Channeling late mom Bambi, Tovah Sheleg gives voice to Jerusalem protesters

With a message that resonates, and hopes for her hometown, the law student has become a familiar face in Jerusalem’s judicial overhaul rallies

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Activist Tovah Sheleg calls out chants for democracy at one of the anti-judicial overhaul protests in Jerusalem, organized by the grassroots organization Safeguarding Our Home from January through April 2023. (Courtesy Doron Gazit, protest artist, Safeguarding Our Home)
Activist Tovah Sheleg calls out chants for democracy at one of the anti-judicial overhaul protests in Jerusalem, organized by the grassroots organization Safeguarding Our Home from January through April 2023. (Courtesy Doron Gazit, protest artist, Safeguarding Our Home)

For the last 13 weeks, a crowd of thousands gathers Saturday nights outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, shouting “De-mo-cra-cy” and “Yariv Levin, this is not Poland,” waving Israeli flags and banging their spoons on pots and pans as they rage against the government’s plans to weaken the judiciary.

The weekly chants are usually led by the now-familiar face of Tovah Sheleg, recognized by her corkscrew curls and strong voice projecting over the crowd.

Sheleg is one of the organizers of Safeguarding Our Home (Shomrim al HaBayit HaMeshutaf), the grassroots group that sprung up after the November elections and the first whiff of the proposed judicial overhaul.

Like everyone else in Safeguarding Our Home, Sheleg, a 28-year-old law student at Hebrew University, didn’t intend to become a familiar face.

She emphasizes repeatedly that she’s just one of the organizers who send messages on the various Whatsapp groups, put together Zoom meetings during the week, ask for donations to help keep the movement going and organize the roster of speakers every weekend.

But the Jerusalem-born and raised Sheleg has become the familiar voice demanding democracy be upheld every Saturday night for the last 13 weeks.

Safeguarding Our Home scrambled to put together their first protest on January 14, a week after Tel Aviv’s first, and Sheleg was there, following the group on Facebook and as a protestor. By the second week, with a proper stage and a roster of speakers, Sheleg was asked if she would speak as a law student.

“They asked me at the last minute before Shabbat and I thought about it for a few minutes and said ‘okay,'” said Sheleg.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on April 1, 2023. The banner at right reads: “It’s vital to safeguard the common home”; the banner at center reads: “Freedom, equality, kinship.” (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Sheleg spoke that first time, and was then asked to lead the chants in her strong, clear voice, drawing her more deeply into the organization guiding the weekly protests.

She’s a small part of this movement that has grown on a grassroots level over the course of the last three months.

“I try to energize the crowd and the stage offers a place to express that, to really motivate and create an atmosphere,” said Sheleg. “I feel like I have a job on that stage, and I’m trying to do my job for everyone out there.”

She has always been fascinated by news and communication, and saw law as a tool that would help her delve into Israeli society after serving as an IDF officer for more than six years.

At the same time, Sheleg also DJs and sings, and appreciates nothing more than a party, which may explain her ability to get up on stage in front of thousands of people and lead them through rousing chants each week.

But it’s not all that surprising that Sheleg, the youngest child of religiously observant journalists and thinkers Bambi and Yair Sheleg, raised in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood of Jerusalem, would find her place in this battle.

Writer and journalist Bambi Sheleg. (Facebook)

Sheleg’s mother, Bambi, who died in 2016 at 58, was well-known as a voice dedicated to Israeli and Jewish discourse with an emphasis on society and identity. She founded a magazine, Eretz Acheret, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, as a platform for conversations to heal the ruptures in Israeli society.

“My mother was dedicated to this, to ideas about Israeli society,” said Sheleg.

She notes a metaphor often used by Bambi, who would describe Israeli society as a pizza pie, with each slice representing the various sectors of the population: Jews and Arabs, Haredim, secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, and everything in between.

“She would say that most people live in the center of the pizza, and we’re much closer to one another than the radicals on the edge, where the crust is,” said Sheleg. “We think we’re more different from one another than we actually are, because we learn about one another from the press that tends to present the more radical sides of Israeli society.”

Sheleg’s mother felt that Israeli society could expose those realities and find a joint future, and her daughter, Tovah, feels similarly at this particular moment in Israeli history.

“My mom worked her whole life to create a stage for the centrist voice, and these protests bring those centrist voices to the stage, something that doesn’t happen that often,” said Sheleg.

The weekly protests, as well as other events organized by Safeguarding Our Home, are a careful balancing act for the organizers.

Members of the grassroots organization Safeguarding Our Home that has been organizing the anti-judicial overhaul protests in Jerusalem from January through April 2023 (Courtesy Safeguarding Our Home)

The overall message is the protest against the judicial overhaul, and an effort to better understand what it could actually mean for Israelis. That said, Jerusalem is a very mixed city, Sheleg noted, with different populations, needs and interests. Safeguarding Our Home wants to unify those sectors, to attempt to get the protestors to try and understand one another.

“We want to get along here,” she said. “We’re trying to respect and represent the people who come to the protests because the Jerusalem crowd is a mixed one. I see how much richness exists in our diversity and how it allows for all kinds of voices and all kinds of ideas.”

Each week’s roster of speakers attempts to illustrate that diversity, from religious educators and female entrepreneurs to academics and student activists. Writers David Grossman and Eshkol Nevo have spoken, as well as Bedouin politician Zainab Abu Swaid, former Supreme Court vice president Elyakim Rubinstein, former chief scientist Orna Berry, former Knesset member Yuli Tamir, male and female rabbis, activists, teachers and students.

Author David Grossman speaks at a protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on April 1, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

There are also other related groups taking part in the organization of the events, such as the countrywide student protest organization that Sheleg is connected to as a law student.

And there is the connection and collaboration with the other protests around the country, while being sure to keep the Jerusalem spirit and elevate the city’s unique messaging, said Sheleg.

As the protests move into their fourth month with the possibility of negotiations and compromise in the judicial shakeup, Safeguarding Our Home is carefully considering its messaging and what’s next.

“We hope the talks will have an effect, but we are living in this reality and the government doing this is made up of radical people from the edges of society, that makes us demand our democracy and to protect it,” said Sheleg. “We are safeguarding our democracy, standing outside the President’s Residence every week, so that we achieve something better, and that we’re able to live together.”

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