JERUSALEM – The demonstration was set for 2 p.m. but by noon, the streets surrounding the Knesset already were filled with protestors. You could spot them by the flags they were carrying. Men and women in blue and white were walking idly near the Foreign Ministry and the Israeli Supreme Court building – the fort they were seeking to protect that day.
Up on the hill in front of them stood the Knesset, silent and desired as a treasure chest. Busy men and women were working inside those walls. Trying to complete in record time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to alter the Israeli form of government.
A little after midnight, the Knesset was due to vote on the first two bills of Netanyahu’s plan. One of them would deny the Supreme Court the authority to disqualify certain laws legislated by the Knesset. The second would alter the justice nominating process, in practice giving Netanyahu’s coalition a final say on who’s going to be a judge. These two bills may sound plausible for American ears, but not so in a country that doesn’t have a constitution or a healthy separation of powers.
The demonstrators knew the bills would pass. They knew that the protest would not change one single vote. And yet they came. They stood in traffic jams and in crowded train cars (the country’s transportation minister declined to add any more trains on this exceptionally busy day). They came because they just couldn’t stay at home while their country was burning.
On the pavement was a large stack of flags, tied to bamboo sticks. Anyone who wanted one could just help themself. The display was impressive. Thousands of people, carrying thousands of flags, were slowly sailing toward the Israeli parliament. The flags were a statement. The protestors wanted to show that they were in no way less patriotic than the government supporters.
Through the crowd passed Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alon, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and defense minister under Netanyahu (2013-2016). These days, he is one of the most outspoken leaders against his former boss, and he tells me that the government’s (metaphorical) bulldozers are already on their way to destroy the Supreme Court.
It’s obvious that the protest energized him. I tell him that he seems rejuvenated. “Look, I care about the country. I wish I didn’t have to do all this business,” he told me. “But I always say that I’m a soldier of this country, since I was drafted in 1968. First in the army and later on I realized there are things to be fixed in politics. Even though I hate it to this day.”
Behind his back is the Knesset, where he used to go to work. I ask him if he misses it. “What’s to miss? The rhetoric? Such low class, like a puddle of muck. I never go there anymore, I only care about the country.”
Ya’alon is one of the clearest voices in a protest movement that seems leaderless. There is no public figure that heads these masses. There is no face to put on a poster, no one to rally the troops. The leaders of the opposition parties – Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Merav Michaeli, and Avigdor Liberman – are divided among themselves, bruised by ego wars and bitter since election day. The crowds don’t look up to them. These days, they seem to distrust them and partially blame them for the current situation.
The large rallies – which have gone on for two months and have brought out hundreds of thousands of Israelis – are set up by many different groups and organizations. Some are large and established and others are formed as the people’s movement grows. No major party is taking charge and there is no single person or party that has emerged that could bring about a change in government. This represents the strengths and the weaknesses of these protests.
The liberal leaders are helpless and desperate against a tight coalition composed of the Orthodox, the extreme right, and those who follow Netanyahu like members of a cult. Looking at the demographics and the large numbers of Haredi children, the future seems bleak. For many Israelis, it feels like maybe the last chance to cement the nation as a western democratic civilization has passed.
The people were angry and sad, frightened and frustrated – and yet somehow, their emotions didn’t reflect the tone of the event. For some inexplicable reason, the mood had turned festive. It reminded me of a Steely Dan concert more than a fight for freedom. They were with like-minded folks. They felt powerful, loved; and were there because they cared for their country and future generations. The show of force tasted like victory even though victory was not at hand.
Still, for some twisted reason, it seemed like a joyous occasion. The people were using the same democratic freedoms that some in the current government would like to remove. No one talked about storming the Knesset, no one suggested torching the capital. But, if these people were fighting for their freedom, they still had a long way to go.
There is talk of possible violence in the coming weeks. There’s even talk of a civil war. No one is ruling out the possibility of blood flowing in the streets, although for the time being, the protests have been oddly calm and civil.
Some activists rolled out a giant copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. It came out like an enormous sheet above the heads of protesters. In a way, this beautiful picture told a sad story of a historic reversal. The hardworking, responsible, mainstream Israelis were outside the gates of parliament, protesting. Meanwhile, the fringe populists, religious zealots, felons, and former targets of the Israel Security Agency Shin Bet were inside the building. They didn’t need to storm the hill; they didn’t need to break in through the window – they had walked in through the front door. They were legally elected.
In this moment it became apparent that in my country, the mainstream had become the fringe and the fringe had become the law. Times are a changin.’ The coup is complete. Θ
Moran Sharir is an Israeli journalist.