April 7, 2023

I never wanted to go to Burning Man. I imagined sweaty-dusty-hippies-on-MDMA hugging me with no way home. Luckily, friends insisted I go; there was another lesser-known side. (Also luckily, this post is not about Burning Man)

On my first day, I attended a heckling workshop (yep). A sunburned man holding a 50W megaphone said it perfectly: “heckling is the art of being specific, while not personal.” I climbed a wooden tower and was handed my own red Pyle megaphone. I looked down at the instagrammers, trance-heads, and long-timer snobs – and I knew I came to the right place.

I had found my calling. There’s nothing like someone turning their head, realizing you’re talking about them, and cracking a smile. For years to come, no matter how much art, music, psychedelics, carpentry or pyrotechnics… my peak moments of creativity and connection happened with megaphone in hand.

Fast forward to Israel 2023

The newly elected Israeli parliament announced a legislative blitz to “reform” the judicial system (oh btw, the prime minister is on trial for corruption).

Short rewind: Israel became the world’s fourth happiest country, fourth strongest economy, and second highest amount of venture capital per capita with….. no constitution. For 75 years, Israeli democracy has been held together by a system of duct tape, improv comedy, and good faith.

The proposed reforms would remove all checks and balances on whoever had a decent plurality (and thus could form the coalition).

That was the playbook used in Hungary and Poland a few short years ago. And what came next was regression in rights, particularly LGBTQ, Women, and the press.

And, if a democracy has no checks and balances that’s one sneeze away from dicta- How is everyone not in the streets right now? 

Time to charge my megaphone battery.

The day before the bill reached committee, I spent my lunch hour standing in a busy intersection, yelling at tech workers to join me in front of parliament the following day. This video reached ~4% of Israel’s population. (Video in hebrew + with english subs)

Over 13 consecutive Saturday nights, eventually everyone was in the streets. At peak, we’re talking 5% of the population – the equivalent of 15 million Americans. (Research shows it only takes around ~3.5% of the population in nonviolent protest to stop a government in its tracks.)

And, as of last week, the legislation was paused.

What worked

Better than the outcome (for now), is how we got here.

I could talk about how nonviolent it was – endless civil disobedience, massive strikes and roads blocked, without a single broken window. 

I could talk about all the people who showed up week after week: old people leaning on their signs, parents pushing strollers, people in wheelchairs, schoolchildren. People across faiths and ethnicities.

I could talk about how the protests spread far beyond Tel Aviv, and eventually won over members of the very party advancing the legislation – including officials appointed by the prime minister.

But I’ll focus on the best part: People had fun.

Each protest was full of creativity, performance and participation:

  • Navy veterans leading neon sea kayak flotillas to block ports
  • Special forces reservists rappelled down buildings to unfurl enormous banners. 
  • Columns of tens of thousands of women wearing red handmaids tale costumes
  • Mass yoga headstands.
  • Social workers and therapists bringing chairs and providing emotional support stations.
  • Fake “revolutionary guards” with Darth Vader theme played on trombone.
  • Dance circles, dance parties, dance everything
  • Theatrical boxing rings
  • Yom Kippur war vets building huge wooden army tanks and wooden crashed fighter jets. 
  • Brigades of mothers in yellow vests offering hugs
Social workers and therapists improvised emotional support stations (Ynet)
Navy veterans stopping cargo ships from entering the port of Haifa (Ynet)
Yogis blocking the street. The best part is the police in the background. (Tel Aviv Noga Iyengar Center)

Everyone did what they were good at

Me? I made an ass of myself.

I heckled spoiled tech employees (and english subs).

I heckled FAANG (english).

I heckled terrorist masterminds (english subs) in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iran.

I heckled billionaires (english).

I heckled my yuppy neighbors (hebrew).

I heckled the future (hebrew).

I heckled bad drivers (english subs).

I heckled restaurant-goers and Tinder bars.

I heckled the leaders of the protest (english subs) itself.

I heckled myself (hebrew).

Pointing out the irony of Facebook Israel’s leadership not getting involved in politics.
Trying not to start World War III in the process.

I learned to use the mic to acknowledge. I acknowledged the police. I acknowledged Ethiopian Israelis who looked at the protests and felt “wtf, now you wake up?” I acknowledged people of other political camps, from lessons learned during 2016 in the US.

Across social media and Whatsapp, I reached hundreds of thousands of Israelis (pop: 9 million) several times over.

Going between roadblocks and thanking the police.

What if people realize we’re having fun?

A friend warned, “this essay might get misinterpreted as you had fun amidst an important crisis.” 

“Yes!” I answered, “that’s the point.”

I was never an activist – not for productive causes anyways. Reading up about civil disobedience, I realized that making an ass of yourself in public (my favorite thing in the world) is key to effective protest even against Nazis.

If you’re like me, protests turn you off. Protesting is exhausting, repetitive, and boring. It’s hard to feel progress, and easy to burn out. At the same time, we feel we should be suffering. If we’re seen having fun, doesn’t it delegitimize the protest?

To that I say – since when am I not allowed to feel joy in defending my core values? Why would I do anything but apply my strengths in a way that gives me energy?

My cousin Elad commanded the Israeli desert search and rescue team for two decades, for $0. He told me: “don’t volunteer unless it’s fun, no one needs your favors.”

Early on, I felt these protests were canvases for self expression. It felt a lot like Burn events, or summer camp, or high school, or college campus, or coming to work on April Fools’ day… this. was. my. jam. 

Who knows, one day you might find yourself protesting for a good cause. You know, a political leader indicted and on trial, playing victim of the establishment, and taking aim at the justice system… 🤔

When that day comes, ask what would make you excited to show up? Play drums, help in the medical tent, build big things, choreograph dances, do yoga, design costumes, bake cookies, paint signs, build wood structures, coordinate volunteers, build community, manage donations, edit speeches, build websites, or just be a slightly drunk heckler. There are 198 ways to protest peacefully. Choose yours.

Defending freedom is a marathon. Make sure you’re having fun. 

Thank you to Alex, Jack, and Maura for reviewing early drafts of this post.

Candid feedback and thoughtful responses keeps me motivated. What sucked? What should I keep doing? What does this make you think about? Send me a note at tal at talraviv org

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