood as an attempt to restrain popular resistance.
Born as an initiative by ordinary citizens, the Black Flag movement had the public support of Carmi Gillon, former Shin Bet director, and of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Between April and May 2020, unease grew among Blue and White supporters who felt disillusioned with the unity government. Amidst the announcement of the Netanyahu-Gantz alliance, new protests erupted. In one of them, demonstrators wore black T-shirts and flags and headed to the residence of the then tourism minister, Asaf Zamir, who was perceived as a traitor within Blue and White for having agreed to a unity government with Netanyahu. Zamir resigned on October 2020, urging other ministers and fellow legislators to do the same in a post on his Facebook account.5
Throughout 2020, Netanyahu re-imposed strict measures that affected movement due to the pandemic, harming the organization of protests. He even claimed that these events had increased mortality and spread the virus. In the meantime, while Blue and White’s stability languished, the prevailing position was to support the renewal of quarantine measures.
Indeed, at the end of September 2020, in a vote of 46 in favor and 38 against the Knesset approved a new law that restricted people from moving beyond 1 km from home.6 This law was seen as an attempt to limit the people’s ability to exercise their right of protest. Consequently, the result was a resurgence of repeated and massive protests of thousands of people over at least 12 consecutive weeks. Most of these protests gathered outside Netanyahu’s residence on Balfour Street, in the vicinity of Paris Square in Jerusalem, while others took place in at least 18 other cities, complying with the restrictions.7
The authorities responded by repressing and arresting protesters and blocked streets, bridges, and accesses to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to obstruct the demonstrations. Not only were there episodes of violence between protesters and the police, but also counter marches mobilized in favor of the prime minister, which included groups of minors associated with the hooligans of the Beitar Club and the right-wing group La Familia, whose members attacked Black Flag protesters with pepper spray and explosives and tried to run them over with their vehicles.8
Growing street violence can be seen as a dimension of the current political polarization. Even though the anti-Netanyahu camp may represent a broad ideological spectrum, what protesters seem to share is the demand for transparency, socioeconomic equality, and Netanyahu’s resignation and effective judgment.
What about the Pink Bandanas?9 This movement sprang from the LGBTQ community and the youth but appealed to different generations and to artists, designers, students, the self-employed, and young professionals who felt outraged by the “lack of a future” envisaged as a consequence of an economic crisis belittled by the government. Correspondingly, Pink Bandana protesters demanded greater social assistance in times when the Knesset Finance Committee authorized a retroactive tax waiver of NIS 1 million for Netanyahu for different payments of services and privileges received between 2009 and 2017.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Pink Bandanas took part in clashes with police forces, they advocated for peaceful resistance against the government’s repressive measures. Their demonstrations were initially planned by the party organizers at the Kok Schok party venue identified with Tel Aviv’s LGBTQ community; however, the movement was joined by activists unrelated to it and lacks a clear leadership.10 Indeed, the Kok Schok organizers prepared guides with instructions for protesters (suggesting outfits and props that would make noise) in line with the social action of nonviolent movements. Consequently, the pride flag, pink makeup, and wigs were quickly picked up by protesters without any organizational coordination.
The Pink Bandanas did have spokespeople who opposed the prospective annexation of 30% of the Jordan River Valley according to the Trump plan while also reluctantly recognizing the potential of the Abraham Accords process. Regarding this issue, these spokespeople criticized the agreements as a unilateral move by Netanyahu, claiming that he would likely take personal advantage of this potential collective achievement.
The composition of a cohesive national collective is a significant dimension for the Pink Bandanas movement, since their fundamental claim is not limited to the economy but to the kind of political regime they want Israel to be: a democracy, according to their posters, statements, posts on social networks, and interviews. This group repudiated the government which had labeled them as traitors for demonstrating. Likewise, they encouraged the participation of the LGBTQ population in the protests, recognizing in them the potential to enhance and protect the access and enjoyment of civil rights and elementary freedoms.
The Seed of the 2023 Protests
These mobilizations have brought to the forefront several crucial aspects of contemporary democracies. One of their most notable features is the presence of young protesters demanding that their material be addressed by political elites who are out of touch with the people. It is worth noting that the traditional notion of the “start-up nation” in Israel has emphasized a cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial citizenship that prioritizes self-interested practices. However, even members of the so-called creative class of engineers and designers have taken to the streets alongside the unemployed, artists, and other groups.
The popular outrage against corruption in 2020-2021, reached an unprecedented magnitude compared to protest dynamics over the last decade. The pandemic seemed to have affected people’s freedoms, making them more aware of preexisting cases of corruption and the progressive shift toward far-right values. While the demonstrations constitute the prelude of the 2023, massive mobilizations against Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, the demands for democratic transparency may be read as a relative conservative reaction, since they eminently perceived democracy as an adequate procedural institutional arrangement.
Netanyahu and his allies became “unbearable” when they were intimately associated with the conditions for the exercise of professional activities, freedom of expression, and movement, which are indispensable for recreation and social encounters. One of the significant challenges in understanding these movements is the role played by the LGBTQ community, central to many protests in Israel.
The Pink Bandanas’ performances were substantive in a context where Netanyahu had sponsored the entry of homophobic allies into the Knesset, such as the Religious Zionist Party. The magnitude of the economic crisis, aggravated by the pandemic, prompted members of this community to demonstrate against Netanyahu and a xenophobic, anti-Arab, and aggressive agenda toward other expressions of Judaism. Other groups, such as Black Flag and No Way, rejected corruption using less spirited methods, but all of them expressed popular demands through collective social action, which emboldened political involvement among unaffiliated voters.
Even though their aim was to protect democracy, however, the protesters did not explicitly invite ethnic and religious minorities to participate. This lack of inclusivity requires further exploration. Is it that the protesters do not know how to build bridges for multicultural encounters to happen, or do they mirror the political elites’ alienation toward the aforementioned unsatisfied needs?
The prospective inclusion of other minorities should substantially contribute to the exercise of the freedoms for which the protesters have fought. The notion that vulnerable bodies exist not only within the LGBTQ community or the lower middle and lower classes within the Zionist population is the key to thinking of forms of cohabitation that make Israeli democracy a transformative force.
In sum, the 2020-2021, protests were fueled by demands for change but lacked a clear roadmap for a more inclusive society. From the presence of young protesters demanding their material needs to the role played by the LGBTQ community, these movements have revealed important insights into the state of democracy in Israel. From social media to the streets, the protests demonstrated the power of collective action and the use of distinctive colors to represent multiple demands. Their immediate legacy is more than palpable in the even larger protests of 2023. Nevertheless, in a current context where the Supreme Court and democracy, as a form of society, are threatened by authoritarianism and bigotry, the absence of even preliminary consensus on egalitarianism is concerning. It remains to be seen whether future mobilizations will address this issue and push toward a more inclusive society in Israel.
1 Mekelberg, Yossi, “Israeli protesters’ simple message to embattled Netanyahu”, Arab News, 10/20/2020; Pfeffer, Anshel, “Protests Outside Netanyahu’s Residence Won’t Bring Him Down, but They’ve Already Made Him Blink”, Haaretz, 08/24/2020.
2 “65K ‘attend’ virtual protest against Netanyahu”, The Times of Israel, 03/21/2020.
3 “Police hand out fines to protesters outside Gabi Ashkenazi’s home”, The Times of Israel, 04/13/2020; Wootliff, Raoul, “Thousands rally in Tel Aviv, 2 meters apart, accusing PM of destroying democracy”, The Times of Israel, 04/19/2020.
4 Halbfinger, D.M., Kershner, I. and Bergman, R.,” To Track Coronavirus, Israel Moves to Tap Secret Trove of Cellphone Data”, The New York Times, Published 03/16/2020, Updated 03/18/2020; “Netanyahu accused of dictatorship amid coronavirus crisis”, AlJazeera, 03/19/2020; Verter, Y. and Landau, N., “Netanyahu, Likud Ministers Sought Israeli Parliament Closure Under New Coronavirus Regulations”, Haaretz, 03/20/2020.
5 “Minister quits Israeli government over COVID-19 curbs on protests”, Reuters, 10/02/2020.
6 Hoffman, Gil, “Knesset votes 46 to 38 to limit anti-Netanyahu protests”, The Jerusalem Post, 09/30/2020.
7 “The Artistic Creativity at the heart of the Balfour Protests”, Makom Israel, 08/27/2020; Bassist, Rina, “Anti-Netanyahu groups stage ‘neighborhood protests’”, Al-Monitor,10/02/2020; Peleo, B. And Breiner, J., “Thousands Protest in Front of Netanyahu's Residence After Attempts to Curb Demonstrations”, Haaretz, 09/27/2020; Staff and Boxerman, A., “Thousands protest PM; police clash with dozens who lit bonfire on Balfour Street”, The Times of Israel, 12/26/2020.
8 “6 anti-Netanyahu protesters said attacked by right-wing activists after rally”, The Times of Israel, 07/25/2020; “Israeli protesters attacked by pro-Netanyahu group in Tel Aviv”, Middle East Eye, 07/29/2020.
9 Levi, Sarah, “The stories behind the pink bandanas and the protests at Balfour”, The Jerusalem Post, 08/20/2020; Yaron, Lee “Why LGBTQ Groups Are Heading to anti-Bibi Protests in Droves”, Haaretz, 09/05/2020; Riba, Naama, “How Pink Became the Color of the anti-Netanyahu Protests”, Haaretz, 10/16/2020; Kern, Corina, “At anti-Netanyahu protests in Israel, pink is the new black”, Reuters, 02/07/2021.
10 Yaron, Lee “Why LGBTQ Groups Are Heading to anti-Bibi Protests in Droves”, Haaretz, 09/05/2020.