ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Interview'By itself, preventing a coup is a justified agenda'

Protest leader says ‘grassroots’ initiative raised NIS 50m to fight judicial overhaul

20 weeks in, Shikma Bressler says movement’s highly organized but loose structure allows multiple strategies to counter coalition’s plans; acknowledges lack of positive goals

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Shikma Bressler attends an anti-judicial overhaul rally at the gates of the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Shikma Bressler attends an anti-judicial overhaul rally at the gates of the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Grassroots organizers opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s plans have raised some NIS 50 million from donors since the unveiling of a legislative program to increase political power by draining the judiciary of authority, a prominent protest leader said this week.

Demonstrations led by Shikma Bressler and others have drawn hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets since Justice Minister Yariv Levin laid out the government’s intention to drastically overhaul the judiciary, which critics say will severely damage the country’s democratic character.

Bressler, 42, is a research physicist and co-founder of the Black Flags protest movement, which held vigil outside Netanyahu’s official Jerusalem residence during his last stint in power. She was one of a number of protest leaders detained by police during a “day of paralysis ” across the country in March, and later released.

Speaking with The Times of Israel on Monday, Bressler claimed that the protest movement remains “grassroots” in character, even if there is some top-down organization.

“It’s hard for people to understand it is a grassroots thing,” Bressler said. “There is an organization, but it only enables people to join activities.”

Bressler said top activists from major groups involved in the protests coordinate top-level strategy and messaging, but much of their focus is on fundraising and doling out resources to enable initiatives posed by various demonstrators.

Protest leader Shikma Bressler is arrested by police during protests on Route 4, March 23, 2023. (Screenshot)

The loose organizational structure has enabled the protest to branch off into different causes in the past four and a half months, drawing both accolades and criticism for embracing Palestinian national aspirations, highlighting tensions between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israel, and most recently fighting against a contentious state budget that awards billions of shekels to sectoral interests.

This structure may also be part of the reason that, nearly five months in, the protest has yet to articulate clear, positive goals for reforming or bolstering the judicial system, instead expressing undefined calls for the preservation of liberal democracy and an independent judiciary.

Bressler’s take on protest organization and funding

Many questions have swirled about the protest’s organizational structure and funding, which remains largely opaque to the public.

Bressler said that the enterprise raised about NIS 50 million (approximately $13.5 million) in “the largest ever Israeli crowdfunding campaign,” drawing in about half through the crowdfunding website BeActive and half through WhatsApp-based donation services from “tens of thousands of small donors.”

A number of large private organizations and donors also contributed to the movement, Bressler said.

Unlike many Israeli fundraising initiatives that raise money from foreign sources, Bressler said 99 percent of the money raised by the groups had come from inside the country.

Several right-wing politicians have claimed foreign influence over the protests, most prominently including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in March claimed — without evidence — that “foreign elements” were behind the protests.

Anti-overhaul protesters gather in Tel Aviv, May 20, 2023. (Amir Goldstein/ Courtesy)

However, Eran Shvartz, who helps manage the protest leadership and runs its largest foundation, said the crowdfunding income was closer to NIS 22 million.

The Times of Israel was unable to independently verify any of the figures, which are private.

While several of the larger groups involved run their own foundation arms and bank accounts, the protest also set up a foundation, called Atid Kachol Lavan —  “Blue and White Future” — which Bressler said has “no connection” to opposition parties Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) or the former Blue and White (now called National Unity), despite the similarity in names. This is the fund that Shvartz formally oversees.

Atid Kachol Lavan centralizes donations, and “when one group wants to initiate an activity, they are supported by this organization with public relations, funding, logistics, legal counsel” and other services.

Protesters against the government’s planned judicial overhaul at Goma Junction, northern Israel, on May 13, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

The movement is “highly organized” but “it’s not an army,” Bressler said, explaining that leaders do not have the ability to dictate the direction of other groups, not to tell demonstrators when to attend events.

Bressler pointed to March 26, when huge crowds spontaneously took to the streets for an all-night protest against Netanyahu’s dismissal of his defense minister, after the latter publicly warned the judicial changes were hurting Israel’s security.

“People went out to the streets because they felt that they needed to do it,” she said. By contrast, when politician Benny Gantz changed direction to form a unity government with Netanyahu in 2020, “we were super motivated, but only about 70 people joined.”

“You can’t run a protest top down, it doesn’t work. People aren’t coming because I call them. They need an outlet,” she said.

Negative goals, but no positive goals

The protest movement is very clear about what it does not want the government to do: erode liberal democracy and weaken judicial independence. Many of its affiliated groups have come out against the ongoing discussions at the President’s Residence aimed at reaching a cross-spectrum political agreement on changes to the judiciary, describing them as a fig leaf to buy the government time and permission to do what it wants.

However, 20 weeks on and with various compromise reform proposals in the backdrop, the protest movement has yet to signal what changes it thinks can boost democratic values, or at least what reforms it could live with as a solution to the question polarizing Israeli society.

While Bressler insisted that “stopping dictatorship and preserving judicial independence is a very clear goal and it’s very well defined,” she also acknowledged that “what we’re lacking is a positive agenda, positive goals.”

Within the milieu of more than 50 groups affiliated with the national protest movement, and various volunteer leaders among them, there have been grumblings that the absence of those things may threaten the movement’s long-term success.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul at Nahalal Junction, May 6, 2023. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)

A few deeply involved activists who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity expressed concern that the protest movement lacks a cohesive vision of what their demonstrations should demand, other than “just not that.”

Bressler, however, said focusing on blocking the government’s multi-point plan to politically appoint Supreme Court judges, constrain judicial review, enable politicians to override the court when it strikes laws down, and make attorney general’s counsel non-binding, among others, may just be the proper scope for the current fight.

“By itself, preventing a coup is a justified agenda. Looking at places where such coups were not prevented only enhances the importance of that goal in itself,” she said.

In late March, Netanyahu paused the government’s unilateral march toward finalizing judicial appointments, both to cool the spiking tension and to give space for negotiation. Bressler and the protest movement have continued to push, arguing that the timeout is a bluff to distract national attention.

Netanyahu said Wednesday that the overhaul would return to the legislative agenda after the passage of the state budget.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While the protest maintains a core of about 80,000 weekly participants in Tel Aviv metro area, with less regular demonstrators swelling the crowds, it’s been hard to maintain momentum for a movement whose main goal is to shelve legislation that is already on hold.

“It’s true that in times like this, when you they are pausing, it makes it hard to maintain the energy,” she said. “But I think they will continue” in the legislative push, which is expected to return to the Knesset agenda before wrapping summer session at the end of July.

Shift in strategy?

Into this space has crept a new strategy of attacking the state budget, embraced with differential enthusiasm across the protest corps.

Bressler, who said “we would have heard criticism whatever decision was made,” is of the camp that this new protest stream is an extension of fighting to end the Netanyahu government’s judicial agenda, in that the budget — like most Israeli budgets — was built with an eye to stabilizing coalition dynamics.

“I see a direct link between the two. The budget itself is not a budget that seeks equality, nor freedom, nor giving people the opportunity to evolve on their own,” she said, echoing criticism that the budget funds unregulated ultra-Orthodox schools to the tune of NIS 1.2 billion despite their not teaching subjects key to workforce integration.

“It’s basically buying Netanyahu quiet in the coalition to do whatever he wants,” she added.

Politics at the top?

She also dismissed criticism that politics sit atop the protest’s unofficial leadership, which includes several professional activists linked to left-wing politics, including former Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon’s son Nadav and former spokesman Roee Neuman.

“No,” Bressler said, disagreeing that politics have a formal role in the structure. “I would separate the term civil activist, by definition people who were there for decades and know the job,” she said.

Furthermore, she adds, “different people take different decisions.”

“You see actions taken by high-tech groups, Brothers and Sisters in Arms,” a military reservist-focused protest organization, “makes their own decisions and people join,” she said. “There are also local leaders [in different cities].”

When the protests first started in January, organizers initially refused to give opposition politicians a stage, arguing that they wanted to be apolitical. That position quickly changed, with many of the opposition’s leaders taking center stage at weekly rallies across the country.

And while the leadership of the protests may have a decidedly center-left character, Bressler points to the fact that that’s not the case for all the protesters.

“In the streets, you see people from across the political spectrum,” she said.

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