Protesters rallied across Israel Saturday evening as part of ongoing demonstrations against the government’s contentious judicial overhaul, with the Knesset set to reopen for its summer session on Sunday, raising the possibility of a renewed push to pass the explosive bills to radically curtail the judiciary.
Israeli company Crowd Solutions estimated that around 200,000 people were gathered at the main protest in Tel Aviv, Channel 13 news reported. Another 30,000 were estimated to be gathered in Haifa, 18,000 in Kfar Saba and 16,000 in Netanya, the company said. Rallies were held in dozens of other locations around the country. Organizers claimed 430,000 participants nationwide.
At the main rally on Kaplan Street, demonstrators announced that they would ramp up protest activities on Thursday, marking it as “national equality day.”
“On that day, the protest movement will fight for equality in service of the state and in economic contribution, and for all those who are financially harmed by the government’s actions,” the organizers said, referring to plans by the government to exempt all ultra-Orthodox men from mandatory military service.
“The days in which one side serves the state and also finances the yeshivas, while [the government] tries to establish a halachic (religious law) dictatorship here, are over,” the protest movement added.
The main rally in the coastal city featured speeches by former Supreme Court Judge Yoram Danziger and Nobel Prize winner for chemistry Aaron Ciechanover.
A short video address by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who is also the president of the Socialist International organization, was screened at the rally.
“Dear Israeli friends, we as Socialist International have always fought for freedom, equality, justice and democracy. Yet as many of you already know, these are values that we cannot take for granted and that we have to promote and defend on a daily basis,” Sanchez said.
“As such, now, as always, the Socialist Internationalist stands in solidarity with the people of Israel. Dear friends, you will always find us in the fight for democracy,” he added.
השבת ה-17 להפגנות | ראש ממשלת ספרד פדרו סנצ'ס בסרטון שהוקרן בפתח המחאה בתל אביב: "תמיד תמצאו אותנו במאבק על הדמוקרטיה". עם תחילת ההפגנה, הודיעו המארגנים על החרפת המחאה ביום חמישי הקרוב | עדכונים שוטפים >> https://t.co/ZjS4Ujgvnp@hadasgrinberg @daniel_elazar @YoavYoavkrak pic.twitter.com/YsjX5Kf1Eo
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) April 29, 2023
Amid the rally in Tel Aviv, police said officers detained five people for attempting to enter the Ayalon Highway and block traffic.
Other rallies were taking place at around 150 locations around the country.
Speaking at a rally in the central city of Kfar Saba, opposition leader Yair Lapid railed against Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who has been leading the overhaul push.
“The person who declared war on the Supreme Court cannot be, and will not be, the person who appoints the next president of the Supreme Court,” Lapid said.
National Unity head Benny Gantz, also a key member of the opposition, said it was “unacceptable” that a justice minister “who is supposed to develop and strengthen the [judicial] system, attacks and incites against it.”
“The fight is about the image of the country and not just about the legal reform. We will not let extremists from either side take control of the country,” Gants added in a speech during which members of the crowd shouted “no to talks.”
The call was a reference to compromise talks currently taking place between the hardline government and the opposition, with no major progress on the eve of the opening of the Knesset’s summer session where coalition lawmakers could pass key parts of the judicial legislation at any moment.
Protesters have been gathering for nearly four months against the hardline coalition’s plans to overhaul the judicial system, bring most judicial appointments under government control and curb the oversight powers of the High Court of Justice.
Seventeen weeks in, the protest has become a family affair for several regulars. Yigal arrived with his three-year-old son Noam, who he said is too young to understand the full significance of the event, but enjoys spending time with his father.
“Where are we?” Yigal asked Noam, who proudly replied, “Protest!”
“Maybe he gets something, he said to me, ‘Who is Bibi?’ and I explain he’s the prime minister. We talk about it at home,” Yigal said.
About a hundred anti-occupation activists claimed corners of the Tel Aviv protest, waving Palestinian flags and signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Among the group was 92-year-old Dafna Kaminer, who arrived in a wheelchair with a care worker to protest. “It’s important to me, that I can still do something,” she said.
Kaminer waved off criticism that integrating anti-occupation stances within the anti-overhaul protest pushes away some Israelis who otherwise would have supported the protest and confuses the message.
“The occupation is even more important” than the current judicial debate, she said. “We’ve got to get rid of it someday.”
Holding signs with “Fuck the patriarchy” and “Fucking politics and gender roles,” a self-organized group of 12 and 13-year-old girls staged their own protest amid the crowd on Kaplan Street.
Alma, 13, said she was protesting because “I’m sick of what’s going on in the country and had to do something about it.”
“I want to have choices as a woman,” she said, alluding to fears that a weakened Supreme Court would no longer protect gender equality in the face of religious coalition parties. “I don’t want to live like that,” Alma added.
קפלן עכשו. pic.twitter.com/Au26fousXj
— Ruthy Even Ofir (@EvenRuthy) April 29, 2023
Saturday’s demonstrations, held for the 17th weekend in a row, came after a week that saw large rallies from both opponents and proponents of the overhaul.
On Thursday, some 200,000 supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government packed the streets around the Knesset in Jerusalem, staging their largest rally yet aimed at providing the coalition with public support for its plans, in light of widespread opposition at home and abroad.
At that rally, Levin declared that the “the nation voted for a judicial reform” and that the coalition was puit in power “to correct the injustice.”
“No more inequality, no more one-sided judicial system, no more court whose judges are above the Knesset and above the government,” he declared, employing longstanding talking points of the pro-overhaul camp, and downplaying opinion polls that have consistently shown a collapse in support for current coalition parties.
During his speech, the crowds booed at each mention of the Supreme Court.
Before the right-wing rally, participants were filmed walking on a massive banner with the faces of Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, former chief justice Aharon Barak, former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit and former state attorney Shai Nitzan, alongside slogans against them.
It was unclear whether this was intentional or whether the banner had been briefly placed on the ground before being later lifted by activists as they marched near the Knesset.
היתה אמש הפגנת כח מרשימה של הימין אבל הצילום הזה של מפגינים דורכים על התמונה של נשיאת בית המשפט העליון אסתר חיות, שרצה בכל העולם, מזעזעת ותרדוף אותם עד הקלפי. אומרים שתמונה אחת שווה אלף מילים- כאן תמונה אחת מסבירה יותר מכל הסבר מלומד אחר מה טיבה של ההפיכה המשטרית. שמעתם גינויים? pic.twitter.com/fDggt4tcUM
— arik bender (@arikbender) April 28, 2023
In his speech Saturday, Gantz said: “We respected the right to demonstrate of those who think the reform is right, but in no way did we respect the words of incitement and lies and the shameful conduct of trampling on pictures of judges.”
Gantz on Friday slammed Levin’s speech on Thursday, saying the remarks called into question the coalition’s commitment to reaching a consensus on judicial reform as part of the ongoing negotiations.
Saturday’s protest organizers also slammed the “severe incitement” on display at Thursday’s Jerusalem rally, which they said “included the shocking scenes of [posters of] the Supreme Court judges being trampled on, is reminiscent of regime demonstrations by the ayatollahs in Iran,” protest leaders said, apparently referring to Iranian rallies which often feature Israeli and American flags being trampled on.
Last month, after facing massive pushback, Netanyahu agreed to temporarily pause the overhaul to allow time for negotiations with opponents of the legislation.
During the recess, coalition and opposition representatives have been meeting at the President’s Residence to discuss the possibility of a negotiated change to judicial power lines. No tangible progress has been reported to date.
The Knesset is scheduled to return from its month-long recess on Sunday. A key overhaul bill that would put judicial appointments under political control has passed nearly all legislative stages and is ready to be passed within days, if the coalition so desires.
Analysts and commentators believe the coalition will not advance any of the legislation until the passage of the state budget, which the ruling bloc must do by May 29 or face automatic elections.
Critics say the overhaul, which will shift much of the judiciary’s power into the government’s hands, will make Israel a democracy in name only, shielding leaders from accountability while leaving minority rights largely unprotected and subject to the whims of Netanyahu’s hard-right government. Proponents say the changes are needed to rein in what they see as an overly activist court.
Polls have consistently shown that the legislation is broadly unpopular in its current form, and that support for the government has dropped since the election.