Protest leader vows not to let coalition ‘take democracy away,’ predicts its collapse

Physicist Shikma Bressler, who has become a leading face of the anti-overhaul rallies, warns of choice between ‘tyranny’ or system ‘that will ensure our liberal democratic values’

Shikma Bressler, a leader of the protest movement against the government's judicial overhaul, arrives with bodyguards at the weekly protest in Tel Aviv on September 30, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Shikma Bressler, a leader of the protest movement against the government's judicial overhaul, arrives with bodyguards at the weekly protest in Tel Aviv on September 30, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

AFP — An Israeli physicist who has become the face of a wave of anti-government protests warns that her country risks falling under “tyranny” as the hardline government pushes through its contentious judicial overhaul.

Shikma Bressler, 43, has led passionate weekly street rallies that have become Israel’s biggest protest movement in years, ever since the divisive legal reform agenda was unveiled in January.

“Israel is taking the track of becoming a tyranny,” the mother of five told AFP amid the movement’s battle with the hard-right coalition government of veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It means there is someone who is interested in being a tyrant.”

In an interview in Jerusalem, she argued that “if Israel follows this track, we will no longer be Israel in the way you and I and the people may think about Israel.”

Netanyahu’s administration, a coalition of his Likud party and extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, insists the sweeping legal changes are needed to rebalance powers between elected politicians and the judiciary.

Anti-overhaul activists protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on August 5, 2023, with a sign likening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to crime boss Pablo Escobar. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The proposed reforms have deeply split Israel’s Jewish majority, with opponents arguing they are in a fight to defend the country’s liberal and democratic identity.

As tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Tel Aviv and cities across Israel, some coalition members have called in recent months to shelve several proposals or soften the reforms.

In July, lawmakers approved the first major element of the overhaul, limiting a clause that had previously allowed judges to rule on the “reasonableness” of government decisions.

Bressler spearheaded a multi-day march ahead of the parliament vote, a defining moment for the protest movement.

‘Fragile democracy’

Critics argue the “reasonableness” amendment restricts judicial oversight of executive power and could pave the way for more authoritarian rule in a country that has no constitution or upper house of parliament.

Bressler said that, in the long term, the government “can go against our will, as they did in July.”

“But they are doomed to collapse because you cannot force decisions on the vast majority of your people who are against it, unless you decide to use violence against them.”

The government argues the proposed reforms are inherently democratic as the coalition was elected by Israeli voters. But Bressler argued that the ballot box mandate “doesn’t give it the right to take democracy away.”

“In Israel, we have no checks and balances… like others,” she said, “so our democracy is very, very fragile.”

Thousands of Israelis march along a highway towards Jerusalem in protest of plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, near Abu Gosh, July 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Nearly 225 pieces of legislation have been proposed in parliament to steer Israel away from its core democratic identity, Bressler argued. “What we see here is a structured process.”

“It takes advantage of Israel’s internal conflicts and problems,” she said, drawing parallels with democratic backsliding in other countries including Poland, Hungary and Turkey.

She insisted the protest movement now has wider support than the coalition, a claim backed by recent polls that show falling support for the Israeli government.

Opponents accuse Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges which he denies, of trying to use the legal overhaul to quash possible judgments against him. He rejects the accusation.

‘We cannot go back’

Bressler, a professor who runs a lab at the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science, said she had little to do with politics until 2020, and that her first passion remains particle physics.

On a personal level, Bressler said she wants to be able to return to a normal life with her family, but also stressed that “we have no other country to go to.”

“We must win so that we have a normal home to get back to, nothing beyond this. But apparently, it is not guaranteed at all.”

Protest leader Shikma Bressler speaks to reporters during a protest against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Her activism started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Netanyahu ordered courts to shut amid a nationwide lockdown — a move critics saw as an attempt to delay his corruption trial.

Along with her brothers, Bressler drove in a convoy to Jerusalem, urging Israelis to join, a campaign that swiftly turned viral on social media.

“Back then I was shouting ‘Democratia!’ [democracy] like the way you hear now on the streets,” said Bressler.

The current situation is far tougher, she said: “We cannot go back. We can only move forward from this point.”

Israel has a choice, she stressed: “Either a dark road that ends up in tyranny… or to create a much stronger system that will ensure our liberal democratic values for generations to come.”

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