May 20, 2024
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What Is Really Happening At the Israel Protests: An Eyewitness Report

There have been many reports and videos coming out of Israel regarding the civil protests opposed to the current plans for judicial reform that have been taking place since the beginning of January. Are the protesters in Israel destroying society or saving society? Are they loyal Zionists or stubborn malcontents who cannot accept the recent election? Do they not understand the specifics of judicial reform? Are they as violent as certain politicians and news publications are alleging?

I had the privilege of spending this past Pesach in Israel and stayed approximately 50 meters from Beit HaNassi (the official residence of the President of Israel), which is a frequent site for protests. People have been gathering to voice opposition to the proposed judicial reforms every Saturday night for almost half a year. Interested in seeing what was happening for myself, I walked out of our apartment on Saturday night of Chol Hamoed and spent a few hours observing a hafgana (Hebrew for protest). What I saw was very different from the stories we have been hearing in the press.

I estimated the crowd to be about 5,000 people, of which about 5-8% percent were wearing kippot. These protests were smaller than previous ones because the government has put the plans for judicial reform on hold in an attempt to negotiate a compromise, largely because of the uproar the plans have caused.

I offer a very basic explanation of the nature of the protests for context. Unlike the U.S., Israel has very few systems of governmental checks and balances. They have no constitution and only a unicameral legislature fully controlled by a coalition government. The only real check on any governing coalition is the judicial system. In recent decades the court has made rulings that have given them incredible power. A majority of Israelis would like to limit the power of the Supreme Court to create a more appropriate balance.

The current ruling government has proposed a plan for judicial reform that severely weakens the judiciary. Those opposing this plan are fearful that the plan, if enacted, would remove any system of keeping a ruling government in check. This is what protesters mean when they argue that the plans are threatening the democratic system in Israel.

Upon reaching the protest, the first sight I observed was a sea of white and blue. Israeli flags were being waved everywhere as citizens showed their love for their country. People were very friendly and welcoming. I walked up to numerous people to ask questions and they all responded warmly and openly.

The roster of speakers was clearly devised to reflect the diversity of the opponents to the reforms and included a 10th grade girl, a religious Zionist former member of Yesh Atid, a Haredi woman, and a number of secular Israelis. There were some comments made by protesters with which I disagreed. I also recognized that some of the speakers made comments with which, I assume, many of the protesters likely disagreed.

For example, one Haredi woman who was given the platform made the argument that Israelis should all “live and let live.” She explained that she does not want to dictate to others that they must keep Shabbat, the same way they should not dictate to her that she must go to the army or be forced to leave yeshiva and work. The crowd was respectful and heard her out. The entire protest was very peaceful. There were a few instances where someone tried to heckle a speaker and everyone would scream out “busha” at them, which means “shame on you.”

One of the protestors told me that the protests in Jerusalem tend to have a different flavor than those in Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem protests tend to be more diverse in terms of leadership, population of protesters and nature of speeches, with more of a focus on achdut. The Tel Aviv protests tend to focus more directly on the issue of government reform and also tend to exhibit stronger opposition to the current government.

Another protestor shared a dilemma with me common to many of the protestors. The nature of these protests is that they are open to all. As such, most of the protesters come from more mainstream segments of society, but there are also those whose views are further on the periphery. Those on the extremes can reflect badly on the entire protest, especially when local and American press highlight these extremes.

I saw many examples of this at the protest. Approximately 15 young men and women were protesting “the occupation” with a loud drum circle. This group was disruptive to the program and was directed by the police to move outside the main protest area. There were also four or five young men holding signs saying “left wingers are traitors” being monitored carefully by the police. I spent some time at the following week’s hafgana (demonstration), and saw more protestors from what I would describe as the extreme right. They, too, were being carefully monitored by the police and were heckling other protestors with nasty comments. I also saw a handful of signs promoting specific agendas that didn’t have anything to do with the protest, like one with a rainbow flag or one that was anti-Haredi.

Another characteristic of the hafgana was the use of songs to create energy and set a tone. Most of the songs tended to be upbeat and positive like “Ani VeAta.” At one point the crowd sang “Avadim Hayinu,” and everyone seemed familiar with the lyrics — a reminder to me that the word “secular” is not a completely accurate description of hiloni Jews. After all, a significant majority of the protesters had a Seder of some type days earlier.

I saw another example of the unique aspect of the hafgana that reflects on the nature of Israel earlier that evening. I was davening Saturday night Maariv at a shul across the street before the hafgana. A number of police officers who were already preparing by putting up barriers walked into shul to join us for Maariv. A few more joined us at the end, asking if we had made Havdala yet. Following Havdala they all returned to their work.

The singing of “Hatikvah” at the end of the program was particularly powerful. Five thousand people, from varied segments of Israeli society, stood together at attention, singing emotionally and in unison. I was struck by how Zionistic this protest was, in sharp contrast with many protests around the world that tend to protest not just against the government, but against their country.

As I walked away from the protest I noticed a number of young yeshiva bochurim engaged in an intense, but incredibly respectful, conversation with some of the secular protestors. I walked away encouraged that the Jewish people can still find ways to live and build together in the land of Israel for the sake of klal Yisrael despite our differences. I pray that the politicians presently working on a compromise solution are willing to listen to each other and devise a plan that has wide support among the Israeli population.

Rabbi Daniel Alter is Head of School at The Moriah School. He lives in Bergenfield.

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