Settlement yeshiva head: 'Legal reform isn't worth the rift'

At rallies against government, a right-wing anti-overhaul movement takes shape

Some 12,000 people have attended three demonstrations so far by conservatives keen on compromise, organizers say

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Right-wing demonstrators protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2023. The placard reads: 'The imperative of the hour: Unity!' (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Right-wing demonstrators protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2023. The placard reads: 'The imperative of the hour: Unity!' (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Supporters of Israel’s judicial overhaul like to describe the fight around it as a partisan issue, promoted by the right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposed by the center-left.

This reading has its advantages for the overhaulers: It’s useful for dismissing the protesters as sore losers seeking to impose their will in extra-parliamentary fashion after November’s election, in which Netanyahu’s Likud party came out on top. And they can point to the many warnings by establishment figures against the overhaul’s perceived dangers as proof of the perceived hold on power by the left – and the need to transfer more of it to politicians representing and answerable to an increasingly rightist electorate.

But recently, a new protest movement by right-wingers against the overhaul — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — has been seeking to shuffle that deck.

“It has many names: The moderate right; the sane right; the concerned right. Whatever you want to call it, it is making its presence known,” Yoaz Hendel, a former cabinet minister who is the unofficial leader of this grassroots movement, told The Times of Israel Sunday.

The right-wing protest against the overhaul has happened in three rallies over the past month, attended by some 12,000 people altogether, according to Hendel, a self-described right-leaning liberal who grew up in a religious family in the West Bank settlement of Elkana.

That’s not a huge showing compared to the tens of thousands of protesters who for the past 10 weeks have been gathering each Saturday night in Tel Aviv and beyond, Hendel concedes.

“An average rally in Kfar Saba has more people than we do. But in right-wing circles, the conversation that we’ve introduced far exceeds the numerical impact. Our call for reconciliation is being heard,” he said.

Yoaz Hendel, former communications minister, speaks during a protest of right-wing demonstrators against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some right-wing opponents of the overhaul agree with its goals, Hendel said. Others disagree entirely. “But all are alarmed by the prospect of an unbridgeable rift in the Jewish people, which is becoming increasingly a reality as the ramming through of this overhaul tears up the fabric of our society,” he added. The overhaul needs to stop and give way to a negotiated reform, perhaps along lines that President Isaac Herzog is expected to propose this week, Hendel said.

At the latest right-wing rally against the overhaul, held Saturday night in Jerusalem, hundreds of protesters in attendance heard a string of speeches by center-right speakers, including Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, head of the prestigious Har Etzion religious seminary in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut – a flagship of religious Zionism.

“Devising a worthy judiciary is a religious value,” Lichtenstein said in his speech. The judiciary “must be repaired. There’s plenty to reform, plenty to be done, but not hastily, not aggressively, not by tearing up our society without dialog and attentiveness,” he said.

Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, head of the Har Etzion yeshiva, speaks during a protest of right-wing demonstrators against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lichtenstein does not agree with all the components of the overhaul, he said. “But even if I did, the price of achieving it is to tear our society apart. It’s not worth it,” Lichtenstein added.

Among its core elements, the overhaul working its way forward in Knesset votes would give the coalition control over the appointment of judges, greatly constrain the High Court’s capacity to strike down legislation, and enable a bare majority of lawmakers to override such rulings.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, the 61-year-old rabbi, who was born in New York and immigrated with his family to Israel when he was 10, said that he is reluctant to wade into the political controversy. “I have no choice because I am driven by a serious fear for the integrity of our society,” he said. “I am speaking out because we are facing a precipice, a division and disunity that has been our downfall before, and might be our downfall once again.”

Lichtenstein in his speech added that he does not trust Netanyahu to handle the issue. “For 20 years, he has focused on security, diplomacy and the economy, neglecting societal issues, gaps and divisions,” said Lichtenstein.

Other speakers at right-wing protests against the overhaul included Malka Puterkovsky, an influential teacher of the Talmud who lives in the settlement of Tekoa; Avi Issascharoff, a co-creator of the Fauda television show; and Amitai Porat, a former leader of the Religious Kibbutz Movement and son of the late Hanan Porat, a leader of the settler movement.

Malka Puterkovsky speaks at the Begin Center in Jerusalem on October 18, 2012. (Oren Nahshon/Flash90)

But why do right-wingers need to hold separate rallies instead of simply joining the general ones taking place across the country?

One answer is in the call for compromise, said Uri Heitner, a hawkish kibbutznik from Ortal in the Golan Heights, who in the 1990s was among the leaders of protests against plans to return the area to Syria in exchange for a peace accord. “Many protesters are against the idea of reforming the legal system. We’re not. A lot needs to change, but through dialog, and not under Netanyahu,” who is standing trial for alleged corruption, Heitner said.

The light scattering of Palestinian flags and signs against the occupation are another problem with the general protests, Hendel said. “There are few, but just one is enough to make some of us uncomfortable,” Hendel explained.

Ran Baratz, the founder of the right-leaning commentary news site Mida and a former director of communications at the Prime Minister’s Office, downplayed the significance of the right-wing protest. “Their arguments are easy to defuse, because many of them are on record as supporting the very changes the reform seeks to achieve,” Baratz told ToI. “They’re simply engaged in virtue signaling while bowing to the establishment’s power. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, especially by former prime minister Naftali Bennett.”

Gadi Taub, an influential right-wing thinker who supports the overhaul lock, stock and barrel, was less cavalier with regard to the right-wing protest movement. “It’s quite small, but it’s more effective than other protests: The right wing is set up to fight the left’s pushback on the overhaul. It knows what it’s fighting. A right wing protest is more difficult to dismiss and explain away,” he said.

To Taub, the right-wing protest represents a shift in the allegiance of parts of the religious-Zionist elite. “Some in that largely-Ashkenazi group are realizing that they have more in common with the secular, largely-Ashkenazi elite than with the traditional, largely-Sephardic Likud or the religious Shas voters. So they’re realigning politically,” Taub said.

Hendel rejected this interpretation. “There is no realignment, certainly not on ideology. Even less so along descent. There’s only a sense of national accountability, which is determining our priorities,” he said.

Ultimately, the fate of the overhaul will depend not on protests by a few thousand right-wingers, but on the firmness of Likud lawmakers, said Taub. “Lawmakers who back down now will pay a hefty political price. But, as we have seen in the past, that doesn’t mean they won’t do it. The fate of the overhaul is being determined as we speak.”

Most Popular
read more: