LETTER FROM TEL AVIV
Saturday night, a swarm of protestors swept down Rothschild Avenue towards Habima Theater Square. Light rain dropped and the pavement was wet. The word “protestors” brings to mind angry men and women chanting, youths lifting their fist in rage, but no fists were raised and no slogan was chanted. The people walking in the drizzle didn’t look angry or even frustrated.
They seemed devastated.
The men and women were marching to protest the newly formed government’s plan to reform the Israeli justice system. The comprehensive plan would change the judge-nominating process and deny the Israeli Supreme Court of any judicial supervision over the government. The reform would allow a majority coalition in the Knesset to dismiss Supreme Court rulings. In other words, it would place the Executive Branch on top of the Judicial Branch, practically above the law.
Everyone there knew the math. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme-right Orthodox coalition had enough votes and more important – the determination to transform the judicial system for their own benefit.
This protest was not about to alter destiny. The marchers knew they were just playing their part in a one-act tragedy, but they couldn’t stay home, either. They were panicked and depressed and needed comfort. They left their warm apartments in order to meet their compatriots, to share their anxiety, to make sure not everyone had gone mad. It was a demonstration as much as it was a massive shiva.
People were generally quiet, collected, wrapped in their black or gray Uniqlo raincoats and under large black umbrellas. The weekly demonstrations outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem’s Balfour Street two years ago felt like a horse of a different color. With wild costumes, creative slogans and artistic installations, the young activists turned political protest into a festival of Woodstockian dimensions. It was filled with jest, love and lust for life.
This week in Tel Aviv the mood was much more somber. The “Black Flags” protest of 2020-2021 turned into the “Black Umbrellas” protest of January 2023.
In the days leading up to the demonstration there was talk of excessive police power to break down the protest. It was feared that Police Chief Kobi Shabtai would want to please his new master, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, by cracking some skulls Chicago style.
On Saturday morning, police horses were already deployed in the quiet streets surrounding the national theater and Tel Aviv Concert Hall, and large intimidating water-squirting vehicles were parked nearby.
Hours later, at 8 p.m., the crowd continued down the slick pavement of Rothschild Avenue. Toward the southern end of the street it was too packed to advance. The light rain became a little less light and then at once it started to pour. “Dammit, God is with them,” cursed one stranger half-jokingly. An older gentleman answered: “They can send the water squirters back to the lot, we’re already soaking.” His wife, clutching a walking cane, added:
“It will take much more than water to keep us off the streets.”
By the bank of Habima Square, the gloomy parade came to a standstill. It was too crowded. A total of 80,000 people attended this demonstration – very impressive by Israeli standards.
Far ahead, by the iconic Kadishman sculpture of three large coins stacked diagonally, one could see dozens of Israeli flags flying. This was not an obvious gesture for a left-wing demonstration that usually shies away from displays of nationalism. The organizers made it a point to distribute as many national flags as they could in order to show that they were just as patriotic as the Netanyahu camp. A handful of Israeli Communist Party members waved Palestinian flags in protest of the occupation but they drowned in the sea of blue-white flags.
On the PA system, from an unseen stage, buried in an ocean of people, the speaker invited Israeli pop singer Ivri Lider to sing a song. Some of the protesters, well, protested: “I didn’t come here to listen to a f***ing rock concert,” murmured one woman. “We’re fighting for our democracy! We have no time for songs!” yelled a bearded young man toward the crowd and someone in front of him hushed him: “He’s good, let us listen.” “It might be the last time they let us gather in public, at least we can enjoy nice music,” said a 20-something woman, holding a cardboard sign that said: “I have no time for a Fascist takeover.”
All this talk about “they” not letting us gather in public anymore was said as a joke but not entirely. People there were deeply distraught after pondering the state of their personal and political freedoms.
Israel’s democracy is young and chaotic and doesn’t have a constitution to rely on. It’s much more fragile than it may seem. The only thing that is cemented deep in Israeli tradition is fear of the Arab enemy and of a second Holocaust. Anything else is open to discussion and up for grabs.
In Israel, many democratic practices are based on very loose traditions and a lot of good will. This government appears to show no good will. It leans on anti-democratic factors such as the ultra-Orthodox and the extreme right parties that prefer the Torah law to the Israeli law book. They are teamed with a fierce prime minister who himself faces three indictments and would like to weaken the court in order to flee trial.
In this reality, liberal law-abiding Israelis have good reason not to trust the government’s intentions. They fear that the reform would turn Israel into a state in which Biblical laws prevail and corruption rules. If this reform passes – and right now no one stands in its way – Israel is on a clear path to becoming an autocratic pseudo-democracy in the likes of Orban’s Hungary or Erdogan’s Turkey.
Historically, demonstrations have never done much to sway Israeli governments from their course. This one probably won’t change a thing in the hearts and minds of those running the show in Jerusalem. These men and women sojourned out on a rainy Saturday night to show that they care for the seemingly abstract value of “Separation of Powers.” And mainly to make sure that they are not alone – not only in their struggle but also in their fear. Θ
Moran Sharir writes from Tel Aviv.