For years, Meni Naftali’s job was to be invisible. As a security guard for Israel’s highest-level ministers, he raised his husky frame into a statuesque posture as politicians whirred around him, debating laws that stagnated in Israel’s parliamentary labyrinth, or as they discussed sending Israeli troops into the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, or along Israel’s many other hostile borders.
“My role was to keep my mouth shut,” Naftali told me recently at a streetside café in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. “The whole time, though, I was soaking all of it up like a sponge, seeing how the country is being run by these people.”
It’s being run, he concluded in retrospect, by Mafia-like parties, rather than by public servants who have in mind the welfare of the people. “I worked with [Israel’s Orthodox party] Shas, the Druze [minority], the Haredim, they were all the same,” he said in Hebrew, rapidly raising his thick eyebrows. “I know to connect a lot of things today.”
Naftali has done what many Israelis thought was impossible. He sued the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and won. (In 2010, another former housekeeper claimed abuse at the hands of Sara Netanyahu, though the case was handled outside of the courts.) In addition to publicly testifying about mistreatment under the Netanyahus, Naftali’s revelations of the goings-on in the Netanyahu household could be relevant to an ongoing corruption case against the prime minister. If Netanyahu is indicted, his decade-long grip on power would likely end.
Naftali’s saga began five years ago when he charged that his employers, Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, were erratic and abusive toward the household staff at the official residence. Naftali said that they had misled him personally about his prospects for long-term employment.
He punched a double shot with a tell-all media blitz about the grotesquely lavish, potentially illegal goings-on in the first family’s tax-payer-funded Jerusalem mansion. The accusations revolved around Sara, who has long been depicted in the Israeli media as a racist, vulgar, vapid Marie Antoinette crossed with Lady Macbeth. While she is lionized on the Israeli right, the left believes her to be living the high life on the Israeli taxpayers’ dime. Critics paint her as the prime minister’s Achilles’ heel, someone who wields dangerous power over him and has brought him to prioritize his family’s own hedonistic tendencies at public expense. Rumors have swirled for years as she has refused, like her husband, to give interviews with the Israeli press, outside of the occasional rosy-colored fluff piece about her life as a mother and wife.
Naftali’s stories, when they came out, presented a rare firsthand, detailed account of Sara’s long-suspected cruelty, and they quickly went viral. They described life in the Netanyahu residence as a place of terror and injustice, orchestrated by the unhinged Sara, who held no concern for workers’ rights and had a penchant for enraged outbursts. She would often force employees to stay long hours, during which they were subject to her humiliations and her litany of unreasonable requests, Naftali said publicly. Once, he alleged, she threw a vase of day-old flowers on the floor, berating him for failing to provide fresh flowers. He testified that Sara had once told him that she and her family were “refined Europeans. We don’t eat like you Moroccans. You fatten us up and then make us look fat when we’re photographed abroad”—referring to Naftali’s Moroccan origins.
Naftali alleged that Sara’s abuse was exacerbated by her excessive alcohol consumption and that on some days she polished off as much as three bottles of champagne. When we met, he said with a hint of compassion that Sara is “sick.”
The Netanyahus, in return, have called Naftali’s testimonies “baseless lies, slander, and defamation.”
In February 2016, Naftali was awarded 170,000 shekels (roughly US$48,000) by a Jerusalem labor court for wrongful dismissal and alleged abuse. But as soon as the trial was over, he declared that the sum was nowhere close to enough to have him end his complaints against the most influential family in Israel. “This is not a normal employment law trial,” he told reporters after his win at the court. “I will say things and the truth will prevail.” He told me that the abuse in the Netanyahu residence is evidence of the systematic corruption for which Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu are currently under investigation and that he will not stop until they are removed from power.
As a self-described “believer” who regularly puts on tefillin, Naftali said he’s on “a mission from God”: to serve as the David against the Goliath that is Netanyahu. He said that his training as a soldier had prepared him for the battle ahead. Like a soldier, he said, “I’m not thinking, just fighting.”
His battleground is the sleepy bedroom community of Petach Tikva, a town about 15 miles outside of Tel Aviv, which is also the hometown of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. Mandelblit will decide whether to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the ongoing investigation. At a shopping mall near Mandelblit’s house, Naftali and his anti-corruption crowd have been gathering on Saturday nights for the past 46 weeks, hoisting signs with a message to Mandelblit, like “Democracy now!” or “When you [Mandelblit] protect [Netanyahu], you’re not protecting us.” They want Netanyahu out of power.
The Saturday night protests are organized mostly from Naftali’s car. Naftali commutes to central Israel, leaving at 4 a.m. to beat the morning traffic. In between paint and repair jobs, he gets in touch with other organizers and publishes lengthy posts to boost morale. Naftali’s online Kickstarter campaign to help pay for legal and organizational fees has raised more than 78,000 shekels (roughly US$22,000). He’s recently started lecturing at schools around the country about systematic corruption in the highest halls of Israeli government.
The Netanyahus “never expected me to do this, and it scares them,” Naftali told me, wiping off a speck of white paint that is one of many splattered over his arms and outlines of his face. Naftali, who spent the day painting a nearby apartment, one of his new day-labor gigs that he’s needed to take on since Netanyahu revoked his gun license years ago, preventing him from working in the higher-paying security field.
“Netanyahu has been trying to get his revenge,” Naftali said.
Naftali, a former moshavnik of medium height, broad shoulders, thick black hair, calloused hands, and intense eyes looks in many ways like an average Israeli—the kind that is infrequently seen at anti-government rallies. He often dons the unofficial but quintessential uniform of off-duty Israeli security workers: a tight black shirt and simple jeans. He said that his security instincts are still intact, as he scanned the cafe where we were sitting, explaining that he was taking in the crowd and the available exits. He took a seat across from me, but said he’s uncomfortable to have his back facing the restaurant.
Naftali is affable and charming, with constantly direct eye contact and an obvious ease with people. He often goes off on tangents and repeats his core talking points: “the weak” in Israel who need his protection, his own “perseverance” in that mission to protect, and his unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to stop until Netanyahu is out of power. That he speaks from his own personal experience rather than according to a political tenet has, in fact, been a selling point for the protestors who have come out to the far-flung Petach Tikva week after week. His personal Facebook page is peppered with words of encouragement and exclamations of his heroism. One Naftali-dedicated Facebook group is called “We are all Meni Naftali” and features a photo with “Je Suis Meni Naftali,” superimposed over a profile of Naftali, in his standard black shirt and jeans, somberly holding one hand over the other. Those Facebook pages also attract the many Israeli detractors who contest Naftali’s status as a hero. The Facebook debates that come as a result exemplify the constantly intensifying phenomenon in the background of Naftali’s struggle: Israel’s deep political divide. The country is roiled by liberal-versus-conservative narratives on Netanyahu, and his impact on Israel’s democracy.
Naftali said he is among the most surprised to find himself leading grassroots activism, and certainly in an area of protest often associated with the Israeli left.
He grew up as a self-described “wild kid,” uninterested in politics or academics in the moshav of Agur in central Israel. His family was and is supportive of Netanyahu’s right-wing party, Likud. He himself long considered himself a Likudnik. As a kid, he spent most of his time in running competitions rather than doing homework, but he says that from an early age he was exposed to social injustices in the Israeli system, even if he wasn’t conscious of it at the time. He recalls an incident, when at the age of 11, Naftali’s father was charged by a colleague with stealing money from the company he worked for.
“I didn’t know or care about it then,” he recalled, saying that he only understood that “something was off” in retrospect.
Like many young Israelis disillusioned with Israel’s narrow economy and unrelenting wars, Naftali tried his luck abroad. In 2002, he accepted a job in Vienna as a security guard with a Jewish organization. Only a few weeks passed when he realized he had to return home. It was the Second Intifada and a wave of Palestinian terrorism meant that suicide bombers were exploding cafés, buses, and other public places on an almost daily basis. He was called up to fight with the ground-forces Givati Brigades and joined the large-scale West Bank military operation dubbed Defensive Shield.
His self-described battle to end corruption and deliver justice has been the hardest one yet, he said, but he asserted that it is out of love for his country that he had sacrificed his family’s wellbeing and his own livelihood. He has been arrested four times.
Netanyahu has been known to leverage hefty lawsuits against opponents, most frequently against journalists whom he’s recently taken to calling purveyors of “fake news.” Meanwhile, Netanyahu is connected to three different corruption cases. In the first, he is being investigated for allegedly receiving illegal gifts, including expensive cigars and champagne from billionaire benefactors. In the second, he is accused of attempting to cut a deal with an Israeli newspaper for better coverage in return for political favors. He is also unofficially connected to a third case, which involves David Shimron, Netanyahu’s cousin and lawyer, and his potentially illegal handling of a multi-million-dollar deal in which Israel purchased German submarines.
An August headline in the Israel Hayom tabloid—a Netanyahu mouthpiece backed by the American conservative casino mogul Sheldon Adelson—accusingly asked, “What’s driving Meni Naftali?” (To me, Naftali responded to the paper’s implication of him being used as a left-wing puppet, saying that if that were the case, he wouldn’t be tens of thousands of shekels in debt.)
Last month, Yair, Netanyahu’s son, posted an anti-Semitic, David Duke-endorsed meme that portrayed the Jewish businessman George Soros, the frequent target of anti-Semitic attacks, as the driving force connected to Naftali’s protests. Naftali, along with his partner the anti-corruption lawyer Eldad Yaniv, floated in the background of the image. Along with other family enemies, Naftali is portrayed as being enticed by a hook-nosed Elder of Zion-looking figure. The meme was quickly removed. “Whether you are a public figure or a private citizen, all individuals need to exercise extreme caution and avoid trafficking in images or language that reinforce anti-Semitism,” wrote the Anti-Defamation League in a response to the meme.
Meni’s wife, Simona, said that Facebook attackers regularly use abusive, often sexually explicit, language against her and her children. During the elections, her 11-year-old son was beaten up by kids in school “who had heard on the news that his father was trying to take down the government,” recalled Naftali. In their hometown of Afula, Netanyahu’s Likud party won more than 44 percent of the vote, compared to 11 percent for the left-wing Zionist Union party.
Simona continues to support her husband, despite her disagreement with his “way of going about this.” She immigrated to Israel from Lithuania at the age of eight and does not share her husband’s convictions that her chosen country is irreparably broken. “Yes, it is difficult to make a living in Israel, yes life is hard here, but I tell [Meni] just deal with it,” she said.
Simona said she’s gotten used to her activism-from-the-sidelines lifestyle, including the online vitriol, which has come in surges as the investigations against the Netanyahu family have accelerated in recent months. These, in turn, have pushed Netanyahu to personally disparage Naftali in his speeches.
Naftali’s movement is in some ways an offshoot of the social justice protests initiated by Daphni Leef. Leef drew thousands of middle-class Israelis to demonstrate against the country’s spiraling price of living by squatting in tents throughout Tel Aviv’s most gentrified boulevards.
Naftali, like Leef before him, gained a following quickly and successfully because of a local phenomenon of personality politics, by which voters and citizens identify with individuals rather than parties. The trend has been entrenched by none other than Netanyahu, who assails the Israeli populace with the concept of “you are with me or against me,” said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“A majority of Israelis believe that Netanyahu is corrupt, but at the same time do not think that there is anyone that can replace him as prime minister,” Rahat said. “The conclusion is at the end of the day, people say we have a corrupt leader, but that’s the best we can do. That’s the success of Netanyahu.”
But Leef and Naftali have similarly risen amid an atmosphere of deep-rooted malaise among the Israeli middle class as Netanyahu reaches a decade in power. Netanyahu, who is expected to run and win again in the 2018 elections, is the longest-ruling Israeli premiere, surpassing Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion.
Naftali, like Leef, is also intentionally apolitical. Meni said that he would give Avi Gabbay, the candidate of the left-wing Labor party, “a chance” in the upcoming 2018, but does not identify as left-wing. He also says that he doesn’t believe that Gabbay or any other candidate could defeat Netanyahu.
Naftali is determined to prove he’s stronger than Netanyahu and more than just a fad. He is uncertain about how his movement will progress but said he would like to enter politics one day, despite knowing little about that world. For Naftali, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, too, is wholly irrelevant. Naftali believes the two-state solution is “nonsense,” just another fear tactic used by the Netanyahu administration to distract and confuse the public.
“We first need to have peace within ourselves before we can even think about making peace with our neighbors,” he said.
But if it is to survive, Naftali’s movement will likely not stay apolitical for long. He said he is in the process of expanding the protest to other towns throughout Israel and is already organizing shared buses to facilitated transportation. State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, who is involved in the Netanyahu investigations, and Ayelet Shaked, the firebrand Israeli Justice Minister from the pro-settler Jewish Home party, will also be involved, he said.
“I don’t know what will be,” Naftali said. “But what I know is that, in the end, the good guys will win.”
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Shira Rubin is a journalist in Tel Aviv. Follow her on Twitter @shira_rubin.