Protest groups turn up heat on ‘messianic’ settlers accused of driving overhaul

Activists demonstrate in settlements and highlight anti-Palestinian violence, making common cause with established leftist groups but risking alienating supporters on the right

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Activists protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside the ultraconservative Har Hamor Yeshiva in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, July 5, 2023. The sign, featuring leading members of the government, states 'You are the messianics of the destruction.' (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Activists protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside the ultraconservative Har Hamor Yeshiva in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, July 5, 2023. The sign, featuring leading members of the government, states 'You are the messianics of the destruction.' (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The various protest movements fighting the government’s judicial overhaul agenda have in recent weeks increased their focus on West Bank settlers and religious Zionist backers of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, accusing them of seeking to clamp down on the judiciary in order to advance their radical “messianic” agenda.

At rallies and in online campaigns, activists have accused  “extremist” elements within the communities of playing a central role in the coalition’s far-reaching legal overhaul program, allegedly in order to remove checks and balances over government activity and thereby allowing them to advance legislation anathema to liberal Israel.

Demonstrations have been held outside the homes of senior politicians from the ultranationalist Religious Zionism party deep in the West Bank, while social media videos and other posts have highlighted the radical activities of far-right, religious activists and government ministers.

The rhetoric has underlined what some protest organizers say is growing recognition of the links between the overhaul and groups that could be served by the weakening of the court, such as settlers seeking to annex West Bank territories or ultra-Orthodox pursuing special dispensations. The renewed focus has allowed the protest groups to tap into an extensive, well-established network of left-wing progressive activist organizations. But by doing so, the groups run the risk of alienating a significant core of protesters who oppose changes to the judiciary but may disagree with the left on much else.

“During the Balfour protests, we thought the problem was just with [Netanyahu], but now we realize this is not the case. Now we understand that the religious-Zionist settlement messianics are in places of power,” said Yaniv Segal, one of the founders of the Pink Front protest group, established several years ago during the so-called Balfour protests against Netanyahu over his corruption trials. It has since also become a prominent force in the protests against the judicial overhaul.

In early July, several dozen protesters from the Kaplan Force activist group gathered outside the Har Hamor Yeshiva in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa to demonstrate against the far-right, anti-LGBTQ Noam party. The yeshiva, a pillar of the ultraconservative wing of the religious Zionist community, is headed by hardline rabbi Tzvi Tau, the spiritual patron of Noam; its sole lawmaker, Avi Maoz, entered the Knesset as part of the Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit alliance.

The yeshiva “symbolizes the messianic and dangerous current in the country which is leading the coup d’état,” one demonstrator said.

Others asserted that the yeshiva’s “messianic vision” was “alarming and terrifying, and includes a Jewish halachic state based on Jewish supremacy.”

Activists protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside Har Hamor Yeshiva in Har Homa, East Jerusalem, on July 5, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

A similar protest was held outside the yeshiva again on July 30.

On July 28, a protest was held outside the home of Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim. Activists from the left-wing progressive group Standing Together took part, with banners declaring that Smotrich was leading “a coup in the name of the [West Bank] settlements.”

And then on August 4, a protest organized by the veteran left-wing Peace Now organization, in which some central anti-judicial overhaul groups participated, took place outside the home of Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman in the illegal West Bank outpost of Pnei Kedem.

Rothman is one of the key architects of the coalition’s judicial overhaul program, and has shepherded the coalition’s legislation, including a law banning the use of reasonableness as a legal doctrine, through the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which he chairs.

“He is dismantling democracy, the time has come to dismantle his outpost,” read a social media post announcing the protest.

As the judicial overhaul has limped ahead in Jerusalem, West Bank Palestinians have reported increasing cases of settler violence, which many have tied to the rise of the Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties, all part of the ruling coalition. While the uptick is unrelated to the overhaul on its face, groups have seized on such incidents as another sign of the government’s inability to govern, and a chilling preview of what may come should the overhaul advance.

“If you look at who is threatening democracy, it is the corrupt, the messianics, the ultra-Orthodox and the ‘Greater Israel’ people,” said Segal.

“In recent years, the liberals have fallen asleep and have allowed extremist elements from the religious Zionist [community] to get into positions of power in the army and the education system,” he added.

This month, the Brothers in Arms protest group put out a video highlighting a series of incidents in recent months involving extremist settler violence, as well as incendiary rhetoric from Smotrich, who is finance minister, ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and others.

Anti-judicial overhaul protesters demonstrate in the illegal West Bank outpost of Pnei Kedem outside the home of judicial overhaul architect MK Simcha Rothman of the Religious Zionism party, Aug. 4, 2023. (Peace Now)

The video called for Otzma Yehudit to be outlawed, noting that its leader Ben Gvir and others have expressed support for violent settler activists arrested for shooting and killing 19-year-old Palestinian Qusai Jamal Matan in the village of Burqa this month. The main suspect insists he was acting in self-defense. A second suspect, Elisha Yered, was formerly a spokesperson for Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har Melech.

“The hilltop youth go around with weapons, and they have direct contact with Ben Gvir, Smotrich, and Son Har Melech,” said a senior figure in Brothers in Arms who asked to be quoted anonymously.

Following the Burqa incident, which Palestinians say took place following an intentional provocation by settlers who went to the village to stir up trouble, Ben Gvir insisted that the shooting of Matan had been self-defense and said individuals acting similarly should be formally commended by the army, not detained by the police.

“This is incredibly dangerous. It undermines democratic governance to have a militia that carries out pogroms and is backed by the police minister,” the Brothers in Arms activist added.

The overhaul being advanced by Netanyahu’s coalition will remake the relationship between the judiciary and government, limiting areas where courts are authorized to review Knesset legislation or government decisions while giving the executive branch greater say over appointments to the bench. Critics say the moves will essentially make Israel a democracy in name only, with the government unfettered by any checks on its power.

Elisha Yered, left, seen at the Jerusalem District Court after being released to house arrest on August 9, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Religious and far-right settler activists “don’t want judicial review over anything they do — be it settlements or otherwise,” the activist insisted.

But proponents claim that judicial reforms are needed to formalize the court’s authority, arguing that unelected judges have illegally expanded the court’s reach into areas where it has undermined decisions by lawmakers voted into office.

“We want a strong court and a strong, independent judiciary, but we also want to balance the branches of government, which will strengthen democracy, not weaken it,” said Yehudah Wald, director-general of the Religious Zionism party.

The protests against the coalition were “based on ignorance and hatred,” he told The Times of Israel.

Director General of the Religious Zionism party Yehudah Wald. (Courtesy Religious Zionism party)

Wald argued that large segments of the population supported reforms to the judicial system. “This does not make them extremists,” he said, but instead points to “a lack of trust in the system.” And he accused those protesting the overhaul of ulterior motives.

“Their false claims about the reform are being used to advance other agendas, including their goal of turning Israel into ‘a state of all its citizens,'” alleged Wald, referring to the Hebrew concept for a national model that abandons Israel’s specifically Jewish character, “instead of a Jewish-democratic state, which we want.”

He also rejected the claims that his party or the settlement movement supports violence against Palestinians, or other extremist activity, blaming the Burqa shooting and other incidents on a few bad apples.

“To take isolated incidents and turn them into something mainstream and try and tarnish us with it to claim that we are violent is wicked. Setters are the salt of earth, and to delegitimize them and turn half a million people living in Judea and Samaria into a violent gang is just unbelievable,” he said.

Illustrative: A screenshot from video of settlers firing at the West Bank village of Umm Safa on June 24, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

For anti-settlement groups like Peace Now, which organized this month’s demonstration outside Rothman’s house, making common cause with activists opposed to the overhaul appears to come naturally, given the government’s aggressive push to both expand settlements and alter the judiciary.

Rothman and others in the pro-settlement parties are “working to trample on the judicial branch of government and the [law enforcement] gatekeepers in order to continue to advance their messianic and racist agenda, and expand the project of theft in the settlements and eventually over all of liberal Israel,” Peace Now charged during the protest.

But for many of the groups opposed to the overhaul, partnering with prominent anti-settlement groups or similar leftist organizations comes with significant pitfalls. Organizations such as The Democrats, Kumi Israel and Maridim have been careful not to wade too deep into controversial issues such as the settlements, so as not to alienate those among their ranks who might hail from the other side of the political spectrum or support settlements or other activities opposed by groups like Peace Now.

Nava Rozolyo, who launched the Shame Guard Corps organization and heads the Maridim anti-Netanyahu protest movement, acknowledged that settlements in particular could be a sensitive issue for protest organizations.

“My parents, for example, are right-wing, religious people who live in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Gilo who don’t want this judicial coup but they wouldn’t support the protest movement if it speaks out against the settlement movement,” said Rozolyo.

Ahead of the protest outside Rothman’s home, she said she was advised by another leader of the Shame Guards Corps, which coordinates demonstrations and spontaneous protests against coalition MKs and government ministers, to not use a poster announcing the demonstration because it was organized by Peace Now, which is not viewed favorably by right-wing Israelis.

She ultimately decided to use it anyway, pointing out that the protest was not against the settlements per se, but against Rothman himself as a key architect of the judicial overhaul.

At the same time, she said, the issues could not be separated from each other so easily, though when the protesters first began organizing, the different groups “did not profoundly understand the connection between the settlement movement and the judicial coup.”

Nava Rozolyo, the leader of the Maridim protest movement, heads a demonstration outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence on Gaza Street in Jerusalem August 5, 2023. (Ben Cohen)

Smotrich and Ben Gvir share the goal of annexing the West Bank in its entirety, she said; the protest movement now understands that ensuring the High Court of Justice cannot intervene in such plans was a primary motivating factor behind the overhaul.

“They want Israel to control every inch of what you see on the map: Gaza, Hebron, Jordan, everything,” contended Rozolyo. “So they can’t have the judicial system interfering with this plan. If the Supreme Court is independent it won’t let them do it, because it’s illegal and violates international treaties, so they have to continue the judicial coup in order to press ahead with this plan.”

The Brothers in Arms activist contended that from the outset of the protest movement, his group had been aware of the influence of the far-right, religious parties in the charge toward legislating the judicial overhaul.

The settlements are not the only place anti-overhaul protesters have found intersectionality with others opposed to the government. The presence of two ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition backing the overhaul has raised concerns among religious liberty groups that the changes to the judiciary could protect government moves that limit public freedoms or afford the Haredi community special benefits, such as military draft exemptions.

“We are also protesting against religious coercion,” said Rozolyo. “If you let Rothman, Smotrich and the others gain power in the settlements, ultimately they will occupy Tel Aviv and revoke rights there. They will close down Tel Aviv on Shabbat, they won’t let women sing in public, they’ll separate men and women on buses,” she said.

Activists protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the ultra-conservative Har Hamor Yeshiva in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, on July 5, 2023. The banner reads ‘Religious coercion is not equality and not democracy.’ (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

With the Knesset on break for the summer, the coalition is still waiting to attempt to enact changes to the panel that places judges. It has already managed to pass one piece of the legislative package, barring courts from using the concept of reasonableness to judge government moves.

Wald said that efforts to advance other aspects of the coalition’s judicial overhaul agenda would continue when the Knesset reconvenes, but that “as broad a consensus as possible” would be sought. He declined to say what would happen if no consensus was reached, as has been the case so far. He accused protesters of seeking to sow societal divisions and bring down the coalition.

“Their campaign is designed to split the nation and topple the government, but neither of those goals will be achieved,” he insisted.

Segal said the situation, in which extremists like Rothman and Ben Gvir are legislating reforms that will drastically change the country, was “absurd.”

“We thought until now that there was mutual respect between the secular community and the religious Zionists, but they’ve gotten drunk on power and think they can do what they want,” he said.

“The High Court is in danger but the citizens are now defending it.”

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