“The Velvet Revolution” – Tel-Aviv Style 2023
At the beginning of February 2023, the first demonstration took place in Tel Aviv. It was organized to protest the government’s intention to change the judicial system and consolidate the three powers into a single power controlled by the government. This event marked the beginning of a movement reminiscent of the historic demonstrations that have shaped our nation’s past.
My story about revolutions, big crowd’s perseverance and impact began on September 25th, 1982, when hundreds of thousands of Israeli ‘Peaceniks’ gathered in Tel Aviv’s central square, ‘Kings of Israel,’ to express their opposition to the Israeli government-led military campaign in Lebanon and the tragic massacre that had occurred just a week prior. This monumental protest remains the largest in Israel’s history. Although it did not halt the Lebanon War or prevent casualties, it sent a powerful message to the government that a significant portion of the nation stood against its policies and was ready to fight for change.
Regrettably, I was not present in the square that day. I was in New York, working as an associate producer for ABC News. I followed the developments of the Israel-Lebanon war through American television reports, Israeli newspapers, and radio broadcasts. I felt a sense of remorse for not being part of that momentous protest, as it left a void in my personal and professional experience. However, it fueled my determination to participate in and report on future significant events that shape our world.
Fast forward to the last two months of 1989. Central Europe, the Soviet bloc was bubbling on the brink of upheaval. A pro-democracy movement started to mobilize people in these countries that had been behind the “Iron Curtain” since the end of World War Two.
Reports from Prague indicated that the young Czechs and Slovaks drew inspiration from other events that had happened a month or two earlier in Central Europe behind the Iron Curtain. The people of Prague believed that change was possible without bloodshed. The regime transitions in Berlin and Sofia had occurred peacefully, igniting hope for a similar outcome in Prague.
When I embarked on an assignment for NBC News to cover the growing civil protests and demonstrations in Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, the city was experiencing its own wave of change, inspired by the spirit of the “Prague Spring”, the failed attempt to bloc the Soviet Red Army invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The Czech citizens, gathered in their own ‘Kings of Israel’ Square, Wenceslas Square, and called for the resignation of the Communist president and setting a democratic government. This non-violent three-week protest would later be known as the Velvet Revolution.
When I was asked whether I could enter Czechoslovakia, an Eastern Bloc country that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel, with just my Israeli passport, without a visa, I confidently responded that the winds of change were blowing and that my passport stamp would be a testament to it. I was determined not to have another gap in my professional and personal history. With a sense of audacity and determination, I made my way to Prague International Airport, via Frankfurt, ready to be part of a world-changing event.
Onboard the connecting flight from Frankfurt to Prague only journalists and media crews eager to capture the unfolding revolution. While everyone hurried off the plane upon landing, I cautiously made my way through the airport, aware of the uniqueness of my situation. Walking up to the passport control counter, I mentally rehearsed the answer to the inevitable question of the Passport Control officer; what an Israeli citizen carried an Israeli passport was in a country with no diplomatic ties.
To keep the story brief, I successfully passed through passport control, joined forces with the local NBC driver, and spent the next three weeks documenting the Velvet Revolution. By the end of December 1989, the power of the masses had brought about profound change. Democracy was born in the square, forever altering the reality and lives of the Czech people.
During the years since 1989, there have been so many times I have asked myself why a gathering of the masses to bring about change was not happening in Israel. It did work partially in 2011 with a nationwide social & economic protest, but since then, all prices went up a short time after.
There was never another nationwide attempt to protest the occupation, or the segregation of women. Not too many came out to support equal rights for all citizens regardless of their faith, or to protect other minority groups, as was inscribed in the 1948 Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel. People just didn’t bother going out to demonstrate.
I had to wait another thirty or so years to see my prayers and hopes materialize. Well, we have not achieved the change yet, but the first seed of a country-wide protest movement was planted and broke out with a roaring sound.
On a rainy Saturday evening in early February 2023, I found myself among approximately 20,000 passionate Israelis who gathered in Tel Aviv’s “Culture Square.” We were driven by a shared concern and determination to protest the government’s proposed changes to the judicial system, which threatened the democratic structure painstakingly built over the last 75 years. Our aim was to protect the power of the people and ensure that the Israeli High Court of Justice could continue safeguarding our democratic principles.
Israel has been in a continuous political turmoil since its election campaign in 2021. After numerous rounds of voting, PM Netanyahu managed to put together a coalition of 64 out of 120 parliament members by gathering all those who support a more conservative approach to governance, emphasizing national security, traditional values, and free-market policies. Their actions or policies have been criticized for their impact on Israeli Arabs, the segregation of women, and the LGBTQ+ community, reflecting a conservative or right-wing approach that prioritizes traditional values and societal norms.
As we stood united in our cause, we couldn’t help but draw parallels to the unsettling transformations that had occurred in Poland and Hungary just two years prior. It served as a reminder that democracy requires constant protection to prevent erosion.
At the forefront of this endeavor to reshape our judicial system was a hard-core right-wing justice minister. From that Saturday evening onwards, I made a personal commitment to attend the weekly gatherings, joining like-minded individuals who shared a profound belief in the importance of preserving our nation’s core values. Just last weekend, we marked the 24th consecutive week of these gatherings, a testament to our unwavering dedication.
Standing among the passionate crowd, chanting slogans, and holding signs, memories from a different revolution surfaced in my mind. It transported me back 34 years to that pivotal moment in history, in Prague, reminding me of the power of people coming together to effect change.
Next week it will be the 25th week since the beginning of the “Fight for Democracy”! We have not yet succeeded in bringing about the change we wished for. Times have changed since 1989 when three weeks of mass gathering were enough to overthrow a leadership in Prague, Berlin or Bucharest. Forty years later, with a modern propaganda well-oiled machine operated by the government and its supporters and proxies – using social networks to spread “fake news” – it will probably will take longer, maybe even much longer to achieve the goal of restoring and guaranteeing free democracy. And until then, we will be there in the squares all over the country, until we guarantee a safe future here for our grandchildren.