Yesterday was not an ordinary day for me. I took part in a historic event as I joined 100,000 others on a fateful trip to Givat Ram in Jerusalem. I did not go out of enjoyment, but rather, out of what I felt was a sense of personal and national obligation. The Israel I knew and had fought for, for years, is in danger.
Minister of Justice Yariv Levin’s and Justice Committee Chair Simcha Rothman’s Judicial Reforms threaten to turn the Israel I grew up with into something it’s not. For years, as Suicide Bombers exploded buses during the Second Intifadah, a knife initifadah, and rocket wars since, there was always the defense that Israel is a strong democracy with an effective court system. If there were abuses happening, Bagatz, or the Israeli Supreme Court, upholding its own version of a bill of rights from a Basic Law from 1992 would intervene. It sometimes did it excessively, but was a defense against censure. Israel can be kept in check because it has a strong court system defending its democratic values including those of human rights.
This system of government is now in danger. The “reforms” if brought to fruition, as they are now, rushed through parliament, would largely strip away the power of this High Court. The court will not be able to intervene in almost anything and would be diminished, becoming an effective puppet of the stronger Knesset. The Court, while imperfect, protects us from government overreach, something that many current Members of Knesset want to override. It was a cause too deep to keep quiet. Growing up in Canada, we are used to having a constitutionally defended Bill of Rights. Israel as of yet, does not have something as entrenched. To override the court means to override human rights, something that can be very worrying.
President Isaac Herzog had gone on national prime TV the day before, imploring the sides to negotiate before a societal collapse would happen and released a five-point plan of his own. Would anyone listen to what this symbolic leader had to say? This was on the minds of many.
The day started on an absolutely packed train to Jerusalem. I boarded the train at Tel Aviv University Station, and even there, despite being only the second stop, it was packed. Finding a corner next to a group of chairs, I huddled with others who passed the time singing songs, as us herded like sardines, raced to the Capital. Forty minutes later we arrived.
At first the mood of the city appeared calm and subdued. However, as I approached Givat Ram from Central Station the number of flag bearers increased by the block. By the Foreign Ministry and Cinema City the roads started becoming blocked and was suddenly surrounded by a sea of Blue and White everywhere I went. The increase in density of the crowd continued the further toward the Knesset one went until there was blue and white as far as the eye can see. Israelis of all walks of life: the young, the old, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, a few kippas were also spotted among the protesters. It felt as if the whole nation was together, a sense of unity rarely experienced in today’s day of age with the notable exception of Haredim and Arabs which didn’t seem to be involved at all. Besides Yom Haazmaut (Independence Day) felt a rare sense of unity with streams of people that had one thing in common: they were all Israeli Jews.
For two hours, chants of “Democracy!”, “No to Dictatorship” and various slogans saluting Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut as a woman of valor and signs comparing Israel to Poland and Hungary were said among the crowd. People came for various reasons. While some came for the affinity for left causes many others were worried about the country and its future. “Where will Israel be when our rights are taken away”, one woman said. “Will this be a good country for my grandchildren to live in?” another pondered. Politicians started to speak to the crowd on loudspeakers. Moshe Ayalon began with condolences for recent terror victims and then proceeded to talk about his fight to prevent Israel from becoming a dictatorship. However, outside of the festive atmosphere it became time to turn back. Three hours after it started I found myself on my way back.
Passing by Mahane Yehuda market on the way out to buy a few items, Israeli flag on a pole in tow, the sights and smells of the market were on rich display. Here also, there were flag bearers walking through. However it soon became apparent that there was a change in the surroundings. “What are you doing in my store with that flag”, a store clerk asked me. “I am here to buy a few items”. “Why are you not at the protest?,” she responded. “I took a break to go buy a few things”. A religiously garbed woman whom was nearby then turned to me sharply, “Everything is alright here, you guys bring shame to our country”. “We are wanting democracy, not dictatorship,” I responded to her. Switching to English she responds in a tone almost shouting. “You are the dictators, go back to America, we are the land of the real Jews!” Paying for my items, the store clerk turned to me in passing “You have your items, now get out of the store, you aren’t welcome here!” “We are all under Hashem, may he have the final say,” I said, leaving the store to response of inaudible curses. A police officer went into the store moments later, and everyone said the situation is under control.
Rumors of civil strife between Jews had long been a fear from many, including family from abroad. Here I was experiencing a form of it first hand. As someone whom did PR for Israel during the Second Intifidah and experienced antisemitism personally and saw the meaning of a State of Israel, was left stunned. As mentioned by others whom have covered the protests, the entire range of Israel’s political spectrum was represented. So to suddenly feel targeted left one thinking about the warning of civil strife.
As I left back home toward Gush Dan, taking secondary buses to avoid the overly packed Tel Aviv route began thinking of whether the changes would make any difference at all. Some have told me, “what possible difference can you make? You are one out of many millions.” I responded that even a “small ripple” can have an impact. Yes, maybe no change will come out of it all, but at least I was not silent when my heart screamed inside, with hundreds of thousands of others, to protest.
The answer came hours later when suddenly, both Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman seemed to have a change of heart. They were willing to sit down to discuss the plans without preconditions and without delay at the President’s residence! For once, and in a sentiment shared by others, maybe there was hope that the chaos would end? Perhaps ripples added up did create a big enough wave for others to listen?
As of time of writing the sides have yet to actually sit down and bridge their differences. However, the experience in Jerusalem seemed to exemplify both the beauty of unity and the constant threat of civil strife we experience. It is my hope that the sides will negotiate and that we will all remember that at the end of all of this we are still all one nation and have only one homeland to call our own.