'As a religious man and a settler, I protest'

In the major West Bank settlements, anti-judicial overhaul rallies gather steam

Small but growing groups of protesters – many of whom are disillusioned with a government they voted for – take to the streets in some of the far-right’s strongholds

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Anti-judicial overhaul protesters in Maale Adumim. (Courtesy)
Anti-judicial overhaul protesters in Maale Adumim. (Courtesy)

Ma’ale Adumim is one of the larger settlement cities in the West Bank and has a very active chapter of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party. But when a group of locals decided to stage their own version of the anti-judicial overhaul protests that have gripped the country over the last year, organizer Gilat Goldberg admitted that the protesters were not initially prepared for the response.

In the beginning it was difficult. We were about 100 people, but the Otzma Yehudit activists came out with 200 people against us, with signs, chanting and terrible curses,” she told The Times of Israel.

“We were protesting the reform, but they were protesting us being there at all,” she added, praising the local police forces who she says have consistently “protected our right to protest” and made sure violence does not ensue.

After a few weeks, “since they wanted us to stop, and we didn’t,” Goldberg said, the Otzma Yehudit activists “disappeared.”

The protests then changed character.

“In the beginning, we needed to make a lot of noise [against them], but afterward it became quieter, with speakers and music. It became more natural for the public, and more balanced with both religious and secular people,” she said.

The rallies in Ma’ale Adumim (population around 40,000), which began around two months ago, are one of a small group of regular anti-overhaul protests taking place in the larger West Bank settlements. In Efrat, the main settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem with a population of some 12,000, rallies have been held since January, and more recently, the movement has spread to Ariel (population 20,000) in the northern West Bank, and elsewhere.

Signs held up during an anti-overhaul protest in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, reading ‘Religious people for a broad agreement,’ indicating support for a compromise solution to Israel’s judicial crisis. (Courtesy)

The mass protests, which have seen hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, began at the beginning of the year in response to the overhaul of the judicial system and curbed independence of Israel’s Supreme Court currently being pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government. The ruling coalition is widely viewed as being the most hardline in Israel’s history. The presence of extremist lawmakers such as Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who both hold key ministerial positions, is also a factor in the demonstrations.

The protests in the settlements draw far smaller numbers than their counterparts in the big cities, but include a good percentage of attendees who voted for Likud or one of the other coalition parties in last year’s elections, according to multiple sources who spoke with The Times of Israel.

“It isn’t the same kind of protests like in Tel Aviv,” explained veteran activist Ori Kaplan when describing visits he has made to the settlement rallies. “There were religious settlers there, some of them ultra-Orthodox, on the right. I am not like this at all, but I connected with them.”

Kaplan, a patent engineer and self-described member of the “Ashkenazi secular elite,” is a disciple of protest leader Moshe Radman and has been working with Yalla Tikvah (“Let’s Go, Hope!”), one of the umbrella groups that helps organize the nationwide rallies, to document some of the protests taking place in the West Bank and other less-central areas. Yalla Tikvah is a crowdfunded operation that has raised over NIS 1.5 million (roughly $392,000).

Kaplan said it was “very surprising” to meet “quality people from the other side politically” who are also protesting against the sweeping judicial reform, and stressed that his encounters in Efrat and elsewhere have left him a changed man with an expanded social circle.

Screen capture showing Tekoa resident Yisrael Malchiel being interviewed at an anti-judicial overhaul protest in Efrat, in the West Bank. The caption reads, ‘Because I am very troubled.’ (Courtesy)

In one of Yalla Tikvah’s videos, Yisrael Malchiel, a religious resident of the nearby Tekoa settlement, explains (Hebrew link) how he felt compelled to come out to the Efrat protest because he is “troubled by what’s happening in our country.” He doesn’t want to be associated with the government’s pursuit of judicial overhaul “in my name as a religious person, as a settler” in the destructive way it has been done, without dialogue, he said.

In the 2022 elections, 50 percent of Efrat residents voted for the joint Religious Zionism list led by Smotrich and Ben Gvir (– a technical merger between Smotrich’s party and Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit that was dismantled immediately after the elections), and a further 30% voted for the Likud and other coalition parties. “So it’s a predominantly right-wing and religious place,” said Avidan Freedman, one of the main protest organizers there.

Freedman, 43, is a teacher originally from Montreal and New York who immigrated to Efrat 11 years ago with his family. He is also an activist who co-founded Yanshoof (“Owl”), an NGO that seeks to stem Israeli arms sales to “murderous regimes.”

He explained that the original seed for anti-overhaul protests at Efrat was a group of 10-15 residents who came together as part of the so-called “Balfour protests,” the 2020-2021 rallies that took place outside Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, in opposition to his remaining in power while under criminal investigation. Two or three weeks after the anti-judicial reform protests started, in January of this year, it was decided to create their own version.

“We didn’t know how many people would come [to the first evening], but 50 people showed up, and as the weeks went on, we grew to 100 or sometimes 150 people,” Freedman said. “People came and it was obvious to us that it was hitting a nerve. It had traction among people who had voted for the government or considered themselves on the right, but didn’t support Itamar Ben Gvir.”

Freedman said that although there has been some pushback from Efrat residents, especially on social media, for the most part, people have been accepting. He dryly noted that hasn’t been kicked out of his synagogue, where people “overwhelmingly don’t agree with me.” There is also support for the protests from some “significant rabbis” from the Religious Zionist sector, he said, some of whom have appeared at the rallies despite opposition.

“It is clear there is a significant group who are against what is going on. Many people who are protesting here are in favor of judicial reform but aren’t in favor of the reform in its current iteration,” he said, stressing that the protests also are attended by residents from other settlements in the Gush Etzion bloc.

Freedman added that it is worth noting that Moshe Koppel, the founder of the Kohelet Policy Forum — the right-wing think tank that laid the foundations for the overhaul, while later saying it encourages partial compromise — lives in Efrat, as do “many others” associated with Kohelet.

In the northern West Bank town of Ariel, the protests were single-handedly started by activist Eran Reichman, a lawyer who has lived there since 2006.

Another veteran of the Balfour protests of several years earlier, Reichman described attending the Saturday night Kaplan protests in Tel Aviv every week. At a certain point, he grew weary of traveling so far, and realized that “it would be practical and effective to make a protest in Ariel, a Likud stronghold.”

Anti-judicial overhaul in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. (Courtesy)

About seven or eight weeks ago in Ariel, Reichman stood by himself after Shabbat with a sign. Afterward, he posted about his activity on Facebook. “A week later there were seven people, then we were already 25, and now each week we have 30-40 people,” he told The Times of Israel.

“In Ariel,” he said, “people thought that the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem protests were not connected to us… We [the protesters] understand that the protests aren’t about right or left, but about power and how it is controlled.”

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