Women speakers to highlight discrimination, at 33rd week of judicial overhaul protests

Ahead of main rallies in the evening, activists demonstrate near transportation minister’s home to decry new Tel Aviv light rail’s lack of service during Shabbat

Anti-governments activists demonstrate near Transportation Minister Miri Regev's home in Rosh Ha'ayin on August 19, 2023, to protest the Tel Aviv light rail's lack of service during Shabbat. (Twitter screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Anti-governments activists demonstrate near Transportation Minister Miri Regev's home in Rosh Ha'ayin on August 19, 2023, to protest the Tel Aviv light rail's lack of service during Shabbat. (Twitter screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul entered their 33rd week on Saturday evening as protests continued to roil the military, activists took aim at the coalition’s transportation restrictions, and top scientists warned of severe damage to Israel’s international academic standing.

Protest organizers said the main protest at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street would feature a performance by Israeli singer Netta Barzilai and only be addressed by female speakers, citing several recent incidents of alleged ultra-Orthodox discrimination against female bus and plane passengers that have made national headlines.

A statement from the Kaplan Force protest group also railed at government efforts “to promote gender segregation and harm women’s equality,” in an apparent reference to plans to introduce separate swimming hours at a pair of natural springs near Jerusalem.

Ahead of the evening rallies, several hundred activists demonstrated outside the home of Transportation Minister Miri Regev of Likud to protest the new Tel Aviv light rail’s lack of service on Shabbat.

Video from Rosh Ha’ayin showed the protesters waving flags as they blew vuvuzelas and banged on drums.

The demonstration came as activists have set their sights on religious restrictions on public transportation, holding a protest Friday at the opening of the Tel Aviv light rail.

The activists handcuffed themselves to the interior of the train to protest that the long-awaited transportation system will not operate on Shabbat. The weekend restriction has reignited simmering frustration over the lack of public transportation during the Jewish day of rest, which is opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Haredi political allies.

While Friday’s protest focused on the specific issue of the light rail’s operating schedule, it was attended by activists who oppose the government more broadly, particularly its judicial overhaul, and represent a long-dormant liberal Israeli public that has become increasingly frustrated with the monopoly that Orthodox groups have on the country’s Jewish identity.

The protest was organized by the Pinkfront pro-democracy group, which promotes liberal values and gender equality.

Netanyahu ceremonially launched the project’s first leg on Thursday to a chorus of boos from protesters.

Activists protest against the decision to not operate the new Tel Aviv area light rail on the Sabbath at the Elifelet Station in Tel Aviv on August 18, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Also Friday, the organizers of a petition from veterans of special intelligence units appealed to Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, asking them to “halt the judicial overhaul, come to an agreement and stop the incitement from the government against the IDF.”

The activists said 1,340 intelligence veterans had signed the petition warning that Israel was in an “unprecedented time of emergency and plunging into the abyss,” Ynet reported.

More than 10,000 reservists who show up for duty on a voluntary basis have said in recent months that they would no longer do so in protest of the judicial overhaul, charging that the government’s plans to weaken the judiciary will turn Israel into an undemocratic country. No official figures have been made available on how many reservists have failed to show up for duty thus far.

The Air Force and Navy suspended several top reservists this week amid the protests.

In recent weeks, Halevi, Air Force head Bar and others have warned that the reservist protests are having an increasingly negative impact on military readiness, drawing rebukes from Netanyahu, other lawmakers, and supporters of the far-right, religious government.

Netanyahu’s coalition has rejected the reservists’ protests as a dangerous and unprecedented form of political blackmail by the military. Some coalition lawmakers suggested the protests are tantamount to an attempted military coup.

Security officials voiced concern this week that, by allowing repeated public attacks on top military brass, Netanyahu was trying to shift responsibility onto them over the current harm to the state of military readiness.

Israeli reserve soldiers, veterans and activists protest against National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir outside the Israel Police National Headquarters in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Thursday, several prominent academics on Thursday published an op-ed in the US journal Science, one of the world’s top academic publications, warning that the overhaul threatened Israeli academia.

“This assault on democratic institutions and principles is an imminent threat to Israeli academia, which relies on a solid democratic foundation,” wrote the authors led by Shikma Bressler, an esteemed physicist and key figure in the protest movement.

“The relationship between academia and democracy is bidirectional,” the authors wrote, arguing that most top academic institutions are in liberal democracies, and that countries with faltering democratic freedoms see a decline in their academic achievements.

“In parallel, a robust democracy depends on a free academia that introduces new, liberal, free, and critical thinking into society. Erosion of this two-way association is at the heart of concerns in Israel,” the authors wrote.

The authors also argued that the government’s policies are threatening academic institutions by isolating Israel on the world stage, and that the coalition’s focus on religious education will detract from science studies for children.

Prof. Shikma Bressler speaks during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, in Tel Aviv, on August 12, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s coalition has made a drastic overhaul of the judiciary a central plank of its policy. The legislation, one piece of which has already been passed into law, has met with months of mass protests. The political turmoil has divided Israeli society and seeped into the military, with some reservists saying they won’t volunteer for service unless the plan is stopped.

The government and its supporters say the judicial overhaul is needed to rein in what they see as an overreaching court system. Opponents say it will dangerously dilute the court’s power, eroding Israel’s democratic character.

Negotiations to reach an agreement between the coalition and opposition, held earlier this year, failed to produce a deal. No further talks are scheduled, with each side blaming the intractability of the other.

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