The last FIT of 2020 on 25 December attracted many young Israelis.

Israel millennials express grassroots opposition
Are we talking lockdown fatigue or Netanyahu fatigue?

FIT TLV is the latest initiative by Tel Aviv’s youth to keep on partying during the coronavirus crisis. FIT describe themselves as "Free. Individuals. Together" – cycling, rollerblading and skating collectively every Friday in the Mediterranean metropole. By Djamilia Prange de Oliveira

"It’s not a protest, but it’s still political: young people that want to have fun. We need to see happy people," Gaya Cohen, one of the organisers of FIT TLV says. These days what began as a fairly sizeable rolling marathon has become a small festival, taking place in violation of coronavirus regulations. Around a thousand people attended the last gathering of the year in December, accompanied by blasting sounds from Tel Aviv’s party scene.

It all began as a vision for a collective marathon during the country’s second lockdown in September 2020 on RoshHaShana, the Jewish new year. While the Israeli authorities rushed to enforce another stay-at-home order in the face of rising COVID-19 case numbers, life in Tel Aviv once again became restricted, businesses which had survived the first lockdown went bankrupt, and social connections were reduced to a minimum.

With individual sports still being allowed, a loophole opened for many eager to meet outside, inducing hundreds of young Tel Avivians to take their dusty, never used surfboards to the beach, to bike, skate or start stretching – in clear view of the police.

An explosion of thirst

"People are thirsty to connect with each other, and this is the only way we can do it right now," Gaya tells me in a phone call. It started as a collective marathon, but as it grew, it became an explosion of thirst.

The more people came, the thirstier they were, and the marathon – the basic concept of which was to be together, but individually – rapidly crossed the line between the permitted and the forbidden, the responsible and the irresponsible, morally correct and morally incorrect behaviour during a pandemic.

Watching the videos on Instagram, I had mixed feelings, somewhere between fomo (fear of missing out) and fear – of the next wave, the next mutated virus strain, the next lockdown. Who wouldn’t like to party now? When I showed the videos to friends in Germany, they reacted with concern, judging, drawing parallels with the right-wing anti-coronavirus protests in Germany.

Two weeks after our phone call, Israel entered its third nationwide lockdown. Just two days after the last FIT of the year, which made headlines nationwide: "As if there was no corona: Crowds at a party in Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv", the newsportal mako headlined.

"Basically, this is a protest in itself that shows that we need to see people’s faces, we need to see people smiling, we need to dance together. We are cycling for our souls!" says Gaya. FIT's "protest" seemed to resonate, receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback and continuing to grow, regardless, from week to week.

On FIT's Instagram stories, I see people smiling, cycling, dancing and screaming, blue sky, sunshine, t-shirts and shorts, happy music and laughter. Every time the marathon stops for a pause, it becomes a party, and after it ends, nobody goes home. Almost nobody is wearing a mask, even though masks are compulsory in Israel. But there is a widespread belief that no mask is necessary when doing sports outside, another loophole.

A country in constant crisis

After almost a year, young Israelis are eager to connect with each other again, despite the risks. The rebellious atmosphere marks a country in constant crisis. But it is not only because Israelis are less obedient than, say, Germans, that rules and lockdowns have only been vaguely followed.

One of FIT TLV's organisers, Gaya Cohen (photo: Khalil Myroad)
"It’s not a protest, but it’s still political": secular, young and often self-employed, FIT participants have been hit hard by the crisis. Before COVID-19, Gaya was working as a self-employed personal trainer and as a waitress in a restaurant. The restaurant is now closed and most of her groups have stopped training. "I feel stressed about money all the time," she admits. The support she receives from the government barely covers her costs in the fifth most expensive city in the world

The reasons are political; they have to do with the context of the coronavirus crisis within Israeli politics, and that’s why FIT is also political. More than that, they represent an unheard voice of a generation.

Anti-government protests in front of the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem have been going on continuously since the spring and have only increased over time. Attempts by the government to suppress them, limiting citizens wishing to protest to doing so within 1000 metres of their own homes during the second lockdown in September, resulted in protests erupting all over the country.

With increasing police brutality, police surveillance and the fourth election in two years coming up in March, Israelis have lost confidence in their authorities. This is also being reflected in citizens' behaviour. Chaos, or balagan, as they say in Israel.

From a German perspective, the current right-left division in Israel is opposite to that in Germany. Protests against the coronavirus regulations there are backed by right-wing parties such as the AfD and NPD, their participants labelled as right-wingers, conspiracy theorists and coronavirus deniers; in Israel, however, it is the liberal and left-wing opposition that is protesting against the government.

The participants of FIT are a segment of this opposition; secular, young and often self-employed. This segment has been hit hard by the crisis, and Gaya is one of them. Before COVID-19, she was working as a self-employed personal trainer and as a waitress in a restaurant. The restaurant is now closed and most of her groups have stopped training. "I feel stressed about money all the time. I have suffered a lot," she admits. The support she receives from the government barely covers her costs in the fifth most expensive city in the world.

 

Anti-lockdown protests mirror anti-government sentiment

After all, Gaya says, "we want this shit to be over, we don’t want to hear about masks and social distancing anymore." Looking forward to the next and last FIT of 2020, she was unconcerned about police enforcement at the event. When I asked her whether she worries that the police will shut the event down, which they did, she answers: "They will. But fuck the police."

Israelis have a "complicated" relationship with the police. During the pandemic, police brutality complaints have increased even more. Gaya comments sarcastically that "the corona time is the time to shine for the police, because everybody is their enemy."

In July, an Israeli was beaten up by police forces and jailed for four days for not wearing a face mask. Videos online showing police forces using water cannons to disperse protesters, yelling and using violence against unarmed civilians are going viral. The irregular enforcement of mask regulations has led to frustration and confrontations with the police.

While at the beach, masks are not being enforced, "at the Balfour protests, the police were booking people for not wearing masks," Gaya tells me. "I wear a mask inside – I just don’t think you need to wear it outside. Tell me to do something that I understand the rationale of, that I believe in, and I will do it."

Netanyahu pandering to his ultra-Orthodox base

Criticism towards police and government has also been voiced regarding selective police enforcement. The relationship between secular and ultra-orthodox Israelis is being strained still further as secular Israelis criticise the government for failing to enforce regulations on ultra-Orthodox communities, despite infection numbers in this segment of society being the highest.

A protestor dressed up as Netanyahu as a prisoner at the Balfour protests in Jerusalem, January 2021. His sign reads: "Liar" (photo: Khalil Myroad)
Balfour Street in Jerusalem: in recent months, protesters have gathered regularly to demonstrate outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence. Still facing serious allegations of corruption and having failed to protect jobs and businesses during the pandemic, Bibi could get an unpleasant surprise at the upcoming election

While the secular school system is closed, the ultra-orthodox school system remains open in violation of state regulations, mass gatherings and weddings continued to occur, as Amos Harel writes. The reason for this is also political. Harel is not the only one who argues that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "doesn’t dare to enforce the law on the ultra-Orthodox because without them, he has no political existence."

In September, a letter by the ultra-Orthodox mayors of the cities Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit and Elad to Netanyahu declared that "if their cities were put under lockdown, they would not co-operate with the government". Standing with one foot in prison, Netanyahu can only win the upcoming election in March with the support of the Orthodox parties and thereby continue evading the legal proceedings against him.

The management and political instrumentalisation of the coronavirus crisis has enraged the Israeli public, as it has meant "lockdown, personal monitoring and total suspension of individual freedom" for them (Sigal Sadetsky, Chief of Public Health Services, Ministry of Health, quoted in PHR Covid-19 Report, p. 15). Lack of transparency in the decision-making process has only increased popular distrust of the political elite.

Since it took the Israeli government until 20 April 2020 to form a coalition, the country was without a parliament when the pandemic first hit. Regulations were imposed and changed quickly, legislated under the state of emergency, in place since 1948. And then there was the "Major Coronavirus Law", passed on 22 July, which was met with outrage, since it allowed the government to declare a coronavirus-related state of emergency, under which new orders could be implemented without parliamentary oversight.

 

The association for civil rights in Israel (ACRI) and the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights (Adala) filed a supreme court petition against the law, commenting that it

"(…) severely violates the fundamental rights of the individual. There is no justification for taking critical emergency decision-making out of the hands of elected parliamentary representatives operating with transparency. Worse still, the Israeli government’s frequent changes to its public health guidelines have damaged public confidence in the country’s leadership and in the guidelines themselves, thus reducing the ability of authorities to confront the spread of the virus."

"Damaged public confidence in the country’s leadership and in the guidelines" is key to understanding the laissez-faire attitude of young Israelis like the participants of FIT, who have decided to place the defence of their democracy above the curb of the virus.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is setting records with his vaccination campaign to claim victory over the virus at election time. Israel is the first nation having vaccinated already 36 percent of its population – more than 3.3 million Israelis have already received the first shot, while Palestinians have been completely neglected in Israel’s Covid-19 policy. Haaretz explains Netanyahu’s vaccination marathon as his best chance of achieving re-election in March, facing as he does the ongoing pressure of criminal charges and public protests.

Erosion of public confidence

"If the government’s regulations would make more sense, then maybe we would comply with them. But because everything here is political, people allow themselves to make excuses to go outside," says one young Israeli. Distrust of the authorities and growing frustration with the situation have led young Israelis to see the system – including its regulations – as the enemy, inducing them to disobey the government’s orders to curb the virus.

 

An article in Haaretz writes about the current lockdown that "it’s not all clear whether the public will abide by the lockdown anyway. The government has already officially given up on enforcing it in the ultra-Orthodox community."

Gaya’s standpoint reflects a general fatigue of lockdowns, masks and coronavirus regulations not uncommon among non-risk groups. This fatigue and the accompanying atmosphere of rebellion might seem selfish to some, for whom this behaviour only contributes to the worsening of the pandemic.

But it is important to consider its broader social context and understand nuances, such as political upheaval or the erosion of confidence as factors, instead of silencing these voices from a moralist standpoint. The pandemic has divided people into left and right, into conspiracy theorists and realists, into those who obey and those who don't (and maybe we have all been on both sides already).

In Germany, those critical of government regulations concerning the virus are quickly categorised as right-wingers and conspiracy theorists, pushing those that do not identify with these labels into the arms of the right, instead of having a conversation with them. The criminalisation of social contact for the greater good might be the correct utilitarian response to the pandemic. But because the pandemic is a unique moment of global, simultaneously shared experiences, we should provide room for the various layers of those experiences.

Moral policing and finger-pointing will only strengthen populists, who are intent on instrumentalising the pandemic for their political interests. Instead, we should aim to rebuild trust, emphasising co-operation and solidarity as a strategy against the virus.

German-Brazilian Djamilia Prange de Oliveira (photo: Humans of Tel Aviv)
Neglected and marginlised: "FIT is much more than just fun in the sun without caring about coronavirus; it unites a segment of Israeli society that doesn’t feel represented by its government. The secular, young, workforce is Israel’s economic backbone," writes Prange de Oliveira

The marginalisation of a generation

Although Gaya says that FIT does not have a political agenda, it clearly is political. Its participants are the voice of a generation that feels neglected and marginalised by its government in the face of political instrumentalisation of the coronavirus crisis and financial pressure.

FIT is much more than just fun in the sun without caring about coronavirus; it unites a segment of Israeli society that doesn’t feel represented by its government. The secular, young, workforce is Israel’s economic backbone, as opposed to the non-working Orthodox, but they didn’t elect their Prime Minister, he is not their leader.

Considering the socio-political context of the protests – be they FIT, anti-government protests in Jerusalem, or the protests by shop owners who chant "Bibi you abandoned us" – one should be careful to judge them too quickly. Context matters, and context shows us that left and right don’t necessarily mean the same thing in different places.

We are experiencing a moment of split society. Either we judge each other, or we can give those who feel marginalised a voice and have a conversation, rebuilding trust and quelling disunity at a time when we are in fact united by necessity.

Djamilia Prange de Oliveira

© Qantara.de 2021

More on this topic