For the fourth Saturday in a row, anti-government demonstrators rallied in Tel Aviv to protest the new coalition’s far-reaching judicial shakeup plans. However, the atmosphere was more subdued than in past weeks following the deaths of seven people in a Jerusalem terror shooting on Friday and another attack in the capital earlier Saturday.
The protests took place on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street and at Habima Square, while simultaneous demonstrations were also held in Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and other smaller cities.
Tens of thousands took part in the rallies, though exact estimates varied. The Haaretz daily reported over 60,000 were at the demonstrations across the country, well below the over 100,000 who rallied last week.
Protesters have been gathering weekly after Justice Minister Yariv Levin unveiled a controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary 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 control over judicial selection, and eliminate ministry legal advisers appointed by the attorney general.
Saturday’s demonstration began with a minute of silence following the deadly terrorist attack in Jerusalem’s Neve Ya’akov neighborhood, which claimed seven lives and wounded at least three others. Two people were wounded in a separate shooting attack near Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday.
Organizers said they had considered whether it was appropriate to hold the protests in the aftermath of the terror attacks, but said they went ahead because the coalition has made clear that the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee would continue its discussions of the judicial overhaul legislation throughout the coming week, with the goal of getting it swiftly passed into law.
In a change from last week, the steady throb of drumbeat and chanting from a megaphone were the only music on Kaplan Street, after protest organizers cut more of the carnival-like elements in the wake of the attacks.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who appeared at last week’s protest in Tel Aviv, elected to attend the Jerusalem rally, where he lit a candle in memory of the seven victims.
“I came here to Jerusalem to declare to everyone that we are one people. We are standing up against terror as one people,” Lapid said in a statement.
“The government needs to choose if it wants to fight against terror or if it wants to fight against Israeli democracy, if it wants to unite us or break us up from the inside,” he added.
Lapid also sent his condolences to the families of the victims and praised the security forces “currently operating in the field.”
Merav Michaeli, head of the Labor party, also began the demonstration on Kaplan Street by lighting a memorial candle.
Former defense minister Benny Gantz, who heads the National Unity party, did not attend any rally like past weeks, instead visiting the site of Friday’s terror attack in Neve Ya’akov, where he too lit a memorial candle.
“Against terror, the entire nation must unite,” Gantz tweeted.
Another former defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, addressed the Tel Aviv rally, asserting the proposed judicial changes would make the country into a “dictatorship” and were an “existential threat to Israel’s security.”
Former police chief Roni Alsheich was also scheduled to speak at the event, but canceled his address following the weekend’s terror attacks.
“Israel’s strength lies in its power, but no less in its democratic strength and good character of its leaders,” Labor MK Gilad Kariv tweeted from the rally in Tel Aviv.
“In a sea of Israeli flags, I lit a candle this evening in memory of the victims of the terrible attacks in Jerusalem. As long as the gallop into the abyss of undemocratic legislation continues, we will continue to take to the streets… even if it’s just to stand together in silence. We will not give up our future,” he added.
In Jerusalem, the rally across from the president’s residence was also subdued.
“We’re trying to find a way to honor and give respect,” said a protest organizer. “We are represented here by all sides of the political spectrum.”
After singing Hatikva, the crowds began dispersing, and organizers moved the protesters toward Gaza Road, where Netanyahu is currently living in an apartment as the nearby official premier’s residence undergoes repairs.
Anti-government protesters chanted, “We won’t agree to a nation without legal safeguards,” as they marched in the area.
Also on Saturday, hundreds gathered in New York City to decry the planned judicial overhaul.
The crowd in Washington Square park carried Israeli flags and signs that read, “Democracy now and for all,” “Israel democracy, not demockracy,” and “Fascism is not ok.”
Speakers addressed the crowd in Hebrew and English and led chants of, “From the river to the sea, all people must be free.”
“We’re here because we’re afraid for democracy in Israel,” one speaker told the crowd. “We need the Supreme Court to be independent.”
“There are a lot of Israelis and Jewish Americans here in New York who are standing in solidarity with the protests in Israel, who are worried about the situation in Israel, the legal reform that Netanyahu and his allies are trying to have,” said Omer Lubaton Granot.
“We’re worried about democracy and we’re trying to do our part.”
Along with the New York demonstration, overseas rallies were planned in Boston, Chicago, Miami, Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver.
Carrie Keller-Lynn, Naomi Lanzkron, Jessica Steinberg and Luke Tress contributed to this report.