The “pro-judicial-reform” rally in Jerusalem Thursday night was meant to appear as a mirror, or counterweight, to the anti-reform demonstrations that have been taken place weekly – sometimes nightly – for the past four months. “Look,” coalition ministers said, “we have large numbers of people on our side too!” And news commentators added, somewhat disingenuously: “Both are anti-government, one side against the elected government coalition, the other against the Supreme Court.”
But make no mistake, aside from the flag-waving, there is a substantial, disturbing difference between the two movements.
The anti-reform-crowd began spontaneously, coalescing around a kernel of “black-flag protesters” from the previous protests against Bibi’s continuing reign while under indictment. As time went on, others joined or jumped on the makeshift stages, money for signs and flags came in, and ex-military and army reservists, among others, become the faces of the protests. But most people are encouraged to show up merely by their own personal outrage at the proposed legislation and the way the far right-wing of the coalition has hijacked the country. They are torn between encouragement by the participation of so many others and the panicked feeling that their government has lost any sort of rational oversight. They have lost their voice in the halls of the Knesset; they insist on reclaiming their voice in the streets.
It’s true that the sight of people at the barricades raises the specter of anarchy – a specter that has been inflamed to the point of either terror or inanity by the right. But over dozens of demonstrations, there have been no sightings of scary, bomb-throwing anarchists. In fact, many of those with socialist, anarchist or other leftist tendencies have found themselves putting aside their aims in joining with the pro-democracy mainstream to struggle against a common foe. The only weapons deployed have been the police water canons and shock grenades, the only non-police violence, aside from noisemakers, has been on the part of the few anti-anti-reform demonstrators who have mostly been sidelined by efficient police blockades.
They have lost their voice in the halls of the Knesset; they insist on reclaiming their voice in the streets
Thursday’s rally, in contrast, was in organized and funded by coalition parties, addressed by coalition members, and held in support of the current government. It’s true that many of those attending have a beef with the Supreme Court, specifically its upholding of the civil rights of minorities like Palestinian citizens of the state, LGBTQs and converts missing the proper orthodox credentials. Some are angry at the protesters on the other side, casting them as sore losers in the election sweepstakes. Instead of savoring the fruits of their win, these right-wing fans are watching it tear the country apart, and it feels unfair. They even claim we have made them into “second-class citizens,” a ridiculous, unfounded slogan, but hey, nothing brings out crowds to rally like the feeling of victimization.
If you looked at the drone images, you would see identical pics of hordes of flag wavers as far as the eye can see, blocking roads in all directions. Still the sight of this crowd raised a different specter in my eyes. Stepping on pictures of the faces of Supreme Court justices was a call for violence on this side of the divide, and I fear for the brave justices who continue to stand for democracy. I was thankful that Netanyahu did not attend, because the sight of tens of thousands of raised fingers and chants of “Bibi! Bibi!” would have signaled to me a pivotal point in the end to democracy and the rise of dictatorship. There were many in Thursday’s crowd who would prefer a king to democratic institutions; a totalitarian government would give them the strong leader they desire.
There were many in Thursday’s crowd who would prefer a king to democratic institutions
Meanwhile, the judicial reform bill – along with new legislation proposed by Ben Gvir that is so patently racist it begs the rest of the world to boycott Israel – is on track for voting when the Knesset reconvenes next week. The compromise talks in the President’s Residence are going nowhere, reportedly because there is no middle ground around the anti-democratic override clause, while the ultra-Orthodox are holding out for a blanket exemption from the army and the army strongly resists that proposal. Those of us who don’t want the legislation to pass will be pinning our hopes on a handful of Likud MPs, some of them also under indictment. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that they’ll grow a conscience – or at least a bit of forethought – at the last minute, just before the entire shaky edifice has its foundations whisked from under it.
Saturday night, anti-reform people will be demonstrating as though the apocalypse is just around the corner, as though their lives depend on it. And yes, we all have to ask ourselves: What happens the day after?