Tens of thousands of right-wing Israelis gathered in Jerusalem on Thursday evening for a mass rally in support of the government’s efforts to drastically overhaul the judiciary, a contentious bid that has drawn widespread opposition at home and abroad in weekly protests nationwide.
Thursday’s event was the first rally of this magnitude by pro-overhaul activists, with organizers of the “March of the Million” hoping to draw as many right-wing supporters to the demonstration around the Knesset. Estimates of crowd size ranged between 150,000 and 200,000 people by news networks which cited figures from firms that specialize in estimating crowd sizes. The number of people at the protest appeared to be similar to the turnout at Saturday night Tel Aviv rallies against the effort to curb the powers of the High Court of Justice. These, aloing with smaller demonstrations around the country, have been taking place on a weekly basis since January, shortly after the hard-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in.
Supporters of the overhaul have argued that it will restore balance between the branches of government after decades of an overly-activist judiciary. Opponents assert that Israel will no longer be a liberal democracy if the far-reaching proposals are implemented, with security, economic and legal experts warning of massive ramifications in their respective fields.
The premier paused the legislative push late last month to allow for compromise talks with the opposition but key members of his hardline coalition, including Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman, have vowed to press ahead once the Knesset convenes for its summer session next week. Organizers of the right-wing rally sought to demonstrate that they represent the majority opinion on the issue, pointing to the overhaul efforts as an extension of the pro-Netanyahu bloc’s convincing victory in the November 1 elections, after which the Likud leader formed a right-wing, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox coalition of 64 seats in the 120-member parliament.
On Thursday, the pro-overhaul crowd tilted noticeably toward younger religious Israelis, with a significant percentage below the voting age, and many of the buses bringing supporters from West Bank settlements. Many participants carried the national flag, which has been widely adopted by demonstrators at the anti-overhaul protests.
And they offered informed opinions on the controversial judicial shake-up.
Noam, a 20-year-old yeshiva student in Mitzpe Ramon, said that there should be a Supreme Court that will one day be replaced by the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical supreme council during Talmudic times.
“I’m not against universalism,” he said. “I’m against the idea that we should want what the nations of the world want. There are values that have been around 3,000 years, way before the nations, America and Europe, began to even think about their morality.”
Noam also denied that there was a rift among the Israeli public over the issue. “I truly love my leftwing brothers,” he said.
Yitzhak Shamir, a bearded yeshiva student learning in Eilat, expressed similar sentiments about those on the other side of the political aisle. “A leftist, he is our brother. We love him. He is part of us. He believes in one path, I believe in another path, and we live together.”
Shamir also categorically rejected the idea that the nation was split, blaming the media instead. “It’s the media trying to scare us,” he said.
He emphasized that the Supreme Court issue has been a priority of his for some time. “Every day, they make problems for us in the [West Bank] territories, evacuating outposts, using divide and conquer between Jews and Arabs, right and left.”
Moreshet 18, also said he has been following the Supreme Court issue for years. “It’s important that there is a Supreme Court, but it’s important to rein it in, that it will be in its appropriate place. There is no country in the world that looks like this,” he said in reference to the balance of power between branches of government.
He added that he doesn’t support some parts of the proposed overhaul, especially the bid to bring most judicial appointments under political control.
The judicial remaking will have to be, “like Rothman and Levin said, with changes and agreements after discussion and arguments,” he explained. “The government was elected for this.”
Older reform supporters agreed that a compromise should be reached. “I would like to be able to discuss and not to force, that’s not our way,” said Adi, a middle-aged woman from Neve Daniel in the West Bank.
“Of course, I don’t think anyone wants to damage the rights of any person in Israel,” she explained. “But the minority can’t rule here… As someone who lives in the territories, I know how hard it is for us to get justice. ”
“We didn’t have a chance to [express] our voice, and now we do have a voice,” she added.
Speaking at the event, Levin told the crowds that the public backed the overhaul “in a referendum six months ago,” following the coalition’s election victory.
Taking the stage to chants of “The people demand judicial reform,” Levin declared: “The nation voted for a judicial reform.”
“Here on this stage are 64 Knesset seats to correct the injustice. No more inequality, no more one-sided judicial system, no more court whose judges are above the Knesset and above the government,” he declared, employing longstanding talking points of the pro-overhaul camp, and downplaying opinion polls that have consistently shown a collapse in support for current coalition parties.
As the justice minister spoke Thursday, the crowds booed at each mention of the Supreme Court. But Levin also expressed support for compromise talks.
Netanyahu himself stayed away from the rally but tweeted a message of appreciation to those in attendance.
“I am deeply moved by the amazing support of the national camp which ascended to Jerusalem en masse this evening,” the prime minister wrote on Twitter, including pictures showing the large turnout.
“All of us, 64 Knesset seats that brought the win, are first-class citizens,” he added. Many right-wing coalition supporters have taken to calling themselves “second-class citizens,” claiming that their votes are deemed to be worth less than the votes of those who have been staging the relentless protests against the overhaul.
The messaging in many of the speeches at Thursday’s rally similarly extended beyond pro-overhaul overtures to lamentations of a “stolen” election, with participants claiming that the proposals to curb the court’s power represent the silenced will of the people.
In his own speech at the rally, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich claimed that opponents of the overhaul have the media and tycoons at their side, “while we have the people who demand that we fix what needs to be fixed.”
“The people demand legal reform, and they will receive legal reform. We will not give up on making the State of Israel an even better place to live in,” said Smotrich. “We will not give up on a Jewish state and we will not give up on Israeli democracy. No one will steal these terms from us.”
Fellow far-right minister Itamar Ben Gvir used his speech to attack opponents of the judicial overhaul, claiming that they are not only interested in blocking reform but also in thwarting the right-wing government more broadly. “They haven’t accepted that we won,” he said.
Rothman, another senior architect of the overhaul, was greeted on stage with thunderous cheers and chants to fire Gali Baharav-Miara, the attorney general, who has pushed back against the coalition’s proposals.
“In the past few months, we have heard so many lies. We came here to hear the truth. In [anti-overhaul] demonstrations they shout ‘democracy.’ But when judges appoint each other via their friend-brings-a-friend model, it’s not democracy.”
“More than two million people voted for the right-wing camp to fix the judicial system, that’s democracy,” Rothman said, urging the crowd to chant the word.
“Without a judicial reform, we will continue passing laws to revoke citizenship from terrorists — and the Supreme Court will say no. Without a judicial reform, we will continue passing laws to bring security to the residents of south Tel Aviv and deal with illegal immigrants — and the Supreme Court will say no,” Rothman declared. “It’s important to fix and it’s important to reach an agreement, but we must not give up.”
Glaringly absent from the speakers were representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties, with Haredi participants also making up a very small minority of the crowd.
This was partly a result of a call earlier in the day by a popular Haredi newspaper, urging readers not to interrupt Torah study to attend the mass rally, and of similar calls by some of the community’s influential rabbis.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party similarly refrained from urging supporters to attend Thursday’s protest.
Still, organizers sought to tailor messages to the overhaul’s three groups of supporters — Likud voters, religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox Israelis.
A small gender-segregated section was boarded off for Haredi participants to comfortably take part in the rally.
Some signs at the rally bore the caption: “When the High Court is in power, you get trumped up charges” — a reference to the criminal cases against the premier.
Other posters read: “When the High Court is in power, Jewish homes are destroyed” — a reference to the razing of illegal settler homes.
Some pamphlets claimed opponents of the overhaul are violating the biblical commandment of “thou shall not steal” by allegedly working to “cancel” the votes of the right-wing public in the previous election.
In response to Thursday’s rally, the organizers of the weekly night anti-overhaul rallies said they were “intensifying the protests” and would on Saturday “announce new measures to stop the oncoming dictatorship.”
“Starting this Sunday, as the Knesset recess ends, only one vote separates Israel from becoming an ultranationalist dictatorship,” they said in a statement. “This is a clear and immediate danger to Israel’s democracy. The negotiations headed by the president have proven to be deceptive… Only hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting in the streets can stop the judicial coup.”