To a casual observer, Wednesday’s rally outside the Knesset might have looked like just another protest against the government’s judicial overhaul.
Some of the 200 people who gathered outside the parliament building in Jerusalem were carrying signs warning of threats to democracy. Others had similar messages emblazoned on their T-shirts. One sign accused the cabinet ministers from the ruling, right-wing Likud party of “bloodshed.”
A closer inspection, however, revealed the event’s uniqueness: It was a prayer rally for unity, attended by many Orthodox Jews and open to both supporters and opponents of the planned overhaul, which seeks to transfer significant powers from the judiciary to the legislature.
The event was the latest in a string of rallies in recent weeks featuring participants from the moderate right, including settlement leaders. While many in that camp are critical of the judiciary and support overhauling it, they are nonetheless calling for concessions to be made to the opposition to avoid divisions amid growing disunity and vitriol.
The rally featured no political speeches, but plenty of group singing of modern Israeli folksong hits, including “Al Kol Eleh” – a song widely believed to protest the uprooting of Jewish settlements in Sinai as part of the peace accord with Egypt – and Ehud Manor’s “Ein Li Eretz Acheret,” which emerged after the First Lebanon War as a secular anthem that many believe rejects land grabs.
Religious songs followed, including “Shir Hama’alot” and “Avinu Malkenu,” culminating in prayers, including the Kaddish mourning prayer. Many of the participants were fasting, as per the appeal of Rabbi David Stav, a leader of the influential modern Orthodox Tzohar group, who declared Wednesday a day of fasting and self-reflection to promote unity.
“I’m a part of the settlement movement in Judea and Samaria. I think we need to reform our justice system,” Yinon Ahiman, a former mayor of the settlement of Efrat, told The Times of Israel at the event. The judiciary, he added, “has a left-wing bias that’s made its handling of the settlements unfair in many, many cases.”
But the government’s overhaul plan, he added, “goes too far, in my opinion.” Ahiman, a father of eight and director of the Efrat-based Ohr Torah Stone network of religious schools, added: “We can cut parts of the reform and reach a compromise that’d be acceptable for 70-80% of the public.”
Although the rally’s banner spoke of uniting supporters and opponents, in practice most of those in attendance opposed the current plan for the overhaul, according to Rabbi Shlomo Dov Rosen of the Yakar Synagogue in central Jerusalem. “I think there are people here who would have supported it if it didn’t involve so much discord and disunity,” he said.
Rosen declined to express any opinion on the overhaul. He also declined a bracelet with the word “democracy” on it that an anti-overhaul participant tried to hand out to the others attending the prayer.
Ahiman would have joined the rally even if he supported the overhaul lock, stock and barrel, he said. “Inside our society, I see two trains on a collision path that need to slow down. Meanwhile, there’s a nuclear Iran looming in the background. An existential threat. There are countless disagreements more urgent than this one,” he said at the rally, which ended with the singing of Hatikvah, the national anthem.
Held symbolically between the Knesset and the Supreme Court, Wednesday’s rally follows at least three other events organized by right-wing figures since February. A total of 12,000 people have participated in those events, according to one organizer.
Stav, who was among the organizers of Wednesday’s rally, said it filled him with hope. He pointed out the 100 yeshiva students in attendance who, he said, “show our people’s great potential for coming together in the worst of times.” Often, though, that unification in distress “is too little, too late,” Stav noted. “Now our challenge is to unite ahead of those bad times.”