(JNS) The “March of the Million” near the Knesset in Jerusalem on Thursday evening may not have hit its target (organizers say 600,000 attended; police say 200,000), but it succeeded in putting to bed opposition claims that Israelis are united against judicial reform. It also provided much-needed backing to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s beleaguered government.
Supporters of reform have been slow to respond to months of protests against it, which have forced the coalition back on its heels, leading Netanyahu to pause the process and enter into negotiations with the opposition under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog.
Those favoring reform worry that the result will be a watered-down version of the legislation. Among the crowd’s chants at the rally: “Stop being afraid” and “We don’t want compromise.”
ההפגנה הכי גדולה שהיתה רפורמה תהיה pic.twitter.com/In0sgFYDe3
— avisaban (@avisaban10) April 27, 2023
Of the many politicians and right-wing figures who addressed the assembled, the biggest cheers went to the chief architects of judicial reform: Justice Minister Yariv Levin of Likud and Knesset Member Simcha Rothman of the Religious Zionism Party, who chairs the parliament’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
“Over two million Israelis voted six months ago in the real referendum: the election. They voted in favor of legal reform,” Levin declared. “We are here on this stage with 64 mandates to right an injustice. No more inequality, no one-sided judicial system, no court whose judges are above the Knesset and above the government.
“We are told that if the reform passes there will be a dictatorship. There is no bigger lie than that. Show me a single democracy in which the legal advisers decide [government policy] instead of the government,” Levin said, adding to cheers, “I will do everything in my power to bring the desired change to the judicial system.
“If someone were to tell me a few years ago that in 2023 there would be such a broad consensus in Israeli society for the need for judicial reform and that the situation today isn’t democratic, I would have told him he was delusional,” Rothman said. “Correcting the judicial system is my life’s mission and I will continue to promote it in every way.”
Likud MK Avichay Boaron acted as master of ceremonies. “The purpose of the demonstration is to remind and demand from our elected officials in the government and the coalition that the people want judicial reform, that the people are behind them, that the people give them strength,” he said.
Netanyahu, who didn’t attend for security reasons, tweeted, “I am deeply moved by the tremendous support of the national camp that came to Jerusalem this evening en masse. All of us, 64 mandates that brought on our victory, are first-class citizens. You warmed my heart very much, and I thank each and every one of you.”
אני מתרגש עמוקות מהתמיכה האדירה של המחנה הלאומי שעלה הערב לירושלים בהמוניו.
כולנו, 64 מנדטים שהביאו את הניצחון, אזרחים סוג א׳!
חיממתם את ליבי עד מאוד ואני מודה לכל אחד ואחת מכם 🇮🇱❤️ pic.twitter.com/xgrdnJCbuy
— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) April 27, 2023
Twenty-nine NGOs sponsored the protest, foremost among them Tekuma 23, an NGO founded by political activist Berale Crombie together with Boaron. Its mission is to build support for judicial reform in the wake of the protests against it.
The pro-reform rally was different in tone from its anti-reform counterparts, which are grim affairs with warnings of pending dictatorship, clashes with police, solemn torchlit marches and women dressed as Margaret Atwood-inspired handmaids with heads lowered.
This rally was boisterous, resembling a giant block party. Music pumped through large speaker systems. Protesters danced and sang. Strangers backslapped one another. It was festive. The optimism was palpable.
Encountering Herzl Hajaj of Choosing Life, a forum of Israeli terror victims and bereaved families, JNS asked him to explain the difference.
“The right is always happier,” he said. “There’s a lot of money driving the left’s protests. The folks who make all the noise and confusion do it for a payment. People here have left work. They came from Eilat, Metulla, Dimona because their hearts are with this government.”
Another notable difference was the age of the protesters. At Thursday’s rally, youth was the rule with thousands of teens in attendance. Young families with infants were not uncommon.
Israel’s right argues that the Supreme Court turned activist starting in the 1990s under then-Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who orchestrated what he termed the “Constitutional Revolution.” The government says its judicial reform program seeks to fix the problem that has grown with the years and restore the balance of power between the three branches of government.
Rothman told JNS earlier in the week that for the opposition the protests aren’t really about judicial reform but a clash between two visions of what Israel should be, a secular state on the lines of Denmark, or a Jewish state deeply connected to its particular religious and cultural traditions.
If such is the case, the young teens chanting “Rothman” at Thursday’s rally symbolize opponents’ fear that demographics are against them. They see the Supreme Court as a check on right-wing ascendance, which explains their determination to defend its power.
Reformers are just as determined to drive through changes to the court, which they say rules according to a left-wing, globalist worldview.
Hajaj said, “Bereaved families, victims of terror, are here because the Supreme Court plays a big role in undermining deterrence against terrorists. They give them rights that no other country gives them. And we paid with the blood of our children. And the citizens of Israel will continue to pay with their blood until we change this.”
JNS also met Lt. Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch, director of legal strategies at Palestinian Media Watch, who served in senior positions in the IDF Military Advocate General’s Corps.
“What brings me here is the understanding that the legal system has to change. I was part of that ecosystem for 20 years. I was an assistant district prosecutor. And I understand that the legal system as it is today has completely failed,” he told JNS, highlighting the self-selection process that goes on in the judicial system and precludes a diversity of views on the bench.
“We have members of the Bar Association appointing judges, lawyers appointing their friends to be judges with the assistance of Supreme Court judges, ensuring that they only appoint lawyers who are the same as they—in their image. Nothing changes. There’s only one way of thinking,” Hirsch said.
Im Tirtzu, an NGO and one of the rally organizers, organized street theater highlighting the Supreme Court’s power. It featured people lined up in orange prison jumpsuits, representing a nation imprisoned by the court’s rulings. Each carried a sign with a different ruling: “The Supreme Court requires National Insurance payments to terrorists,” “The Supreme Court rejected petitions against the building of illegal mosques on the Temple Mount,” “The Supreme Court prevents the removal of illegal [aliens] even when they’re violent.”
One protester wearing a mask of current Supreme Court President Esther Hayut held a stick with which he pretended to threaten and beat the uniformed protesters should they get out of line.
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