Protest organizers began a fresh day of demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul Thursday, with dozens of large gatherings expected to draw as many as half a million people to the streets in major cities, on highways and outside of coalition members’ homes.
Overnight, a group of IDF reservists unveiled banners on the statue of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, at the entrance to the coastal city of Herzliya.
The banners, a play on Herzl’s famous phrase, read, “If you will it, democracy will win” and “It’s not a dream, it’s a coup,” referring to the government’s planned weakening of the judiciary.
The reservists then turned their attention to Shas leader Aryeh Deri, gathering outside his Jerusalem home. Deri, a key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the beneficiary of a Knesset bill that will allow him to return to his ministerial posts after the High Court of Justice ruled his position in the cabinet was unreasonable in the extreme due to a recent criminal conviction.
In response, dozens of Haredi men and boys gathered to dance in front of the protesters.
A second group of military reservists gathered at the Ramat Gan home of Education Minister Yoav Kisch, a former air force pilot. With a banner reading “Don’t abandon democracy,” a man in full flight gear hung from the side of a tree entangled in a parachute, as a representation of an abandoned pilot.
In addition, activists unfurled a copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and Israeli flags down the sides of the Old City walls in Jerusalem.
יהודית ודמוקרטית. pic.twitter.com/98DeA88FOi
— רם שפע Ram shefa (@ramshefa) March 23, 2023
A man was arrested in Rishon Lezion on suspicion of attacking an 80-year-old protester and threatening others. The victim received medical treatment at the scene.
At the maritime port in Ashdod, protesters set fire to tires to blockade the entrance, and a number of junctions and highways were blocked across the country as children and parents rallied.
Police said two people were arrested for disturbances at Hakfar Hayarok junction, north of Tel Aviv, and five were detained in Ra’anana.
Two more people were detained at a convention being held at the nearby Airport City business park that was attended by Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter and Economy Minister Nir Barkat.
Activists created a disturbance during Dichter’s speech. According to Channel 12 news, the minister had to leave the convention center via a back exit.
Activists said that one of the leaders of the protest movement, Shikma Bressler, was detained at a rally held by hundreds of workers at the Rafael defense firm on Route 4 in the north of the country.
In addition to the road blockages from protesters, police said they closed the entrance and exit ramps to the Ayalon Highway at Hashalom interchange in Tel Aviv.
Among other locations, protests were planned for the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, home to several coalition Knesset members, sparking fears that the demonstrations could ignite friction with locals, many of whom back the coalition parties pushing the controversial judicial legislation.
Billed as a “national day of paralysis,” protests will seek to disrupt traffic on major highways around Ben Gurion Airport in anticipation of Netanyahu’s trip to London, the third straight Thursday in which they are seeking to torpedo the premier’s plans for a weekend in Europe.
Protesters will also hold various rallies throughout the morning and early afternoon at major intersections, highway interchanges, university campuses and elsewhere, including in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Police fear that there will be more protests to secure than in past weeks, with some 500,000 people predicted to participate, stretching law enforcement resources, Channel 12 news reported.
While police have seemingly attempted to minimize friction with protesters, they have come under intense pressure from National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to more readily use force to clear roads and clamp down on the rallies.
According to the channel, police were worried that organizers would try to shake the cops by giving them false information about where protests were planned.
Israelis have held nearly three months of mass demonstrations, with the largest rallies generally occurring on Thursdays and Saturday nights, to express and raise opposition to the government’s judicial overhaul plans.
On Wednesday, they gathered outside the Knesset and at conferences attended by lawmakers as well as at some of their homes.
As it stands, the legislative package will allow the Knesset to override court decisions with the barest majority, preemptively shield laws from judicial oversight, and put the selection of judges in the hands of coalition politicians.
Coalition lawmakers are seeking to have at least part of the overhaul passed into law by the time the Knesset breaks for Passover early next month.
While supporters say the judicial overhaul will rebalance power away from an overly activist court, critics argue the moves will remove essential checks on executive and legislative power, putting democracy in peril.
The main rally Thursday, scheduled for 7 p.m., was expected to depart from Ayalon Mall in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, and head to Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox bastion and one of the few locations where the planned overhaul is thought to have near-unanimous support.
Haredi leaders urged residents to not be goaded into confrontations with the demonstrators on Wednesday.
“Don’t come to confront them and don’t play into their hands, it’s forbidden,” senior UTJ politician and Bnei Brak resident Moshe Gafni said in comments published by the Walla news site. He also asked what city residents had done to invite the protests.
In a statement, organizers said that Haredi politicians had been “at the forefront of the coup no less than [Constitution Committee Chairman MK Simcha] Rothman and [Justice Minister Yariv] Levin,” referring to two of the overhaul’s main architects.
“It seems that after years of maintaining the status quo, the Haredi leadership has declared war on us, the liberal public. So we’ll mass tomorrow in Bnei Brak, home to much of the Haredi leadership, to say ‘this is where it stops,'” the statement added.
Last week, protesters from the army’s reserve corps held a smaller demonstration in Bnei Brak, opening an ersatz “draft office” in the center of the city.
Ultra-Orthodox politicians are widely thought to support shackling the court in order to pass — and protect from being struck down by the court — a law exempting members of the community from military service.
At a rally outside Gafni’s house on March 14, scuffles broke out between protesters and locals, some of whom launched eggs, glass bottles and firecrackers at the demonstrators.
Earlier in the day, protesters plan to set up “dialogue booths” on the border of Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan for medical professionals to hold conversations about working for a living with local residents, “in the spirit of Maimonides,” the 12th-century Jewish sage embraced by secular and religious Israelis alike.
Ahead of the day of demonstrations, several academic institutions said they plan to allow their students to protest without consequences or declared that classes will not take place on Thursday.
In Kfar Saba, Beit Berl College announced classes would not be held, Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design said discussion circles would be run in place of classes, and the Technion in Haifa said that the institution would close for three hours.
Tel Aviv University will not suspend classes but its Faculty of Social Sciences said it would allow lecturers to do as they please. The Ben Gurion University of the Negev will not close at all, but has encouraged faculty and students to participate in protests.
Reichman University in Herzliya announced that classes will run normally, but due to expected transportation disruptions, will not take attendance. Rupin College and the Seminar Hakibbutzim said they would allow lecturers to strike if they wish. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has yet to announce a decision on the matter.
According to the Haaretz daily on Tuesday, Education Minister Kisch told a meeting of the Council of Higher Education that he was disappointed to see “institutions insisting on getting involved and bringing political views into academics in a one-sided way, and thereby harming the institutions they lead and academia as a whole.”