Participants invoke Jewish tradition, Moses-led desert trek

As tensions boil, thousands of protesters march in self-styled pilgrimage to Jerusalem

Activists now on 4th day of their trek from Tel Aviv to the Knesset, an event at once combative and festive, as coalition prepares next week to pass first judicial overhaul bill

Marchers along Route 424 on Thursday evening, July 20 2023, on the way to Kibbutz Nahshon where they spent their third night during the march to Jerusalem. (Gitai Palti)
Marchers along Route 424 on Thursday evening, July 20 2023, on the way to Kibbutz Nahshon where they spent their third night during the march to Jerusalem. (Gitai Palti)

Thousands of demonstrators were continuing their march toward Jerusalem Friday in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul, planning to reach the capital prior to the Knesset beginning its final votes Sunday on the first bill of the package expected to pass.

The march has become the signature event of the protest movement since it began in Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening, at the end of the latest day of mass protests against the legislation. It will culminate on Saturday outside the Knesset, where organizers plan to set up tents and stay put for an indefinite amount of time, as the coalition readies to pass into law a ban on courts striking down governmental and ministerial decisions based on their “reasonableness.”

The total distance is some 60 kilometers (37 miles), with participants marching in limited sections every day, mostly in the mornings and evenings due to the intense summer heat, and camping out in tents at night.

On Thursday evening they gathered for their evening trek at Lehi Forest in 31°C (87.8°F) heat and walked some 6.5 kilometers (4 miles), sometimes on main roads and sometimes beside them, to Kibbutz Nahshon, near the Latrun Monastery. There they staged a nighttime “festival of democracy” featuring food, live music and a few speeches before settling down to for the night’s rest.

“The nation of Israel is making a pilgrimage in the hundreds of thousands,” declared Moshe Radman, perhaps slightly inflating the numbers of marchers (organizers claimed some 10,000 were taking part on Friday morning, though this could not be verified), but certainly not the numbers of Israelis backing them up. Weekly Saturday night protests against the legislative plan throughout the country have regularly drawn hundreds of thousands of people to the streets.

Before marching on Thursday, one older man joked that Radman, decked in a white headscarf, was a “Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses] of sorts” for the anti-overhaul movement as protesters filed toward their own hoped-for promised land — that of eliminating the judicial changes from the agenda.

Many of those taking part in the hike have come from across the country, often with their families in tow.

Anti-overhaul protest organizer Moshe Radman at the outset of the third day of a march to Jerusalem, at Lehi Forest, July 20, 2023. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

During Thursday’s march children, perhaps eight or nine years old, took to chanting on the grownups’ megaphones, yelling everything from pro-democracy slogans to denouncing the “government of criminals” and assuring the group that “as one bloc, we will win.”

Tel Aviv protest leader Shikma Bressler described the march as a “return to the sources” on Twitter, invoking Jewish tradition of periodic trips to the holy city that now serves as the country’s capital.

“The people of Israel are making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to stop the tearing up of the contract between the people and the government, and the start of the collapse of a Jewish and democratic Israel,” she announced in a video earlier this week.

At around 7:30 p.m. Thursday the march connected with the Route 3 highway, blocking its Jerusalem-bound lanes for a time during the day’s final stretch.

Unlike recent demonstrations that have at times descended into clashes with police, the march has been a largely serene affair. Participants have met very little opposition during their advance through the typically tranquil Ayalon Valley, which is host to only a few small kibbutzim. As they moved along the highway, a few disgruntled drivers passing by in the opposite direction flipped protesters off, but many of the passing cars also honked to the rhythm of the protest chants in a show of support.

Anti-overhaul demonstrators marching toward Kibbutz Nahshon on Route 3 on July 20, 2023, blocking half of the road. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

Not all protesters taking part in the march are doing the whole route. Organizers have laid out clear schedules for each day, enabling many to join in for certain sections. On Thursday as the marchers reached their evening destination at Kibbutz Nahshon, tents awaited those who planned to bunk down, along with tables stacked with food and drink brought in by volunteers.

Weary from the trek, many sat on blankets in a vast field in the center of the kibbutz. There the event morphed into something of a celebration as people kicked back with food and beer, waiting for speeches from protest leaders and other supportive public figures.

As activists spread out onto the field, the same few songs by Hadag Nahash and WC — bands that have aligned themselves with the Israeli center-left and touch on political themes — played on repeat.

An encampment at Kibbutz Nahshon at the end of day 3 of an anti-overhaul march to Jerusalem, leading into a ‘Festival of Democracy’ celebration featuring food and music, July 20, 2023. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

Among the evening’s speakers Amit Bechel, the newly elected staunchly anti-overhaul head of the Israeli Bar Association; Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist who is chairman of the country’s Association of Public Health Physicians; and former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.

“This one-sided legislation will unequivocally crush democracy,” Bechel said to the crowd. “We are fighting for the country, against the cancellation of the reasonableness clause — and of democracy.”

Israeli musician Ephraim Shamir, famous for his role in 1970s rock band Kaveret, burst onto the stage at around 11 p.m. to people chanting his name and closed out the night with a live performance of the band’s greatest hits.

The demonstrators were mostly secular, but a large group of them including Labor party member Yaya Fink prayed the tradition shacharit prayer on Friday morning, and afterward sounded the shofar before continuing on their way.

Activists conduct a morning prayer at Kibbutz Nahshon as part of the march to Jerusalem by anti-overhaul demonstrators, July 21, 2023 (Ronen Berman)

“Jewish and democratic, democratic and Jewish, this is my Judaism,” Fink tweeted.

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