Several thousand people came out Saturday night to rally outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem against the “Jewish state” bill proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
The bill, if passed in to law, would enshrine Israel as the Jewish nation-state and ensure national self-determination and individual rights for Jews, but only individual rights for non-Jewish citizens.
Channel 2 News reported Saturday night that Netanyahu, fearing a collapse of his coalition, decided to not present a harshly worded version of the “Jewish state” bill for a first Knesset reading this Wednesday, as had been scheduled, but will instead present his own softened version of the bill to the cabinet on Sunday and to the Knesset for a first reading in the week starting December 7.
With polls showing Netanyahu Likud’s and other right wing parties enjoying the support of the majority of Israeli voters, a sense of urgency compelled backers of Labor, Meretz, Hadash and Peace Now to come out to protest the proposed “Jewish state” bill, as well as recent calls by right-wing politicians and activists to change the status quo on the Temple Mount.
“I’m skeptical about the strength of the left, but that is what made me feel I had to come out tonight,” said Sharon Rosenfelder of Jerusalem.
“I’m not sure that we can change anything, but we have to have to keep trying. Sitting at home is not going to help anything,” said Jerusalem resident Hila Peleg, who attended the rally with her husband and young children. “Israel is on the edge. This is our chance to make a change,” she said.
Peleg’s sentiments that this is a do-or-die moment for the left, and for the country as a whole, were echoed by many of the rally’s speakers.
“Now is our great test,” former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid told those gathered. “If we stand, the left will strengthen. If we don’t, the left will disappear.”
“If Israel will not be democratic, it simply won’t continue to exist,” he added.
According to Sarid, a former minister of education, this is not the time for moderation. With the government having made a sharp turn to the right, he said the left must cut further leftward as a counterbalance.
In an impassioned speech, Meretz MK Issawi Freij spoke of de facto discrimination he and other Arab Israelis suffer, and of his anger that Netanyahu wants to turn this discrimination in to law.
“At least we have held on to the hope of equality that is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Bibi is taking this hope away from us,” Freij said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
“After Bibi goes after the Arabs, he’ll go after you too. The ‘Jewish state’ law is a green light for fascism,” Freij warned the Jewish left wingers in the crowd.
Freij was not the only speaker to make harsh and ominous accusations against Netanyahu.
Former Shin Bet director Carmi Gillon warned that together, the “Jewish state” law and attempts to change the status quo on the Temple Mount could destroy the state of Israel.
“The first will eat up the state like a cancer, and the second will bring about Armageddon, a war of the Muslims against all the Jews, for whom Israel is responsible,” Gillon said.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On pointed out that the rally was taking place on November 29, the 67th anniversary of the UN vote to partition Mandate Palestine, which led to the creation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
As she spoke of Jerusalem sitting on a powder keg and the prime minister’s leading the country in to a religious war, word spread through the crowd that Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand bilingual (Hebrew and Arabic) school had been torched and covered in anti-Arab graffiti.
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg claimed that, contrary to common perception, the country is not moving rightward. The “Jewish state” law and other right wing laws proposed by the Netanyahu government are all just a smoke screen, a cynical ploy by a prime minister under pressure to make coalition deals with right-wing parties to stay in power, she said.
“The right-wing government is on its last legs,” Zandberg proclaimed as the crowd chanted “Bibi, go home!” over and over.
As disenchanted as Jerusalemite Hila Peleg is with Netanyahu, she is realistic about the chances of his actually being forced out of the prime minister’s residence in front of which she stood.
“Unless a real leader steps up and leads Israel, then things aren’t going to change,” she said.
And who might this leader be?
In Peleg’s opinion, it’s not actually someone from the left. She’d like to see Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, of the centrist Hatnua party, take the reigns.
“If she would be serious about sticking to her beliefs and principles and not playing politics, she’d be the one,” Peleg said.