Date night at the protests
For the past five weeks, for the first time in our 34 years of marriage, my husband and I have had a weekly date night. Unfortunately, we haven’t been going out for dinner, going to the movies, or sitting and schmoozing with friends. We’ve been standing with Israel’s High Court of Justice at weekly judicial reform protest rallies.
We’re not actually the rallying type. Early in our marriage, we stood in the cherry orchards of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel with our toddler in his stroller, and protested the Jerusalem municipality’s plans to build a housing complex there (we lost). Soon after, we found ourselves outside Jerusalem’s city hall, whistles in hand, protesting an Ottoman tax that would wipe out three years of our savings in order to sponsor sidewalks for our street in Talpiot (we lost then too). In the years since, we’ve written letters, appeared before committees, and posted blogs, but have avoided situations in which we would find ourselves part of a chanting mass.
The proposed judicial overhaul in Israel, though, has changed that. The sweeping proposals that are being enacted forcefully, with breathtaking speed, while leading legal experts, political scientists, think tanks, economists, and Israel’s former attorneys general warn of their potentially devastating effect on Israeli democracy, have pushed us to brave the elements, leave our comfort zone, and join the Saturday night vigils that have been taking place throughout the country.
On most Saturday nights, we park at the Jerusalem Theater and walk to the nearby President’s Residence. There we stand shoulder to shoulder with Israelis from the political left and right (admittedly, more “left” than “right”), all of us bound together by concern for civil rights and for Israel’s future as a liberal democracy. While only four percent of “religious” Israelis — people who defined themselves as “religious Zionists” until recently, when the term was appropriated by an extremist political party — have been found to be protesting the judicial reform, in Jerusalem, the percentage seems to be much higher, with many kippah-wearing men and women with head coverings in attendance. In fact, the social experience of the first weeks of the protests felt remarkably like a “kiddush” after synagogue services on Shabbat, just without the food, or “hakafot shniyot” after the holiday of Simchat Torah, just without the Torah scrolls and dancing circuits.
Outside the President’s Residence, we have learned to chant. Accompanied by pots and pans, cowbells, snare drums, whistles, and vuvuzelas, we intone ditties about “de-mo-crat-ya” and “dic-ta-tu-ra” (the former being desirable and the latter anathema), exhortations apprising Justice Minister Yariv Levin that we don’t want to be like “Polin” (Poland, an illiberal democracy that conveniently rhymes with “Levin”), and jingles that include forced rhymes with “Hungariya” (another country with a system of government that should not be a light unto our nation). As older, discerning protesters, we weigh each chant carefully, deciding whether or not we stand behind it, and only repeating the ones that are true to our beliefs. We feel particularly silly when called upon to raise three fingers and sing a song about Israel’s three branches of government that is patterned after a Purim song about a three-cornered hat; were it not to have these three branches, we sheepishly sing, it would not be our country.
The first time we attended the Jerusalem rally, we went emptyhanded, while those around us brandished homemade signs, many with biblical verses related to justice, and the occasional flag. On our second foray out, we attached a large Israeli flag to the only flagpole we could find — our red mop stick. Instantly, it branded us. As we left our building, there was no possibility that we were simply going out; we were protesters. It struck me that over the years, I’ve attached the Israeli flag to my home and to my car, but have never carried it myself. I never wrapped myself in blue and white in the death camps of Poland, or marched with an Israeli flag on Jerusalem Day. Now, for the first time, I carried my flag with pride and determination.
The Jerusalem protests are organized by a grassroots organization called “Shomrim al Habayit Hameshutaf – Protecting our Shared Home.” Its tag line is “right and left against the destruction” and its rallies are distinguished by a long, inflatable red tube symbolizing the red line that the proposed reform has crossed. Speakers at the rallies have included Shaul Meridor, a former treasury official and son of Likud prince Dan Meridor, a left-wing Jerusalem district judge, and a law student who introduced himself as gay, traditional, and somewhat right in his political views. Former ministers from the left, right, and center have made guest appearances at the protests, but in the crowd, not on the grandstand. The rhetoric at the events is moderate, measured, and respectful.
During the third week of the protest, we camped out in our son’s apartment in Tel Aviv for Shabbat in order to attend the huge Saturday night protest in that city, something that we cannot usually do because of the impossible logistics of getting there on time from our home in Jerusalem after Shabbat ends. For us veteran Jerusalemites, being in Tel Aviv on Shabbat felt like vacationing in a foreign country. The only Orthodox people in the building, we rigged the front door with electrical tape so as to be able to bypass the electrical buzzer when coming and going. Walking toward the beach in the afternoon, I passed families on bicycles, and every third person seemed to be walking a dog. As I reached the boardwalk, the key in my pocket made me aware of a thin line of wire between lampposts — the “eruv” that I could not cross, lest I carry from one domain to another on the Sabbath. I walked along the promenade in my Shabbat bubble, longing to walk along the water, but unable to do so because of the Shabbat restrictions that shape my life. I was part of the people around me but isolated nonetheless.
On Saturday night, we shouldered our flag and set out towards Kaplan Street. Throngs of people were headed to the same place, reminding us of the streams of people from all sides of Jerusalem who flock to the Old City in the wee hours of Shavuot morning for morning prayers at the Kotel, after a whole night of learning. But these people were carrying signs and flags. Wearing a toga and wreath, one was carrying a “Bibius Caesar” sign, with a picture of Prime Minister Netanyahu. A row of LGBTQ activists held pictures of the MKs of Bezalel Smotrich’s “Religious Zionist” party and of Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party drawn wearing drag, above the question “What are you afraid of?” The tone of the Tel Aviv protest was certainly different than the one in Jerusalem.
Soon we found ourselves in a sea of flags. All around us, members of the Zionist left were reclaiming their flag, which they seemed to have abandoned over the years, ceding it to settlers who raised Israel’s blue and white flags at outposts, and to yeshiva and seminary students who danced with them through the alleys of the Old City on Jerusalem Day, sometimes entering into conflict with the local Arab residents. The sight was exhilarating. As we stood for a moment of silence for the victims of the Friday night terror attack outside a synagogue in Neve Yaakov in Jerusalem — Orthodox Jews far removed from the Tel Aviv scene — the bubbles separating the different people around us burst. We were all one.
But not completely. The kippah and headscarf wearers sought each other out, as they often do at such events. “Shavua tov,” one man nodded to my husband. “Shavua tov,” I said to a woman holding a “Religious. Democratic. Zionist.” sign. “Where are you from?” I continued. “Tel Mond,” she answered. “This was the first week that the bus from our community waited for the Shabbat observers before it left.” Secular Israelis sought us out as well. “Kol Hakavod! Good for you!” said an older man, who looked like he might have served in the Palmach, to my kippah-wearing husband, who was dressed in his white Shabbat shirt and holding an Israeli flag. “Can I ask where you’re from? And why you are here?” a woman around my age asked me, taking in my beret and telltale long skirt. We chatted and discovered that our concerns for our children and the future of our country are very similar.
Walking through the Tel Aviv protest with markers of our religious observance was an opportunity to remind those around us of the traditional role of “religious Zionism” — that of a bridge between the sacred and the secular, between tradition and modernity, and between “Jewish” and “democratic.” It affirmed for those around us that Orthodox Jews also embrace the values of democracy and are concerned about the weak and the oppressed. As the somber speeches concluded, rivulets of protesters started marching toward home in different directions. One of the marchers alongside us was holding a bubble-blowing machine. On we marched, appropriately accompanied by a steady stream of popping bubbles.
Back at the Jerusalem protest the following week, we braved the rain, our umbrellas making a colorful canopy alongside the inflated red line. A week later there was a cold snap, so many of the protesters in the inclement weather were wearing hats or hoods. Now you could no longer distinguish between those who were covering their heads for religious reasons and those covering their heads for warmth. We were all one, chanting our chants and singing our songs. Once again, we stood together in silence in memory of the victims of a Friday terror attack, this one in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot. As Rabbi Yirmi (Jeremy) Stavisky of Jerusalem’s Himmelfarb High School took the stage, affirming the principles of justice and equality, and proclaiming in the clear, strong voice of a modern-day prophet that placing limits on the power of political leaders is a principle found in the Torah, we were all united by deep values that stem from the wellsprings of our tradition. (Hebrew video follows.)
This week, I joined Monday’s mass protest at the Knesset. Standing on a hill between the High Court and Israel’s parliament, I looked down at a sea of Israeli flags. Amid the blue and white flags were pride flags, purple and pink flags, occasional black flags, and even the flag of “Hungariya.” Drums thumped, horns blared, and chants of “DE-MO-CRAT-YA” filled the air, as indecipherable voices of Knesset opposition leaders wafted by from a bandstand unseen. Tel Aviv had come to Jerusalem, and so had the towns and cities of the periphery.
People of all types were there, women and men, young and old, of all ethnic origins, united by their concern for the future of Israel’s liberal democracy and civil rights, and haunted by the specter of corruption. They identified themselves as army veterans, women’s rights activists, academicians, teachers, high-tech professionals, doctors, members of Israel’s gay youth organization, and yes, as religiously observant Jews, standing either as individuals or in groups, brandishing printed and homemade signs, one more clever than the next. They stood in support of their parents and grandparents, their children and grandchildren, and all those terrified by the possible consequences of an unbridled judicial overhaul.
As I headed back to work, inching my way through the thrumming crowd, I heard a father telling his young daughter about the workings of democracy. For the first time in weeks, I felt a glimmer of hope. Israel’s President Isaac Herzog had just called for dialogue and compromise and the turnout at this protest was massive. Perhaps the overhaul process will slow down, I thought, and enable a broad consensus to be reached. Perhaps a measured reform will be adopted, redressing weaknesses of the existing system while preserving necessary checks and balances, for the good of all the peoples of Israel. And who knows? Now that date nights have become part of our weekly routine, perhaps sometime soon, when my husband and I park at the Jerusalem Theater on a Saturday night, it won’t be because we are going to a protest outside the President’s Residence, but because we are going to a show at the theater.
As in Tel Aviv, there was a protester with a bubble machine at the Knesset demonstration. As the rivulet of people that I was in streamed away from Israel’s Parliament and High Court, chatting and chanting its chants, a burst of glistening bubbles floated up over the flags around me, past a cluster of rainbow-colored helium balloons, and up to the blue winter sky.