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06.05.10

Bibi's Unlikely New Fan Club

Israelis are astonishingly unified in defense of their country's flotilla interception. Ethan Perlson on why even the country's lefties are draping themselves in the flag.

TEL AVIV—At a protest in front of the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv, Yoram Ben Zion, 31, admits that this is not how he typically spends a the beginning of the Israeli weekend in Tel Aviv. “Usually you can find me smoking weed and drinking beer on Rothschild Avenue,” he said. But on Thursday night, Yoram, a self-described “hippie and stoner” who is normally apolitical, joined over 1,000 young Israelis at a rally organized on Facebook to defend Israel and hit back at her critics, especially Turkey. They waved Israeli flags and sang patriotic songs, and gave Turkey the proverbial finger, holding up signs that read, “How many Kurds did you kill today?” and calling for the world to recognize the Armenian genocide.

At the protest there were “straights, gays, Russians, Ethiopians, and even French tourists,” said Gene Epshteyn, 35. “Ninety-nine percent of the people there were secular. This was not a right-wing rally. It was average everyday Israelis who’ve had enough.”

“Most young Israelis are very indifferent about the situation” in Gaza, she said. “But somehow this incident created a wave of people who wanted to explain our side to the world.”

In politically splintered Israel—the joke about "two Jews, three opinions" is an understatement in a country with over thirty political parties—Israelis are massively divided about issues like settlements and the peace process. But this week, fed up with what they view as an onslaught of unfair global criticism of their country, young Israelis—the ones who don’t typically care about politics, and even many from the left-wing—were atypically unified and mobilized in full nationalist fervor in defense of Israel. Pro-Israel demonstrations have been held across the country, and huge numbers of Israelis are enlisting their Facebook pages and email accounts to present Israel’s side of the story to the world.

Ronen Bigon, a 32-year-old software engineer from Tel Aviv, said he had never seen anything like it outside of war-time. It’s part of what Chen Ben Dori, 30, describes as a “giant wave” of Israelis trying to make their voices heard. “Most young Israelis are very indifferent about the situation” in Gaza, she said. “But somehow this incident created a wave of people who wanted to explain our side to the world.”

Ben Dori started posting articles on Facebook defending Israel’s actions and linking to Israeli Defense Force videos showing flotilla activists violently confronting soldiers with metal clubs and hatchets. Thousands of other Israelis did the same, helping make the IDF videos three of the most watched clips on YouTube this week. She forwarded emails encouraging Israelis to enlist in the cause and explain Israel’s side to friends and colleagues overseas. This effort “wasn’t organized from above,” she said. “Israel’s public diplomacy efforts are once again completely inadequate and we decided to take matters into our own hands.”

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Dikla Arinos, 28, a supporter of the leftist Meretz party, joined the Facebook group “Gaza Flotilla—The World Should Know the Truth” which has over 150,000 members so far. She doesn’t support the right-wing government and agrees that the flotilla raid was poorly handled, but said the focus has to be on defending Israel in the face of all the harsh attacks and condemnation. “The criticism just feels so wrong, like no matter what Israel does we are vilified and attacked in this one-sided way,” she says. She tried to discuss the issues with a Palestinian acquaintance in Qatar on Facebook, but “within two sentences she was shouting that all Israelis are murderers and it was impossible to continue the conversation.” But she has kept trying to convince other foreign friends via Facebook that, while Israel may have made mistakes, its soldiers acted in self-defense.

Yoram Ben Zion opted for a comic answer to Israel’s critics. He created a parody Facebook group page called “The Humanitarian Aid Flotilla from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv,” calling for Europe to send an immediate shipment of pot and hashish to Israel, which is suffering from a marijuana drought due to a government crackdown. “My point is that there is no real humanitarian crisis in Gaza and that this aid flotilla wasn’t really about helping Gaza but about provoking us. Maybe there is a shortage of certain items in Gaza, but look, right now there is a shortage of drugs in Tel Aviv.”

Though they are trying to argue their case as politely as possible, many Israelis are also genuinely angry. “I’m furious,” said Gene Epshteyn, who moved to Israel from New York five years ago. He is angry not only at Turkey and the critical foreign press, but also at Western allies who rushed to condemn Israel and “abandoned us.” That anger and frustration are widespread here.

So do Israelis really think they’re right and the rest of the world is wrong? The short answer is yes. A poll of Israel’s Jewish population by the daily Maariv from June 2 found that about 95% of respondents agreed it was necessary to stop the vessel. Many Israelis are critical of the handling of the raid, but not of the decision to stop the aid ships or the Gaza blockade policy in general.

“I’m not anti-Palestinian,” said Chen Ben Dori. “I want peace. I want a country for the Palestinians. I know the blockade is the last resort and not the best way to go, but I don’t feel like we have another choice if we want to live here safely.”

Like many Israelis who are trying to present Israel’s side, she is not optimistic that the world will listen, but said that at least it feels good to be doing something. “It’s better than watching TV and reading the newspapers and grumbling,” she said.

Yoram Ben Zion is also skeptical that all these PR efforts will bear fruit. “We’re doing what we can but there’s no way to win in the end because we’re a small minority.”

“It’s not easy seeing the whole world against you,” he said. “It isn’t fun.” But he does see one silver lining in Israel’s predicament. “If there’s one good thing about the whole world hating us, it’s that suddenly we like ourselves more, that it forces us to become united. Everyone thinks the same thing. It hasn’t been like that for years.”

Ethan Perlson is a journalist and screenwriter living in Israel. He has worked as a researcher and producer for NBC News, ABC News, CNBC, and HBO Documentaries.