Anti-government protest group seeks to ‘lower flames’ in fight versus legal overhaul

An organizer of a demo planned for Saturday night in Jerusalem says his group is looking to avoid divisive issues, like the occupation, to get centrists, right-wingers on board

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Israelis protest against the government, in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israelis protest against the government, in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The appearance of a Palestinian flag at Saturday night’s demonstration against the government’s plans to dramatically reduce the power and independence of the legal system sparked fierce debate, raising questions about what exactly the protests were about and who was involved.

This was particularly true for those in the center and right-wing of the Israeli political spectrum who oppose the coalition’s proposals to strip the courts’ powers but do not necessarily hold the same views as those on the left regarding policies toward the Palestinians and matters of religion and state.

A new protest group — Shomrim Al Habayit, meaning “defending the home” — is looking to keep focus solely on the proposed legal reforms, which are considered divisive even by some supporters of the government. It believes that bringing in other issues will muddle the message and alienate potential supporters.

“We are focusing on the legal reforms in order to create consensus and to get as many communities as possible to join this,” one of the organizers of the group said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Even among the more ideological right-wing, there are people who are not on board with [the government’s] plans.”

Last week, Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced a controversial legal overhaul package that would drastically limit the authority of the High Court of Justice to block legislation and government decisions deemed discriminatory and/or undemocratic, give the government total control over selection of judges, eliminate ministry legal advisers appointed by the attorney general, and make those legal advisers’ recommendations non-binding.

While some groups in Israeli society — particularly the ultra-Orthodox and national-religious camps — strongly support these reforms, it is far from a consensus issue on the right. A November poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, for instance, found that while 49 percent of people who identified as right-wing opposed the High Court having the power to strike down laws, 41% favored it.

In order to leave room for more conservative Israelis to join in, the group is looking to keep unrelated issues out of its protests and messaging, including requesting that demonstrators refrain from flying Palestinian flags.

“Obviously we don’t have total control over this. But we are calling on people to not bring [Palestinian] flags. That’s not out of ideological opposition. It’s just to allow more groups to join the protest against the judicial reforms,” the organizer said.

While large protest movements have been based in Tel Aviv — where tens of thousands were expected to turn out on Saturday night — Shomrim Al Habayit operates primarily in Jerusalem. It has scheduled its first large demonstration on Saturday night outside the President’s Residence.

“We’ll stand in front of the President’s Residence and call on him, and in general, to stop this tailspin that the government is causing,” the organizer said.

He said Shomrim Al Habayit has hundreds of people in its social media groups and expects to have over 1,500 by the weekend.

Shomrim Al Habayit is not alone in calling on protesters to leave the Palestinian issue out of the demonstrations. On Tuesday, the head of the Muslim Ra’am party Mansour Abbas told the Arabic-language Ashams radio station that the anti-government protest movement represents broad interests shared by a considerable portion of the public, and therefore displaying the Palestinian flag was not appropriate.

The organizer said that his group’s outreach to centrists and right-wingers is not only a tactical measure but also an attempt to moderate the protests and public discourse and prevent extremism.

“Maybe we can turn down the aggressiveness and lower the flames,” he said, then quickly acknowledged: “It’s very optimistic. We don’t have much of a chance.”

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