Religious, settler groups lead charge on Thursday’s pro-overhaul ‘Million March’
‘The minority has forced its positions onto the majority,’ says organizer and Likud MK Avichay Buaron; buses set to bring tens of thousands to Jerusalem from around the country
Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter
Supporters of the coalition and proponents of the government’s far-reaching judicial overhaul program are gearing up for a mass demonstration in favor of the reforms on Thursday night in Jerusalem, which they hope will exceed in size the numerous and massive anti-reform protests staged over the last four months.
Notably, religious and settler activist groups and individuals are in the vanguard of the campaign, with two founders of West Bank settlements — one of them a Likud MK — having taken the lead in organizing the rally.
Some of the most senior members of the cabinet will speak at the event, including judicial overhaul architects Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chair Simcha Rothman, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party, and Energy and Infrastructure Minister Israel Katz, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not expected to participate.
“I need you,” Levin said in a short video circulated on social media on Wednesday. “We need everyone to come to Jerusalem tomorrow in droves to make sure a clear voice is heard in favor of the reform, in favor of real democracy, in favor of justice.”
The rally organizers are pitching the mass demonstration as a fightback by those who voted for the current government against the huge protest movement opposing the highly controversial reforms. The mass anti-reform demonstrations included growing refusal to serve by IDF reservists, labor strike actions and civil unrest, and led Netanyahu to freeze the legislation to allow for negotiations with the opposition on a potential compromise.
If implemented in full, the legislation would give governing coalitions almost complete control over judicial appointments in Israel, and drastically reduce the High Court of Justice’s ability to strike down legislation.
Proponents say the changes are needed to rein in what they see as an overly activist court, but opponents say the radical reforms would strip away almost all checks and balances from Israel’s system of government, eroding and potentially eliminating its democratic character.
Branded the “March of the Million” under the slogan “They won’t steal the elections from us,” organizers are hoping for upwards of 250,000 demonstrators and as many as half a million people turning out for the event.
The pro-overhaul movement is being led by the new Tekuma 23 organization, established by Likud MK Avichay Buaron, a religious resident of the Amichai settlement in the West Bank, along with Beraleh Krombie, a settlement activist, strategic communications adviser and Chabad Hasid.
Buaron and Krombie created Tekuma 23 following the protests against the overhaul, as a vehicle to organize support for that program.
The group was one of the key organizers behind a mass right-wing rally staged on March 27, which drew large numbers of religious Israelis and settlers, just hours before Netanyahu announced he was freezing the legislation.
Buaron is a long-time settlement activist and was a prominent figure in the fight against the evacuation and demolition of the illegal Amona settlement outpost. He helped establish the Amichai settlement created for Amona evacuees.
He previously established a Jewish outreach organization as well as the Lavie advocacy group, which was behind the High Court petition against the last government’s maritime border and gas deal with Lebanon.
Krombie is today a resident of Jerusalem but formerly helped establish the now-demolished Sa-Nur settlement in the northern West Bank. He has worked on election campaigns for the right-wing religious Jewish Home party and more recently the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party.
And several of the other organizations involved prominently in the organization of the rally are also notably religious or tied to the settlement movement.
The Sovereignty Movement of Nadia Matar, a veteran settlement activist who advocates for the annexation of the West Bank and the expansion of Israel to its Biblical borders, has energetically promoted the “March of the Million.”
The ultra-conservative religious-Zionist Chotam organization, which stridently advocates for deepening Orthodox control over public religious life in Israel, is also involved in the rally.
According to the organizers, as many as a thousand private buses are scheduled to depart from dozens of locations around the country for the rally in Jerusalem on Thursday.
Participants need to donate a minimum of NIS 10 for a spot on a bus, but a significant portion of the money is coming from donations through crowdfunding.
The main crowdfunding campaign for the rally has generated over NIS 1 million ($275,000), mostly through small donations, with a goal of reaching a total of NIS 1.5 million.
A separate campaign aimed at foreign donors has racked up $38,000 (NIS 137,000) in donations so far, where some donors have contributed sums in the thousands of dollars, including one anonymous contribution of $10,000 made by the “Likud community in Detroit” according to the crowdfunding website where the initiative has been created.
Organizers did not elaborate on whether there were other sources of funding, but noted that the individual participating organizations were making their own contributions.
Speaking to The Times of Israel, Buaron argued the “March of the Million” was necessary to demonstrate what he said was the widespread support for the government’s judicial reforms.
Like many on the right, he argued that liberals have captured the High Court despite the right-wing, religious political bloc having been in power for the majority of the last two decades, and that this liberal dominance of the judicial system had thwarted the will of the majority in many areas of policy.
“Citizens vote for a Knesset and a government that is right-wing, Jewish, and traditional, but the High Court stands in direct confrontation with the government because it simply thinks like the Israeli left,” said Buaron.
“The minority has forced its positions and politics onto the majority, and the majority is now saying ‘no longer, this can’t continue.’ We can’t live in a situation where there is a nationalist Knesset that cannot be faithful to its electorate and cannot implement a Jewish, traditional, nationalist agenda.”
Recent polls over the past few weeks have shown, however, that the legislation in its current form is broadly unpopular.
Buaron cited as a recent example of the High Court’s overreach its overturning earlier this week of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s decision to ban bereaved Palestinian families from entering Israel for a joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day service. He said the issue was one of “values” and that by reversing Gallant’s decision, the court was “crushing the will of the majority” through the “minority’s control of the judicial system.”
The court stated that it had previously reversed two similar decisions, including one by former defense minister and now strident opponent of the judicial overhaul Avigdor Liberman, when it ruled that the decision to ban the Palestinians lacked the appropriate balance of considerations and was “so unreasonable” as to justify court intervention.
“The court acts as the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary. The law determines how we can act, but our substantive values determine where the national will wants to take us, and the court should have no influence over this,” said Buaron.
Buaron rejected the notion that religious and settlement groups are leading the pro-overhaul protest movement, pointing to the heavy involvement of the right-wing but not religious Im Tirtzu movement, as well as the Mateh 64 umbrella organization of right-wing, pro-legal overhaul groups which is also neither religious or connected to the settlement movement.
“I have seen a lot of Likud activists around the country active in the pro-reform protests and the movement is now a very diverse protest with a lot of Mizrahi and religiously traditional people involved,” insisted Buaron, who is himself the son of Libyan immigrants.
But Shamai Glick, the head of a small, right-wing lobbying organization called Betzalmo which defines itself as a “human rights organization operating in a Jewish spirit,” is another prominent figure in the organization of the March of the Million rally.
Like Buaron, Glick bemoaned what he says is the failure of the right-wing, religious bloc to translate its electoral dominance into policy, and says that the government’s judicial shakeup, which is designed to change that situation, is now in danger due to the outsized influence of the electoral minority.
“The right wing woke up late in this struggle over the legal reform because the right-wing public saw there were 64 right-wing MKs (a majority in the 120-seat Knesset) and didn’t think there was a need to protest since its will could be easily implemented in the Knesset,” explains Glick.
The mass weekly mobilization of judicial overhaul opponents has created an atmosphere of broad opposition to the government’s program, which supporters of the religious, right-wing bloc are now seeking to change by initiating their own mass demonstration movement, he continued.
“If we can get large numbers of people to protest on Thursday we can show that the majority of the country is in favor of the legal reform,” argued Glick.
Unlike Buaron, Glick acknowledged that the driving force of the pro-overhaul movement comes from the religious and pro-settlement community, and that the majority of protesters in the March 27 rally were either religious or from West Bank settlements.
“Clearly, the setters and the religious community have greater ideological motivation; they are brought up and educated in such a spirit,” said Glick, who is himself religious and was brought up in an ultra-Orthodox family.
He also said it was materially harder to enlist to the protests the lower socioeconomic sector of Israeli society, which comprises a hefty wedge of the right-wing Likud electorate.
Glick said that taking time off work to rally was more difficult for the working-class, Mizrahi community than for those in more flexible sectors of the economy, and that since much of this electorate lives in the geographic periphery in northern and southern Israel, making the journey to Jerusalem is more difficult than traveling from the West Bank.
He also noted that the settlements are the frequent subject of High Court rulings, often against illegal settlement outposts and other illegal activity in the West Bank, and that the settlement movement as a whole has more skin in the game than other groups in supporting the judicial overhaul.
Indeed, a campaign video produced by Tekuma 23 and released earlier this week specifically highlighted High Court rulings ordering the demolition or evacuation of illegal settlements.
“We lived in paradise. There were 200 children in the settlement, daycares, kindergartens, a mikveh (ritual bath), synagogues, but at one stage the Peace Now and Yesh Din organizations came along and filed petitions to the High Court of Justice in order to evacuate the settlement [based] on some claim that the land [the settlement was built on] was private land or all sorts of things like this,” Itai Harel, a former resident of the now evacuated illegal Migron settlement said in that video.
Migron was indeed built on private Palestinian land and for that reason the High Court ordered the settlement be evacuated and demolished in 2012.
“The time has come to put an end to the violence of the High Court so that for once a right-wing government will be able to truly govern,” said Harel and other settlers in the Tekuma 23 video, urging the public to attend the rally on Thursday.
Tekuma has also boosted a call by leading religious-Zionist rabbis to attend the rally, as well as lauding a similar call by the heads of religious pre-military academies.
Still, Glick said that the working-class Mizrahi public is becoming more active in the pro-overhaul movement, and added that dozens of buses would be coming from the country’s more rural areas in the Negev and the Galilee, bringing thousands of protesters to the rally.
Efforts have been made to enlist the ultra-Orthodox as well, but Glick said the mainstream part of that community was unlikely to come out in large numbers since its leading rabbis have not endorsed the march.
Nevertheless, some of the more so-called “modern ultra-Orthodox” community will likely participate, said Glick.