Masses of supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government packed the streets around the Knesset in Jerusalem on Thursday evening, staging by far their largest rally yet aimed at providing the coalition with public support for its plans to radically overhaul the judiciary, in light of widespread opposition at home and abroad.
There was no official headcount from police, but estimates by news networks — citing figures by firms that specialize in estimating crowd sizes — generally ranged between 150,000 and 200,000 people in attendance at the rally, dubbed ahead of time by organizers as the “March of the Million.” Around 1,000 buses were dispatched across the country to ferry participants to the rally, Channel 12 news reported, claiming that Netanyahu’s Likud party and the far-right Religious Zionism had invested hundreds of thousands of shekels in the event’s organization.
The crowd size appeared to be similar to the turnout at Saturday night rallies against the effort to curb the powers of the High Court of Justice, which have been taking place on a weekly basis for the nearly four months of the current government’s existence.
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.
While Thursday’s was the first rally of this magnitude by pro-overhaul activists, organizers 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 Knesset election, which allowed the Likud leader to form a homogenous, 64-strong coalition in the 120-member parliament.
As the rally got underway, participants chanted “The people demand judicial reform” and “No compromise, Bibi, don’t back down.”
The public backed the overhaul “in a referendum six months ago,” Justice Minister Yariv Levin told the crowds, in a reference to the election that brought the hardline coalition to power.
Some of the speakers expressed their support for the current compromise negotiations with the opposition, launched last month after Netanyahu agreed to temporarily pause the overhaul, but many made clear that they remained broadly committed to the current, suspended legislation. Other headliners voiced messages to Netanyahu that he need not compromise at all.
Addressing the rally were some of the overhaul’s chief architects and most senior supporters in the government, although not Netanyahu himself, who stayed away 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.
Taking the stage, 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.
Supporters of the overhaul argue 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.
As the justice minister spoke Thursday, the crowds booed at each mention of the Supreme Court.
Before the rally, participants were filmed walking on a massive banner with the faces of Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, former chief justice Aharon Barak, former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit and former state attorney Shai Nitzan, alongside slogans against them. It was unclear whether this was intentional or whether the banner had been briefly placed on the ground before being later lifted by activists as they marched near the Knesset.
יכול רק לדמיין כמה היו משתוללים פה אם היו מניחים תמונות של נתניהו על הכביש בבלפור ונותנים להמון לעבור על פניו.
מעריך כל מי שיוצא מהבית להפגין על מה שחשוב לו אבל זה? מיותר ומביש. pic.twitter.com/IDig91zPkL
— Josh Breiner (@JoshBreiner) April 27, 2023
Regardless, the footage sparked an uproar among overhaul critics, with opposition chair Yair Lapid saying the images filled him with “deep shame and sadness.”
“This is [also] what every Israeli who is part of the sane majority felt when they protesters stepping on pictures of High Court judges. This did not happen at a rally by the La Familia [far-right extremist group], but at a demonstration put on by Prime Minister Netanyahu and financed by Likud, with Justice Minister Levin as a keynote speaker.”
Meanwhile, at the rally, Levin sought to dispel criticism of the overhaul.
“We are told that if the reform passes, there’ll be a dictatorship. There is no greater lie than this. Show me one democracy where legal advisers make decisions instead of the government,” he said, referring to a part of the overhaul package which would allow ministers to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers, to avoid having to deal with legal opinions from someone other than a trusted ideological compatriot.
But he also expressed support for compromise talks, seemingly rebuffing those calling for the judicial overhaul to be passed as is.
“I’m convinced that we can reach a fix [to the current legislative package] by agreement,” he said, to boos from some in the audience. “Agreement, meaning serious negotiation, and a readiness [by the opposition] to accept real components of the reform.”
However, he claimed that opposition representatives at the compromise negotiations, led by President Isaac Herzog, have said “no to every proposal.”
The reform package was not intended to achieve political control over the courts, he said. “We want a Supreme Court for everyone — liberals, conservatives, right, left, everybody.”
“The time has come for a High Court that does not give rights to the families of terrorists, and does not permit fake memorial services together with terror supporters.” Israel needs a court that “punishes rapists and doesn’t seek ways to protect them,” he said. “A court that protects IDF soldiers and not the terrorists’ neighbors.”
Levin also declared to cheers that the attacks against him “only strengthen me,” and pledged that he would continue to do “everything in my power” to see the overhaul through.
His predecessor as justice minister, the opposition National Unity party’s Gideon Sa’ar, described Levin’s address “as one of the gravest speeches of incitement to date against the judicial system that he heads.” Sa’ar said it was designed to “torpedo the compromise talks and continue the delegitimization of the judicial system, in order to dismantle it as an independent system and to place it under his control.”
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 just blocking reform but also in thwarting the right-wing government more broadly. “They haven’t accepted that we won,” he said.
He took particular offense to what he claimed was an opposition-backed campaign against his participation at a Memorial Day ceremony at Beersheba’s military cemetery earlier this week. A group of bereaved families had protested his appearance, highlighting his extremist views and lack of military service, and the event deteriorated into shouts of abuse and scuffles.
Claiming the campaign against him was aimed at “delegitimizing” the right-wing camp more broadly, Ben Gvir said: “They harmed the sanctity of Memorial Day and tried to create division and rift. I will not forgive Yair Lapid for trying to harm Memorial Day.”
Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, another senior architect of the overhaul, was greeted on stage with thunderous cheers and chants to fire 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.”
Lapid issued a fiery reaction to the addresses: “The inflammatory speeches of the ministers and MKs [at the rally] only continue to tear people apart and dismantle Israeli society… What else will they do to the State of Israel and the people of Israel before they stop?”
At the nearby Cinema City entertainment center, police were seen tracking down four teens suspected of involvement in an attack on an Arab security guard at the mall, with one of the assailants carrying a flag of the extremist Lehava group.
The four were apprehended on the compound roof, but three were cut loose shortly thereafter.
In another case of violence, a glass bottle was thrown at reporters from Channel 13 news as they covered the rally.
In a video, correspondents Moriah Asraf Wolberg (who is married to Levin’s spokesperson Nachum Wolberg) and Yishai Porat were seen talking as the bottle landed between them. The short clip didn’t show who had thrown it.
במהלך סיקור ההפגנה בעד הרפורמה: בקבוק זכוכית נזרק לעבר צוות חדשות 13, שכלל את הכתבים מוריה אסרף וולברג וישי פורת, זאת לאחר שקבוצת מפגינים הפריעה לשידור וקיללה את העיתונאים pic.twitter.com/uth61qaCSF
— חדשות 13 (@newsisrael13) April 27, 2023
The network said the bottle was hurled at the pair after a group of demonstrators interrupted and cursed them, while calling on police “to bring these violent criminals to justice.”
“Violence toward journalists in general, and Channel 13 personnel in particular, has already become a regular occurrence,” it said in a statement.
Thursday’s rally concluded largely without other incidents of violence, as participants sang the Hatikva national anthem and headed home. There were no reports of activists blocking roads — apart from those cordoned off by police — as has been the case after anti-overhaul protests in recent months.
Israel Railways ran additional trains to and from Jerusalem in order to prevent over-crowdedness. The decision was a reversal of the policy maintained at some anti-overhaul protests, in which Likud’s Transportation Minister Miri Regev refused to sign off on additional trains for participants.
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.
Earlier Thursday, Yesh Atid MK Moshe Tur-Paz raised a ruckus after first tweeting and then deleting a post expressing support for the right-wing pro-government rally in Jerusalem, according to Hebrew media reports.
Tur-Paz had taken to Twitter to blast out a message expressing backing for the rally and for political demonstrations in general.
But a short time later the tweet was removed, reportedly at the order of party leader Lapid. The about-face sparks denunciations from across the aisle of Lapid’s singlehanded running of the party by fiat.
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.”
Lazar Berman contributed to this report