Reporter's notebook

Israeli flags as far as the eye can see, as protesters plead for an overhaul rethink

Some placards at mass Jerusalem rally are optimistic: ‘We’re stopping the anti-democratic legislation.’ Others apocalyptic: ‘This government is destroying the Third House’

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Israelis wave national flags at a rally against the judicial overhaul, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Israelis wave national flags at a rally against the judicial overhaul, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Somewhere far off in the distance, hundreds of yards away, closer to the Knesset, opposition leaders were speaking.

But here, all along Jerusalem’s Yoel Zusman Street, from Cinema City, past the Supreme Court and the Foreign Ministry and on down toward the Prime Minister’s Office, their voices were inaudible. Here, horns blared, drummers drummed, and the one-word cry went up intermittently: “Democracy! Democracy! Democracy!”

This time last week, the spacious white tent erected outside the Supreme Court building by the Movement for Quality Government, emblazoned with slogans in defense of “freedom,” “equality” and, obviously, “quality of government,” was empty. On Friday, it was surrounded by several thousand reservists, military veterans and others at the culmination of a three-day march from Latrun, organized in protest at the coalition’s proposed legislation radically constraining the powers of the top court. On Monday, the tent was swallowed up in the huge crowds, not marching — there was no room to move forward — but congregating, across and down the street as far as the eye could see.

“I’m here next to the gay flag and the tree,” one woman shouted into her phone, apparently to a relative or friend somewhere nearby, in a wildly optimistic attempt to arrange a meet-up despite the overburdened cellphone network and multitudes of, well, flags and trees.

Demonstrators of all ages — elderly people with walking sticks, mothers pushing babies, men with dogs, families walking with their arms linked to make sure nobody got separated — carried placards of many sentiments. Some were plaintive, some vicious, some gracious.

“We have come to heal,” proclaimed one, held by a woman in a woolly hat. Smaller lettering elaborated: “Physiotherapists give their back to democracy.” (It works better in Hebrew.)

“No mandate for dictatorship,” declared another sign. “Judaism and democracy together,” exhorted a third. “Only education will bring change,” a fourth. “No democracy, no academia,” said a fifth. (That one rhymes in Hebrew.)

“Democracy is being raped,” crudely proclaimed one handwritten banner. “Deri is not fit to be a minister,” asserted a professionally printed one. “A criminal defendant is choosing my judges?” marveled another. “No to the constitutional coup,” insisted yet another.

Israelis wearing costumes from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ participate in a protest rally against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Artists had been at work on some of the placards — the one showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a Roman emperor, for instance, or the colorfully lettered one held by a preteen girl whose mother encouraged her to read it out loud to anyone who took an interest. “You know you mustn’t harm democracy,” it taught.

Some were optimistic: “We’re stopping the anti-democratic legislation.” Others apocalyptic: “This government is destroying the Third House,” a reference to the demise of Judaism’s two previous sovereign eras, in the times of the First and Second Temples.

Far outnumbering all the placards, however, producing waves of blue and white above the crowd, was a sea of Israeli national flags, held high on bamboo sticks, thin metal poles, plastic mop handles. There were pride flags, a few Palestinian flags but, as at previous demonstrations these past six weeks, the national flag dominated the line of sight. It has marked a kind of reassertion of at least partial ownership of a symbol relinquished to some extent in recent years to ultranationalist purposes.

And among all those Israeli flags, a few had been supplemented with a smaller, black flag attached at one corner — a flag that, in the Israeli military, symbolizes the requirement to disobey an order that is blatantly and manifestly illegal.

Far off in the distance somewhere, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee had approved initial elements of the overhaul legislation, for a planned imminent first reading in the Knesset, hours after President Isaac Herzog had implored the coalition to pause. Far off in the distance, opposition leaders had doubtless finished their speeches. But still the crowds grew along Yoel Zusman Street, and the sea of Israeli flags swelled.

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