'We want to stop the madness'

Mass protests against judicial overhaul start, thousands flock to Jerusalem

Thousands marching in Tel Aviv ahead of expected main demonstration in Jerusalem, with police set to block roads around Knesset; trains added to bring protesters to capital

Israelis crowd the train on their way to Jerusalem, where thousands are expected to protest outside the Knesset against the government's planned legal reforms. February 13, 2023. (Eric Marmon/FLASH90)
Israelis crowd the train on their way to Jerusalem, where thousands are expected to protest outside the Knesset against the government's planned legal reforms. February 13, 2023. (Eric Marmon/FLASH90)

Mass rallies began Monday morning across the country as thousands headed to Jerusalem amid a large-scale strike to protest the government’s plans to impose radical, sweeping changes on the judiciary.

Thousands of parents and students were marching in Tel Aviv, while protesters blockaded the main entrance to the airport as others demonstrated outside the home of a far-right lawmaker.

Parents and students marched down Tel Aviv’s Namir Road, carrying Israeli flags and signs that read “We want democracy”  and “There is no education without democracy.” Police also closed several roads in north Tel Aviv as protesters began to march in the streets.

Dozens of protesters briefly blocked the entrance to Ben Gurion Airport along Route 1.

In another rally in Tel Aviv, approximately 20 demonstrators from a group called Stop the Coup blocked the entrance to the home of Otzma Yehudit’s Yitzhak Wasserlauf, who serves as minister of Development of the Periphery, the Negev, and the Galilee Minister.

The group said in a statement that the government had “declared war on the very existence of Israel as a democratic state,” and vowed to take all peaceful steps to stop the planned judicial overhaul.

Protesters march in Tel Aviv at a demonstration against the judicial overhaul, February 13, 2023 (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

“The coup threatens the lives of all the country’s citizens, and therefore we see the fight against it as a civic and moral duty. Citizens of the State of Israel do not want to live in a dictatorship and we won’t let a small group of extremists cause us to,” they said.

In response to the protest outside his home, Wasserlauf wrote in a tweet: “The demonstrations and the attempts to threaten me only embolden me. We came to carry out reforms and we will continue to do so.”

Meanwhile, thousands of people jammed into rail stations in the center of the country headed for Jerusalem, many of them carrying Israeli flags. Israel Railways added several trains to Jerusalem to deal with the demand.

Adding to the congestion was the fact that the Transportation Ministry did not instruct bus companies to increase services to the capital, despite the expected influx of protesters, although protest organizers hired their own busses.

Thousands more were driving to Jerusalem.

Among those on the train to Jerusalem were two workers from the Ichilov hospital.

“We were allowed and even encouraged to go the strike in Jerusalem. We decided to take the train while others from the hospital were supposed to get to Jerusalem on buses,” one of them told the Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We hope to make a change to stop this madness. We are scared that the proposed legislation will leave us with a system that has no bottom,” she said standing squeezed in the corridor of the train.

Cheering “Democracy!” hundreds of protesters spilled off a train arriving in Jerusalem.

Israelis crowd the train on their way to Jerusalem, where thousands are expected to protest outside the Knesset against the government’s planned legal reforms. February 13, 2023. (Eric Marmon/FLASH90)

“I am worried for the future of my three grandchildren. It will be a dictatorship like Hungary or Poland,” said Etty Pass, 74, from Ramat Gan, who arrived alone. “This isn’t like it was when I was younger,” she adds, sweeping her hand to gesture at the assembled crowd.

Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to rally in Jerusalem at midday when the coalition is due to begin advancing bills on parts of the overhaul.

Police said they would close main streets around the Knesset to traffic on Monday morning ahead of the protest, and expect significant traffic disruption in the capital.

Hundreds of tech startups, law firms, and other private sector companies are allowing their employees to join the nationwide strike against the judicial overhaul plans, which aim to dramatically weaken the High Court of Justice and secure political control over judicial appointments, among other measures.

In addition, thousands of doctors and mental health professionals are expected to join the strike. The Histadrut Labor Federation representing public sector unions did not plan to join the protest.

The Jerusalem protests and concurrent protests in other cities will coincide with the legislation’s first expected rounds of committee voting. The coalition indicated late Sunday that it would not delay Monday’s committee votes on advancing some of the bills that make up the government’s plan but would wait a week before bringing them to a first vote in the plenum, instead of doing so immediately.

A woman watches President Isaac Herzog’s speech on the proposed changes to the legal system, at a home in Kibbutz Mishmar David, February 12, 2023. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

This came after President Isaac Herzog issued a rare plea for deliberation and compromise on the plan and offered a five-point proposal for negotiations on the judicial shakeup.

Herzog warned in his televised address that the country was on the brink of “societal and constitutional collapse” and urged citizens of both sides to refrain from violence, particularly against public servants and elected officials.

The president expressed deep concern that the government’s reforms could harm “the democratic foundations” of the country, but acknowledged changes to the judicial system were nevertheless legitimate pursuits.

He proposed a five-point plan as an outline for a compromise agreement over the contentious shakeup agenda while urging the coalition not to move ahead with the legislative process.

The opposition and others welcomed Herzog’s proposal but some Likud lawmakers rejected the call for delay.

Leaders of the protest on Monday, led by the tech industry, said they hoped to “send a message, loud and clear, that Israel’s fragile democratic fabric must be protected,” and emphasized their crucial role in Israel’s economy.

Among the almost 300 tech companies and venture capital funds that have expressed support for their workers to join the civil strike are Payoneer, Pitango, Kaltura, Lemonade, Riskified, Wiz, Fireblocks, Appsflyer, Similarweb, IronSource, Natural Intelligence, Plantish, TLV Partners, Econcrete, Team8, Ultrasight, Algosec, Qumra Capital, Vertex Ventures, and Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP).

According to the leaders of the tech workers’ protest, more than 45 buses will be taking employees from Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Beersheba, Nahariya, and other locations to the march in Jerusalem.

The planned private sector strike comes after a sixth successive Saturday night of demonstrations saw what organizers claimed were 145,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv, with another 83,000 in other areas across the country. Police did not provide an estimate of the turnout.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) with Justice Minister Yariv Levin at his side chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Feb. 12, 2023. (Amit Shabi / Pool)

The legal overhaul, advanced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a majority of just 61 MKs.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms would undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

Netanyahu and other coalition members have dismissed the criticism.

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