It wasn’t planned. I was on my way home from an exam (on Israeli Government and Politics, no less), and I was supposed to take a train from the Tel Aviv HaShalom station. That’s how I accidentally found myself attending a huge pro-judicial reform protest. Me, one of the few remaining “leftist” voters in this country.
At first, I didn’t even realize it was a protest supporting the reforms. The scene seemed all too familiar, resembling the many anti-reform demonstrations that have been taking place for months at the same location — just a sea of Israeli flags engulfing the area.
But then I noticed a Likud flag, and started reading the signs that people were holding, and only then, I noticed the people themselves. It was an entirely different population. A stark departure from the usual anti-reform gatherings, this protest was characterized by a substantial religious presence, a mosaic of ethnicities, and a surprising number of underaged participants, many of whom appeared to be unsupervised.
“The people demand judicial reforms,” they chanted. I was intrigued.
As a student of communication and political science, I instinctively pulled out my camera to document the event. It felt like I was going undercover. Would I be welcomed here? As long as I didn’t have the word “leftist” branded on my forehead, I figured I was safe.
People didn’t seem to mind that I was photographing them. On the contrary, most protesters welcomed the lens, often smiling and striking poses. I smiled back as I pushed my way through the crowds trying to take it all in.
Amid the whirl of activity, I noticed a commotion near one of the stages and realized that it was the press area — a designated space where journalists and photographers had set up their equipment to conduct interviews and cover the protest. This commotion was mainly due to the blatantly right-wing Channel 14 (Now 14). They were the main attraction on that stage; the other media teams were just background decoration.
I headed over to the front and saw that Now 14 was streaming live as their loyal viewers chanted “Rak 14!” (“Only 14!”) Their journalists had their backs to the protests but occasionally they would turn around and acknowledge the people, causing the crowds to go wild.
The energy in the air was palpable. Passionate emotions emanated from every direction — euphoria and frustration intertwined, each protester a fervent advocate for their cause. Flags waved vigorously, obscuring my view of the stage, and the air reverberated with slogans and noisemakers, creating a sensory overload.
And we were all sweating. Summer in the Middle East is no picnic even when there aren’t thousands of passionate people pushing up against you.
At one point, two young boys who were standing directly behind me started yelling “Smolanim Bogdim!” (“Leftist traitors!”), a startling depiction of innocence tainted by divisive beliefs. They looked like they were 8 years old at the most, but they insisted they were 13 and proudly showed me their bar mitzvah photos. If only they had known that these so-called traitors were among them.
Paradoxically, just moments later, a very kind and generous man (who also didn’t realize I was a “leftist traitor”) offered me a bottle of water. It was a surreal moment, but much needed and greatly appreciated.
Later, I watched a few kippah-wearing holy Jews confront a LiveU photographer who was trying to make his way to the press area. They yelled at him something like, “You don’t belong here. People who don’t belong here shouldn’t be photographing the event.” That was my cue to start wrapping it up.
As I headed back to the train station, I realized that this was only the beginning. The sun was just starting to set and crowds were still arriving in droves. Meanwhile, I read on the news that masses of people were simultaneously attending an anti-reform protest near the Knesset in Jerusalem.
Aerial photos capturing both protests were being shared online and other than their location (Tel Aviv vs. Jerusalem), they looked exactly the same. I saw hundreds of thousands of proud Israelis on both sides who claim they care about their country and care about “democracy.” Yet, the stark contrast between the two camps was undeniable — a nation cleaved into opposing halves, each perceiving the other as the embodiment of evil.
In that moment of tension and unity, as darkness wrestled with light, the question lingered: Who would emerge triumphant in this ideological tug-of-war? Unfortunately, I was becoming increasingly convinced that there are no winners among us, only losers.