At least 70,000 people rallied in Jerusalem on Monday as part of a nationwide strike to protest the government’s plan to impose radical, sweeping changes on the judiciary.
While organizers said 100,000 demonstrators gathered in the capital, independent estimates put the figure at 70,000-90,000.
Train stations across the country were crammed as demonstrators tried to reach the capital. Israel Railways added several trains to Jerusalem to deal with the demand, but bus companies did not increase service despite the expected influx of protesters.
Hundreds of tech startups, law firms, and other private sector companies allowed their employees to join the nationwide strike, with buses to bring them to the capital.
Thousands more drove to Jerusalem in their own cars and the main entrances to the city were backed up as people tried to enter.
A group gathered at the Western Wall for a short prayer service before walking to the Knesset for the rally. The few dozen demonstrators recited prayers — including the prayer for the State of Israel — and sang songs while waving Israeli flags and pride flags.
While thousands of doctors and mental health professionals joined the strike, the Histadrut Labor Federation representing public sector unions did not.
Thousands of parents and students marched in Tel Aviv, blocking major thoroughfares in the city for a number of hours. Dozens of elementary school principals in Tel Aviv had said they would allow both children and teachers to strike.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid addressed the protesters in Jerusalem, many of them carrying Israeli flags, and vowed “we will not stay quiet as they destroy everything that is precious and sacred to us.”
“They hear us, and suddenly discover that we’re not ready to play the game the way they planned it. We’re not here just to pay taxes,” Lapid said, addressing the hardline government made up of right-wing, far-right and Haredi parties.
“What they hear here from this place isn’t the voice of exhaustion, it’s the voice of hope… it’s what makes our voice clear and loud,” he said.
“People of Israel, we will fight in the streets, we’ll fight until we win,” Lapid said.
National Unity leader Benny Gantz told the protesters that “we won’t let society collapse from within and Netanyahu, you are destroying it.”
“I want to tell you, Netanyahu. You’re not the whole nation and you endanger the nation,” Gantz said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Tel Aviv during the protests, holding talks on the state budget.
“Don’t give up — continue, continue, continue. We have no other choice and ‘no other country,’” Gantz told the protesters, concluding with a line from a popular protest song. The same song had been sung earlier in the day by opposition lawmakers at an ill-tempered Knesset committee session on advancing the legislation.
Meanwhile, Labor chair Merav Michaeli reiterated her opposition to holding negotiations with the coalition over the latter’s proposals to overhaul the judiciary.
“Unfortunately, the word ‘negotiation’ is a trap,” Michaeli said at a joint press conference held by Zionist opposition party leaders. Michaeli accused the coalition of “trying to cause us to silence the thousands” who are protesting the reform plan, “by using the word ‘negotiation’” as a false enticement.
She pledged to expand the protests until “justice” is secured, adding that “we won’t let them take our democracy.”
Eliad Shraga, whose Movement for Quality Government watchdog has been one of the organizations most vocal in the protests, told The Times of Israel that he does not expect change to come from the Knesset.
“The only help will come from the heroes in the Supreme Court,” he said.
Also among the protesters was former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, who said he feared the government’s judicial overhaul plan would turn Israel into “a country that I wouldn’t want to live in.”
While clarifying that he will not leave Israel, nor does he encourage others to emigrate, Pardo said that he thinks the sweeping reform package would move Israel toward “dictatorship.”
“We are betraying our basic values” as outlined by the Declaration of Independence, the former spy chief says. Defending these values has “cost a lot of blood, a lot of soldiers,” he added.
One protester said Israel was “experiencing the biggest threat since the Yom Kippur war” in 1973.
“I have been to a number of protests on Saturdays in Jerusalem and today I feel Tel Aviv has come to Jerusalem,” said David, 73, a family therapist from Jerusalem who has been in Israel for 50 years, originally from Cincinnati in the US.
“Enough or a lot of pressure will be needed from the local population and from overseas and the high-tech sector to change what is emerging. As a first, it would be good if everyone accepted [President Isaac Herzog’s] proposals.
“I’m worried about general corruption, civil rights in Israel and the democratic system,” he said. “What country are we leaving for our grandchildren? We didn’t come to Israel for this.”
Two workers from Ichilov Medical Center in Tel Aviv said they were protesting in the hope that it would “stop the madness.”
“We were allowed and even encouraged to go to the strike in Jerusalem. We decided to take the train while others from the hospital were supposed to get to Jerusalem on buses,” one of them told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We hope to make a change to stop this madness,” she said, standing in the crowded train.
“I am worried for the future of my three grandchildren. It will be a dictatorship like Hungary or Poland,” said Etty Pass, 74, from Ramat Gan.
The Jerusalem protests and concurrent protests in other cities coincided with the legislation’s first rounds of committee voting in a stormy session that saw a number of opposition lawmakers physically removed from the room.
The panel advanced the legislation a day after President Isaac Herzog issued a rare plea for deliberation and compromise on the plan and offered a five-point proposal for negotiations on the judicial shakeup.
Herzog warned in his televised address that the country was on the brink of “societal and constitutional collapse” and urged proponents of both sides to refrain from violence, particularly against public servants and elected officials.
For his part, former defense minister and protest leader Moshe Ya’alon said he found Herzog’s compromise proposal “disappointing.”
Moments before stepping onto stage to address the Jerusalem protest, Ya’alon told The Times of Israel that Herzog’s Sunday evening address failed to anchor the conversation in the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
“It was disappointing. I think the president… needs to say that our guiding principle is the Declaration of Independence.” Ya’alon also said he was “against negotiating” with the coalition, which he said “brushed them [opposition leaders] off.”
The legal overhaul, advanced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and backed by Netanyahu, would grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a majority of just 61 MKs.
Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms would undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.
Netanyahu and other coalition members have dismissed the criticism.
Judah Ari Gross and Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.