At 10:22 a.m. on Monday, following a heated meeting and confrontations that almost deteriorated into physical violence, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee passed two bills to bring to the Knesset next week, as part of the government’s plan to overhaul the judicial system.
By noon, more than 100,000 demonstrators had crammed into the roads between the prime minister’s offices and the Knesset in Jerusalem to protest these bills and demand democracy, freedom and judicial independence.
Throughout the day, demonstrators continued to arrive in Jerusalem from all over the country via private, chartered and public transportation, blocking traffic on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway and other main arteries. In Jerusalem, traffic jams spread for miles. In other parts of the country, workers from more than 300 high-tech companies, medical personnel and some schools went on strike in solidarity.
By the end of the day, according to mapping by the group Democratech, between 300,000 and 350,000 people had participated in the various events, making it one of the country’s largest-ever demonstrations.
Monday’s massive showing, which followed a month of protests against the government’s proposed judicial changes, was organized by a coalition of established and ad hoc civil society groups. Protesters argue that the proposed judicial changes will cause irreparable damage to Israeli democracy by giving almost absolute power to the government. They warn that Israel could deteriorate into an illiberal democracy like Poland or Hungary and that the proposed changes could enable Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to create a “get out of jail free” card for himself as his trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust continues.
Netanyahu and his government insist that the changes are necessary in order to rebalance the relationships between the elected lawmakers and the unelected, activist judiciary. They also argue that they had campaigned on a platform for these changes in the November 1, 2020 elections and that their electoral victory is proof that a majority of the country supports them and their hard-pushing methods.
According to a poll aired on Israel’s Channel 12, however, only one out of four Israelis wants the government to forge ahead with the judicial changes, and 62 percent, including 42 percent of those who voted for the current government, prefer that the leaders stop or delay the plans. The judicial changes have also come under unprecedented opposition from the business, banking and high-tech industries, many of whom gave their workers permission to strike. Furthermore, the plans have been criticized by almost the entire legal establishment, including Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, former presidents of the Supreme Court as well as current President Esther Hayut, and legal experts in Israel and abroad such as erstwhile Netanyahu supporter Alan Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler, former justice minister and attorney general of Canada. They have also drawn criticism from U.S. President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, and others.
On a crisp and sunny day in Jerusalem, demonstrators brought megaphones, homemade banners, snare drums, pots and pans, kazoos and even South African vuvuzelas. Most waved large Israeli flags, provided by the organizers. The crowds included groups of army veterans, who had marched to Jerusalem last week, lawyers wearing their professional robes and a group from the Union of Progressive (Reform) Judaism.
There were also strong contingents of women’s groups. In a reference to the loss of women’s rights that protesters fear would result from the proposed changes, and especially those favored by ultra-Orthodox parties, some were wearing the iconic red cloaks and white hats from The Handmaid’s Tale, the successful television series based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. Many signs carried pictures of the beleaguered Supreme Court president and attorney general, both of whom have expressed opposition to the changes and have been provided with protection by the Israeli Security Forces due to threats against them by right-wing extremists. Featuring Hayut’s and Baharav-Miara’s pictures, many signs referred to them as “Women of Valor” (a reference to Proverbs 31). Others noted that there are only nine female MK’s in the coalition, only one female CEO in the 32 government ministries and only one woman chair among the 25 Knesset committees.
Despite the dense crowds and the fateful issues, the atmosphere was peaceful and even rave-like, and the demonstrators frequently broke into rhythmic chanting, “De-mo-cra-tia!” (democracy). Some families had given their children soap bubbles to blow. Others, like the Hitin family, from Jerusalem, formed a circle, playing drums and a saxophone and encouraging the crowds around them to clap and sing. Noa Diner, from Ramot Hashavim in central Israel, brought her three-month-old son, Mateo. “I’m giving him a pre-pre-K lesson in democratic activism,” she quipped.
On the evening before the demonstrations, President Isaac Herzog, whose position is largely ceremonial, made a rare, prime-time televised speech warning against the possibility that violence would break out because Israel is “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse.” He outlined five principles for judicial reform on which he believes the coalition and opposition could agree and urged the government to put a halt to the voting process until such agreement is reached. In response, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides called Herzog “a great leader.”
By the end of the day, Justice Minister Yariv Levin had announced that his offices are getting in touch with opposition leaders to discuss the judicial plan and the president’s residence. Levin, however, rejected Herzog’s suggestion to delay the votes on the judicial reform until the parties agree—a condition that the opposition has said is necessary in order to enter into the negotiations.
The battle—and the protests—are expected to continue as the legislation moves to the full Knesset, where it will have to pass three readings in the coming days or weeks.