Reporter's notebook'If it comes to civil war, then there will be a civil war'

At Tel Aviv rally, Turkey’s Erdogan and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ loom large

Concerned Israelis see battle for democracy as Netanyahu allies seek to secure him immunity from prosecution

Simona Weinglass

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Israelis hold flags as they attend a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 25, 2019 in Tel Aviv (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Israelis hold flags as they attend a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 25, 2019 in Tel Aviv (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Demonstrators packed the public square near the Tel Aviv Museum and surrounding streets on Saturday night to protest looming efforts to grant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immunity from prosecution and radically limit the Supreme Court’s powers.

Passions ran high, and many protesters described Israel as being on the brink of losing its democracy.

So thick was the crowd that this reporter, standing outside the square on Shaul Hameleh Boulevard, was barely able to move for a good 15 minutes. Members of the crowd — which according to assessments numbered in the tens of thousands — offered each other water and encouraged one another to stay calm lest a stampede break out.

When this reporter finally found breathing room several hundred meters away, she spoke to a couple who complained about media coverage of the event. “How can the media report that there are thousands of people here?” a woman asked. “There are hundreds of thousands.”

Some of the protesters wore Turkish fez hats to symbolize what they claimed was Netanyahu’s desire to move Israel in an authoritarian direction, like that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.

Moti Shefer, 52, who wore a fez with a sticker bearing the words “crime minister” and carried an Israeli flag whose white parts were colored black, told The Times of Israel that he was demonstrating because “our state is being destroyed. Netanyahu is a corrupt dictator who belongs in jail.”

Shefer said he feels Israel is turning into the Republic of Gilead from the “Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood in which a totalitarian regime replaces the US government. “It’s really just like that,” he said.

The Times of Israel spoke to a man in his 60s from Kiryat Tivon who had come to the demonstration with his wife and adult children. When asked for an interview, he replied, “If not now, it might soon be too late.”

Israelis take part in an anti-corruption demonstration held by opposition parties outside the Tel Aviv Museum on May 25, 2019 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

He said he had come to the demonstration because “our country is going to a bad place. We need to stop what is happening in a legal way. We are scared for our children.”

When asked by his son if he would resort to illegal methods, the man said, “For now we will demonstrate legally.”

The man added, “If the Supreme Court is overridden, there will be no protection for weak populations, for minorities, for Arabs, for secular people. The government will be able to pass any law it wants. They will be able to decide that anyone who is under 1.70 meters no longer has the right to vote.”

Teenagers from the Scouts youth movement paraded through the streets with drums, chanting, “Get off your porches, the country is collapsing!” and “Bibi to jail!”

Many protesters carried signs declaring, “We have no other country.”

Stav, an accountant in her 30s from Pardes Hanna, said, “This isn’t about left- or right-wing politics. We won’t let our democracy be destroyed. Half the people in this country won’t live here anymore if this country is no longer a democracy. They’ll move to Sweden or Canada.

“Bibi needs to look carefully at the people here,” she added, gesturing toward the crowd. “We are the people who pay taxes and serve in the army. Without us, there is no country.”

In the distance, Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem, began to play. The crowd sang along, and Stav teared up.

“To be a free nation, that’s what we want,” she continued when the anthem was over. “The Zionist movement created a miracle here. This country is a miracle. And if we don’t stop what Netanyahu is doing then all our sacrifice will be for nothing. Democracy is our lifeblood. Without it we will see the destruction of the Third Temple.”

Another demonstrator who was listening in added, “We will take this protest to Netanyahu’s house. We will sacrifice our lives if we have to. If it comes to civil war, then there will be civil war.”

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