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.
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.
ככה נראה עם ישראל!
מחר נהיה כבר מאות אלפים, עם ישראל עולה לרגל ❤️✊???????? pic.twitter.com/6IzsQn9cuu
— Moshe Radman Abutbul משה רדמן אבוטבול (@RadmanMoshe) July 21, 2023
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.
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.
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.
שבעה חודשים, מאז תחילת המאבק המופלא שלנו לא בכיתי.
עד הבוקר pic.twitter.com/HrFlP12Gkj
— yayafink (יאיא פינק) (@yayafink) July 21, 2023
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.
“Jewish and democratic, democratic and Jewish, this is my Judaism,” Fink tweeted.