The Viral Protester Who Explains Why Benjamin Netanyahu’s Long Political Career May Finally End

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The familiar pattern of countries rallying around their elected officials has not been the case in Israel, where huge majorities of the public blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right government for security lapses enabling the Palestinian group Hamas to invade and massacre Israeli civilians on Oct. 7.

The Israeli death toll from Hamas’ deadly incursion and the subsequent battle with the Israeli military now exceeds 1,300 people, the vast majority of them civilians. The Islamist militant group has also taken an estimated 150 Israelis as hostages.

It is Israel’s greatest security failure since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the militaries of Syria and Egypt took the Jewish state by surprise.

Then, the victims were Israeli soldiers, rather than civilians. And the country was not in the grips of a near-civil war over the fate of its judiciary as Israel has been for months since Netanyahu’s latest coalition took office. (Many Israelis’ concerns that Netanyahu’s plan to weaken the country’s supreme court would undermine the rule of law, as well as the rights of secular Israelis, Palestinians, and other minorities, led to the largest and most sustained street protests in the country’s history.)

The vast majority (94%) of Israelis say the current government bears some responsibility for allowing the Hamas attack to occur, and more than three-quarters believe the government bears most of the responsibility, according to a Dialog Center poll reported on by the Jerusalem Post on Thursday. A smaller majority of Israelis ― 56% ― believe Netanyahu should resign at the end of Israel’s war with Hamas.

More jarring still have been the scenes of Israelis with loved ones wounded in the attacks angrily dressing down cabinet ministers who visit the main hospital treating the wounded outside Tel Aviv. These viral protests explain, in a way polls cannot, why anger at Netanyahu is no longer limited to the country’s shrunken political left.

Shirel Hogeg, a corporate executive at Nestlé from the southern Israeli city of Ofakim, went viral for confronting Nir Barkat, Israel’s minister of the economy and industry, last week.

Alongside the family members of other hospitalized victims, Hogeg vociferously demanded apologies from Barkat and the entire government. “Seek forgiveness from all of us and then tear your shirts,” Hogeg bellowed, referring to the traditional Jewish practice of rending one’s clothing as a sign of mourning. “Because you have torn a very deep divide into this entire nation!”

Hogeg has since taken his message to Israeli television, where he has repeatedly demanded the resignation of the entire government at the war’s conclusion. He had a similarly livid confrontation with Miri Regev, the Israeli minister of transportation, though it was not captured on camera. He wants the entire governing coalition to resign once the war is over.

In an interview with HuffPost, Hogeg explained why he felt it was necessary to speak out publicly and politically in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy.

“From my perspective as an Israeli and as a Jew, anger and criticism are part of working on one’s self,” Hogeg explained by phone.

“I love the state of Israel in my blood and in my soul. This is the best country in the world, the most beautiful country in the world,” he said. “And I am willing to sacrifice my life on her behalf. Together with this, I expect from my country to build a society of splendor, a society that is better than every other place on the planet.”

Hogeg has been commiserating with family at the Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer, outside Tel Aviv, as he awaits news about his sister, Elai Hogeg, a physician; her husband, Ariel Golan, a social worker; and their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Yael.

“These ministers are not fit to be – and I don’t want to be insulting to the doormen at hotels, it’s important work – but these people aren’t fit to do even that!”

– Shirel Hogeg

Golan and Dr. Hogeg live in Kfar Azza, a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip, which was the site of one of the worst civilian massacres of Hamas’ invasion. The couple barricaded themselves in their house’s safe room, engaging in combat with Hamas militants while doing their best to shield their daughter from gunfire, according to Shirel Hogeg.

Failing to penetrate the safe room, Hamas members lit fire to the couple’s home. Dr. Hogeg, Golan, and Yael sustained major burns and other wounds, but somehow managed to escape during a break in the fighting and run to a medical rescue team. All three are currently intubated and in medically-induced comas, but Hogeg is hopeful his family members will survive.

“Don’t talk about them as victims. We’re talking about fighters who fought against wild animals whose only job in the world is to kill Jews,” he said, referring to the Hamas militants whom he likens to ISIS members.

Hogeg blames Netanyahu’s government for the security lapse for three reasons, calling him a “pathological liar” who divided the country and stacked the government with incompetent figures for the sake of his own career.

“Netanyahu, the corrupt, the very corrupt, who has been in the seat too long – he’s given out all these titles [to cronies] to survive,” Hogeg said. “He’s given out funds to everybody to survive. He has even given Hamas money for the past 20 years to avoid confrontation, and he never confronted them until the end.”

First, he believes that Netanyahu and his cabinet lack the skills or competence to steer the ship of state. He blames Netanyahu for giving important jobs to political allies in far-right and Orthodox Jewish political parties who lack the qualifications for the job ― conduct that Hogeg insists would not stand in the corporate world in which he has made a career.

Shirel Hogeg, a Nestlé executive from the working-class city of Ofakim, blames Netanyahu's incompetence, corruption and collaboration with extremists for weakening Israel.
Shirel Hogeg, a Nestlé executive from the working-class city of Ofakim, blames Netanyahu’s incompetence, corruption and collaboration with extremists for weakening Israel.

Courtesy of Shirel Hogeg

“It’s made up of people who haven’t worked a day in their lives, people like [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich and [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir,” Hogeg said. “Set aside their ideology, which is crazy, you cannot put a person who has not worked a day of his life in charge of homeland security.” (Both men are trained lawyers, but the two men, who have advocated for atrocities, are better known for their work as right-wing activists and politicians.)

“These ministers are not fit to be ― and I don’t want to be insulting to the doormen at hotels, it’s important work ― but these people aren’t fit to do even that!” he added.

Hogeg also believes that the government is corrupt, focusing on providing jobs to political allies over competent governance.

And finally, he faults the government’s extreme ideology and beholdenness to Orthodox Jewish constituencies for leaving it unprepared for security threats.

“A state must be pragmatic. Diplomacy must be pragmatic,” Hogeg said. “Someone like Ben-Gvir who always lights fires and Smotrich who always lights fires – and let’s tell the truth: not one of them can enter in the U.S. embassy. They are not invited to be representatives of Israel even in the United States ― the best friend of Israel in the world?!” (The U.S. Embassy in Israel did not invite Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, and other far-right Israeli parliamentarians to its official U.S. Independence Day celebration this past July.)

Specifically, Hogeg argues that the social turmoil engulfing Israel since Netanyahu embarked on his effort to curtail the power of the courts has weakened the country in the face of external enemies. He cannot trace a direct line from the social division of recent months and the security breach on Oct. 7, but he is confident it had an impact.

“Netanyahu, in the past 15 years, set out in a systematic way to say, ‘us vs. them, Mizrahim vs. Ashkenazim, rightists vs. leftists’ – each time cutting the national glue into one more slice, and another slice.”

– Shirel Hogeg

“Benjamin Netanyahu put together a coalition of a militia against Israeli democracy that hurt the national fabric,” Hogeg said. “If the people of Israel had not gone into the streets, the democracy would have died.”

Many analysts believe that one of Netanyahu’s motives in seeking the court reform is to inoculate himself from prosecution in an ongoing corruption case. Netanyahu’s coalition succeeded in limiting the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to strike down certain laws, but he backed off more extreme plans, including to give the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, the power to override the court. The Israeli Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the legality of the Netanyahu-backed law curbing the court’s own power in mid-September and is expected to provide a ruling in the coming weeks or months.

“Netanyahu, in the past 15 years, set out in a systematic way to say, ‘us vs. them, Mizrahim vs. Ashkenazim, rightists vs. leftists’ ― each time cutting the national glue into one more slice, and another slice,” he added. “But we see now that when there is a catastrophe, the glue forms again as one.”

Survivors of Saturday’s attacks have not been shy in their criticism of Netanyahu and his government. Many of them hail from kibbutz communities, which originated as socialist communes and whose members are generally more left-leaning than the median Israeli.

Hogeg is a less predictable critic, however. Anti-Netanyahu demonstrators have been stereotyped as upper-middle-class Israelis of European descent, while he is of Tunisian descent and hails from a working-class city that leans to the right politically.

“I’m not the typecast. Bibi expects that a Mizrahi from Ofakim will be right wing,” he said, using the term for Jews with roots in Middle Eastern countries.

At the same time, Hogeg, a liberal on social issues who declined to reveal his voting habits, does not break with the mainstream Israeli consensus in ways the pro-Palestinian left might hope for. He sees Hamas as an ISIS-type group, but does not join many Western progressives in arguing that the Islamist organization derives its legitimacy from anger over the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and blockade of Gaza.

Likewise, Hogeg described avoiding civilian casualties as an important Jewish value, but was not especially concerned that Israel is in danger of violating its values in its war to wipe out Hamas. He even suggested dividing Gaza into parts so that civilians could flee to one area, an idea soon after proposed by the Israeli government, even as human rights groups insist that evacuating over 1 million people is unrealistic on such a short timeline.

Ariel Golan and Dr. Elai Hogeg hold their daughter, Yael. All three residents of Kfar Azza were severely burned in the Hamas attack and are in induced comas.
Ariel Golan and Dr. Elai Hogeg hold their daughter, Yael. All three residents of Kfar Azza were severely burned in the Hamas attack and are in induced comas.

Shirel Hogeg

“The combat must be so strong that Hamas will be defeated,” Hogeg said. “I want to see white flags.”

Israel has already cut off water, food and electricity from Gaza, which human rights groups criticize as collective punishment. Even the United States, which is supporting Israel unflinchingly, has privately warned its ally to show restraint in the interest of limiting civilian casualties and the scale of the humanitarian crisis.

Regardless, Hogeg’s views foreshadow the kind of domestic political change Israel, a much more conservative country than it was in past decades, is likely to undergo in the wake of the war. Rather than face conventional left-wing criticism about treatment of Palestinians, the main charge against Netanyahu is that he failed to protect Israelis ― and even treated Hamas with kid gloves.

Netanyahu, who has served more combined years as prime minister than Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion, has survived scandal after scandal through sheer tactical cunning and an insistence he alone could keep the country safe. Facing criminal indictments for corruption, he returned to office in December with help from a far-right bloc following a year in the opposition.

But even the most formidable Israeli prime ministers have had to resign following major security failures. Golda Meir, one of Israel’s founders, resigned her premiership in April 1974 after veterans of the 1973 Yom Kippur War protested relentlessly outside her office demanding her resignation. Menachem Begin, Israel’s first right-wing prime minister, resigned in September 1983 amid public pressure over Israeli casualties in the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War and subsequent Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

Hogeg is content to wait until the war is over for Netanyahu and his government to resign, but he wants an apology to the families affected right away.

And if Netanyahu proves reluctant to go once the dust has settled, he vowed to make it his mission to see Netanyahu to the door.

“He’s a very dangerous man. He’s not ready to resign,” said Hogeg, who believes he should have already left when he was indicted. “We will cause him to resign ― me personally.”

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