The right-wing rally that brought 200,000 people to Jerusalem’s streets on Thursday night to support the government’s judicial overhaul felt strangely familiar.
In many ways, it resembled the anti-government protests that it was meant to oppose: like the weekly demonstrations that have filled Tel Aviv’s streets this year, it featured lots of Israeli flags, chants to the tune of “Seven Nation Army,” and signs declaring that the rally represents the majority of the country.
And, like the protests in Tel Aviv, the march in Jerusalem was motivated by resentment: a sense that the country for which the rally-goers had fought — the country they thought they had — was being taken away from them.
“Listen carefully because this is my promise: We will not give up,” stated the far-right finance minister, Bezalal Smotrich. “We will not give up trying to make Israel a better place to live.”
We will not abandon the Jewish state. … We’re repairing what has to be repaired and guaranteeing a better Israel for ourselves and future generations. The majority of the country feels that judicial reform is the proper and necessary thing to do for Israel, and I repeat: “We will not give up.”
The question of who is in the majority on this issue is more nuanced than it appears. According to polls and election records, Israel’s electorate has enjoyed a right-wing majority for years.
But polls also show that most of the country opposes the court reform itself, which has been pushed through the Knesset without any support from opposition parties or even engagement with their concerns.
The central motivation of the anti-overhaul protests has been the importance of defending democracy and an independent court system.
That idea vexed Thursday’s protesters. “We won’t give up on Israeli democracy, and no one will steal that word from us,” Smotrich said. Yariv Levin, the justice minister and architect of the judicial overhaul, said, “Two million Israelis, half a year ago, voted in the true referendum: the elections. They voted for judicial reform.”
Protesters who spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency backed the overhaul’s features, which include granting the ruling coalition a substantial amount of authority over the judicial selection and allowing the Knesset to overturn most Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority.
Observers from across the political spectrum and worldwide have expressed concern that the changes could harm Israel’s democratic character.
Protesters, on the other hand, said that, rather than destroying democracy, the revision would restore balance to Israel’s branches of government by reining in a too-aggressive judiciary.
The governing coalition would not be required to follow the Supreme Court’s decision under the proposed legislation.
The rallies’ message was not the only thing that distinguished them from those in Tel Aviv, which primarily drew secular Israelis.
While few haredi Israelis attended the rally — an essential haredi publication advised its readers not to go, despite its support for the cause – religious ritual suffused the protest.
On their approach to the rally, men gathered in prayer quorums before sundown, and rallygoers repeated the Shema and customary prayers for salvation in unison.
The majority of the males wore kippahs, and the majority of the ladies wore long skirts.
Some placards at the Tel Aviv rally urge for LGBTQ rights in addition to opposing the change.