‘Day of Equality’ sought to revitalize protests; limited turnout underlines challenge

Demonstrations against Haredi military exemptions, religious and gender inequality were an effort to restore momentum of anti-overhaul movement, but public’s response was muted

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Israelis attend a protest against military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students and the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside the Kol Torah yeshiva in Jerusalem, May 4, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Israelis attend a protest against military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students and the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside the Kol Torah yeshiva in Jerusalem, May 4, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

For two days at the end of March, the rising swell of protests against the government’s radical judicial overhaul program broke into a huge wave that swept everything aside.

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister for stating publicly that the reforms were damaging the cohesion of the Israel Defense Forces and must be halted, masses of Israelis rose up at night, blocked highways, set fires and besieged the prime minister’s residence.

The next day, the protests spawned mass strikes including at seaports and Ben Gurion Airport, large parts of the country came to a standstill, and a huge demonstration was staged outside the Knesset to make clear to the lawmakers inside exactly what was at stake.

The culmination of these events was Netanyahu’s decision to suspend pending legislation designed to give the government almost complete control over judicial appointments, in order to allow time for negotiations with the opposition over the reforms.

This was the high-water mark, so far, for the protest movement. Weekend rallies around the country have continued to draw hundreds of thousands out into the streets, but with the legislative freeze, the Knesset Passover recess, and the ongoing negotiations, the ardor of the campaign has naturally waned to a degree.

Even now, with the Knesset back in session, the government is chiefly preoccupied with passing a budget before the May 29 deadline to prevent the automatic dissolution of the Knesset and new elections, among other political problems.

Nevertheless, the Judicial Selection Committee overhaul bill remains on the cusp of being passed into law, requiring just two back-to-back votes in the Knesset plenum which can be scheduled at a moment’s notice.

Israelis block the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul on March 26, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

And so despite the lull in legislative activity, the protest movement and its leadership remains acutely aware that there is a Sword of Damocles hanging over its hitherto impressive achievements.

Thursday’s “Day of Disruption” was therefore an effort to reinvigorate the struggle and rebuild the incredibly powerful momentum of the protests which led so dramatically to the legislative freeze in March.

It appears that protest leaders understood that rebuilding that momentum in the absence of the clear and present threat of the imminent passage of the judicial overhaul legislation would be a difficult task. Aware ahead of time of the danger of decreased motivation, the protest movement on Thursday duly focused on other highly contentious items on the government’s policy agenda, with a particular emphasis on matters of societal inequality, in order to stir the masses and give a boost to the protest movement.

For that purpose, the issue of ultra-Orthodox military service exemptions, a longstanding and suppurating wound in Israeli society, was made into one of the key focal points of the day.

But organizers’ efforts had limited success, with the number of protesters at the dozens of events around the country significantly lower than the vast crowds who participated in previous “Disruption Days.”

Israeli women dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale television show protest against disadvantages for women in the state rabbinical courts and against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, May 4, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu has promised the ultra-Orthodox parties to re-legislate the exemptions, which were struck down by the High Court of Justice as fundamentally discriminatory in 2017.

With increasing pressure from United Torah Judaism, in particular, to make good on those promises, the protest movement clearly hoped the issue could be an effective way to bring out protesters and drum up energy by drawing attention to what would be a highly unpopular measure by the government.

And while the numerous events around the country were lively and attention-grabbing, they were also clearly far more sparsely attended than in the past.

Protesters push strollers carrying small coffins in a rally outside the IDF Induction Center on May 4, 2023. (Mothers at the Front)

Demonstrations were held outside the home of one of the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the country, while a provocative demonstration involving baby carriages mounted with small coffins was staged by draft equality activists outside the IDF Induction Center in Tel Hashomer.

Other long-time sources of societal grievance, including the inability of Israelis to wed outside the auspices of the Orthodox rabbinate, and the disadvantages faced by women in proceedings in the rabbinate and rabbinical courts, were also highlighted in numerous ways by the protesters.

Demonstrations were held outside rabbinate offices, and a civil marriage (which will not be recognized by the state) was held outside the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court.

As part of the ‘Equality Day’ protests, a civil marriage is performed outside the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, May 4, 2023. (Tzipi Menashe)

The current coalition’s inclusion of religiously ultra-conservative and ultra-Orthodox parties is widely seen by the general public as leading obstacles to resolving these issues.

Indeed, another coalition pledge by Netanyahu to the ultra-Orthodox parties is to increase the authority of the rabbinical courts.

So lifting up these concerns on the banner of the protest movement made sense as part of an effort to recapture the momentum of the intense and fervid days before the judicial overhaul legislation was frozen.

It is also a somewhat natural progression for a movement that, to a certain extent, evolved out of the anti-government and anti-Netanyahu protests that gripped the country in 2020 and 2021.

With participation noticeably weaker than during previous days of protest and lacking their intensity, it seemed the issue, while certainly of concern to many, was not enough to draw out massive crowds on a workday the way an ostensible imminent danger to Israeli democracy was.

It seems that the next steps for the protest movement are now being put in motion. Over the last two days, protest leaders have begun to renew their criticism of Yesh Atid and National Unity over the negotiations with the coalition under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog.

Protest groups called on Wednesday for the opposition parties to set a deadline for the negotiations, specifically over the issue of the Judicial Selection Committee which lies at the heart of the dispute.

The Brothers in Arms protest group against the government’s judicial overhaul program demonstrates outside the home of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba as part of the ‘Equality Day’ protests on May 4, 2023 (Courtesy: Brothers in Arms)

They accuse Netanyahu and the coalition of being unwilling and even unable to agree to legislation that would prevent political control of the Judicial Selection Committee, and of simply seeking to waste time in order to draw the sting from the protests, similar to how legislation to weaken the judiciary in Poland was delayed but eventually passed in that country after protests had eased.

Ultimately, as the protest movement leaders and organizations said back in February and March, they are unlikely to be satisfied until the legislation which is on the brink of final approval is formally retracted from the legislative process.

It appears that the opposition parties are indeed listening, with Yesh Atid demanding on Thursday that the negotiations next week be entirely dedicated to the Judicial Selection Committee. Sources in the party indicated that it was losing patience and becoming less willing to continue negotiations if agreements on that issue are not now quickly reached.

Thus, the groundwork is clearly being laid for the next stage of the demonstrations. Whether these will be able to muster the support of the masses remains to be seen.

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