Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Meet the Israeli protesters resisting Netanyahu’s judicial reform bill

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A rally in Tel Aviv on March 18 (Ovir Berman)

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TEL AVIV – The protests that have rocked Israel since January – the largest continuous mass demonstrations in the country’s history – have been extraordinary not only in size but in composition.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have come out to protest the right-wing government’s plan to take greater control of the judiciary say they have never been regular protesters. They are teachers, tech workers, doctors and retirees, now joining the masses in jamming bridges and closing highways. Almost all of them wave Israeli flags, which is officially a hallmark of right-wing rallies.

Many of them come from the military and intelligence services, where public demonstrations are almost unheard of.

“I’m very careful with the word ‘unprecedented’, because most of the time in Israel there is a precedent,” said Dalia Scheindlin, a pollster and campaign consultant in Tel Aviv. “Not this time.”

Judicial reform would give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition of ultra-Orthodox and nationalist parties more power to select judges and override Supreme Court decisions.

The Washington Post spoke to protesters in Tel Aviv on Thursday to find out why they are on the streets.

Tahel Ilan Ber runs a biogenetics company in the coastal city of Herzliya, and is part of an explosion of technological innovation that has honed Israel’s reputation as a “start-up nation”. But she grew up in Jerusalem, the center of ultra-Orthodox life, and is attuned to the widening divide between religious and secular Israelis.

As the country’s right wing gained influence, Ilan Ber became more concerned about the growing dominance of fundamentalism in public life.

“We have political parties that prevent women from running,” she said.

Already, many communities will not allow public transportation to operate on Saturday, and some places will not allow men and women to attend events together.

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She said pressure to limit the Supreme Court’s ability to rein in the government would encourage the religious parties in the coalition to move forward. She does not want her children to grow up in a “theocratic” country.

“People from the high-tech world are not used to doing that,” she said of the mass protest. “But I want my daughter to be able to go to the same beach as her siblings.”

Batya Amir is a teacher in the town of Kfar Saba in central Israel. She immigrated three decades ago from Germany, where she was among those who stood at the Berlin Wall when it fell in 1989. She witnessed a society split in two.

“The East Germans told us there would be no barrier, and days later they rolled up barbed wire and there was a wall,” Amir said. “I feel like it’s happening here. It’s like we’re suddenly two countries.”

Her normally quiet town was unnerved by the government’s drive to weaken the courts. Some of her neighbors are considering leaving the country.

Amir has protested every week since the movement began, hoping to prevent a wider split.

“We don’t sleep well,” she said. “I want to be here. I am Jewish, and I love this country.”

David Shalita draping the Israeli flag on his shoulders. He is one of thousands of demonstrators wearing or waving the national flag — many of them shimmering like a blue and white layer of clouds over the crowd.

“This is everyone’s code, not just the right,” said Shalita, a retired animator who lives in the ancient port city of Jaffa.

Shalita does not usually feel the need to show patriotism. He was an active duty and reservist for over 25 years and a paratrooper in the Golan Heights in 1968. He and his wife Brava have been out demonstrating weekly, sometimes more, because he fears for the democracy he has defended with his life.

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Their three sons have long careers in the military, and they have all been publicly opposed to judicial reform. His only daughter married into an Orthodox family and moved to Jerusalem.

They are still close, he said, but “now we don’t discuss politics.”

Before the judicial reform was announced three months ago, the closest Asaf Gutman had come to demonstrating experience was taking part in a gay pride parade. But now he takes to the streets several times a week, calling for a halt to judicial reform he fears will remove protections for minorities, including the LGBTQ community.

He said, “I am terrified of an Israel where a small majority can revoke all our rights.” “It would be kind of Roe v. Wade A coup that happened in the United States, but on steroids here in Israel.”

Gutman, 24, comes from a religious, right-wing family in the northern Israeli town of Ma’alot, where he says intolerance is growing. In schools, he said, they teach that “coming out of the closet is illegitimate. … If this reform passes, that is the direction this country is going.”

A graduate of the elite Military Intelligence Unit 8200 who now works as a data security expert for a lucrative tech company in Tel Aviv, he says he might leave Israel if a fix takes place. Many of his friends already.

“Either this,” he said of his decision to fight judicial reform, “or Canada.”

Eyal Ratzkowski has bigger things on his mind than homework and high school. He identifies as a Zionist who loves Israel, but believes that far-right settlers wield overwhelming power in government, threatening to exacerbate Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank.

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He said the recent Knesset decision to legalize several major outposts in the northern West Bank would encourage other settlers to build there and increase violent tensions with the Palestinians.

“It’s going to be hell,” Ratzkowski said.

He is still considering whether to serve in the military when he turns 18, a requirement for all Israeli Jews. He said he has fought for years against the occupation, and fears that the new legislation will make matters worse.

“It would be bad for everyone,” he said. “They’ll bring West Bank tactics here, so we can’t even fight it.”

Yedid Ben Zakkai has been granted a deferral of his mandatory military service to study Torah at a yeshiva in the southern Israeli city of Dimona, where many of his family and friends support judicial reform. But he is troubled by the deep social divisions it has caused.

“It pains me to know that it hurts so many people in the country,” he said. But the Supreme Court has not acted properly, for example, with regard to terrorism cases, they have left it very easily. The courts are left-wing, apparently.”

He said he views the Supreme Court as an elite minority group. But he also admits he doesn’t understand what comprehensive reform is about, or what impact it will have on Israel.

“I am here to start a conversation,” he said, “to prevent the division from widening.” I don’t want to think about the civil war. This is a very scary idea for me.”

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