JERUSALEM (JTA) — The right-wing protest that took some 200,000 people to Jerusalem’s streets on Thursday night to demonstrate in favor of the government’s judicial overhaul felt bizarrely familiar.
In many ways, it mimicked the anti-government protests that it meant to oppose: Like the demonstrations that have filled Tel Aviv’s streets every week this year, this too featured lots of Israeli flags, chants to the tune of “Seven Nation Army” and signs declaring that the rally represents the majority of the country.
And like the protests in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem’s mass gathering felt driven by grievance: a sense that the country the rally-goers had fought for — the country they thought they had — was being taken away from them.
“There are those who have decided that they can make decisions for me, even though they have no right to decide for me,” said Michal Verzberger, who came from the central town of Mazkeret Batya with most of her family to protest in favor of the reforms. Verzberger was echoing a central message of Thursday’s protest: that the right won the recent elections, and therefore had every right to pass its desired judicial overhaul.
“The nation decided it wanted reform, and there are some who are protesting the reform, and they’re deciding in our place that there won’t be a reform,” she said. “The minority is deciding what is good for the majority.”
The idea that a loud minority is unjustly obstructing the will of the electorate inspired Thursday’s protest, which filled an artery of central Jerusalem with a largely Orthodox, religious Zionist crowd. The judicial overhaul would sap the Israeli Supreme Court of much of its power, and since it was proposed at the beginning of the year, hundreds of thousands have filled the streets — in Tel Aviv and elsewhere — weekly to decry the proposal as a danger to democracy.
Those protests, and associated actions, led Israel’s right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to pause the reforms for a month — a period that ends in several days. The governing coalition and opposition are now negotiating over the legislation, a process that, if successful, will by definition soften the reforms at least a little.
Thursday’s rally was a show of force that aimed to strengthen the position of the government majority, several protesters said. One of the crowd’s chants was “64 seats” — the majority the right-wing holds in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. One homemade sign read, “64 > 56.”
The government ministers who spoke at the rally did not seem interested in half-measures. They promised that despite the delays, the substance of the reform would become law.
“Listen well, because this is my promise: We will not give up,” said Bezalal Smotrich, the far-right finance minister. “We won’t give up on making Israel a better place to live. We won’t give up on the Jewish state. … We’re fixing what needs to be fixed, and promising a better state of Israel for us and for the coming generations. Most of the nation agrees that the judicial reform is the right and necessary thing to do for the state of Israel, and I say again: We will not give up.”
Who is, in fact, in the majority on this issue is a more complicated question than it seems. Israel’s electorate has had a right-wing majority for years, both according to polls and election results. While the ideological bent of coalitions has varied, the past 22 years have seen only several months — last year — with a prime minister who didn’t build his career in conservative politics.
But polls also show that a majority of the country opposes the court reform itself, which has been pushed through the Knesset without any support from opposition parties or even engagement with their concerns. The central motivation of the anti-overhaul protests has been the importance of defending democracy and an independent court system.
That idea vexed Thursday’s protesters. “We won’t give up on Israeli democracy, and no one will steal that word from us,” Smotrich said. Yariv Levin, the justice minister and architect of the judicial overhaul, said, “Two million Israelis, half a year a year ago, voted in the true referendum: the elections. They voted for judicial reform.”
Protesters who spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency said they supported the overhaul’s provisions, which include giving the governing coalition a large measure of control over the selection of judges and allowing the Knesset to override most Supreme Court decisions with a bare majority. Observers across the political spectrum and around the globe have cautioned that those changes could damage Israel’s democratic character.
But protesters said that, rather than destroy democracy, the overhaul would restore balance to Israel’s branches of government, curbing an overly activist court.
“I want a real democracy in the state of Israel,” said Chanan Fine, a resident of the central city of Modiin who voted for Smotrich’s party. “In a democracy there are three branches that have balance between them, and what happened is that the judicial branch has taken for itself the powers of the legislative branch and the executive branch.”
He added, “The government needs to have the ability to determine policy and to pass laws, and if there’s a policy that contradicts the laws of the state then the Supreme Court needs to get involved,” but less often than it does now, he explained.
Under the proposed legislation, the governing coalition would not have to respect the determination of the Supreme Court, except in rare cases.
The message of the protests wasn’t the only thing that separated it from the Tel Aviv demonstrations, which largely draw secular Israelis. While few haredi Israelis attended the event — a leading haredi newspaper instructed its readers not to go, even as it expressed support for the cause — religious ritual pervaded the demonstration. Men gathered in prayer quorums before sunset on the way to the protest, and rallygoers recited the Shema and traditional prayers for salvation en masse. Most of the men wore kippahs, and most of the women wore long skirts.
Some signs at the Tel Aviv rallies, in addition to opposing the overhaul, advocate for LGBTQ rights or Israeli-Palestinian peace. Signs and shirts at the Jerusalem rally instead trumpeted settlements in the West Bank and the belief that the late rabbi of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement is the messiah.
One thing that the two rallies had in common: a preponderance of Israeli flags, something that has been particularly noted at the anti-overhaul demonstrations.
“It’s a desecration of our symbol,” Chen Avital, a protester from the West Bank settlement of Shilo, said about the anti-government protesters’ adoption of the flag. “They took it for a certain side that isn’t supported by the whole country, and they changed it to their side over the past few months. … It’s a flag that represents all of us, and they took it for their own side.”