Gun-toting, prayer-reciting protesters throng Jerusalem to back judicial overhaul

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  April 28, 2023

Large numbers march on Knesset in biggest rightwing protest in Israel in nearly two decades.

More than 150,000 Israelis in favour of the government’s divisive judicial overhaul have taken part in a demonstration outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, in the biggest rightwing protest in the country in nearly two decades.

Protesters from all over Israel, as well as settlers who travelled in buses from the occupied West Bank, chanted “the people demand judicial reform” and danced and sang as the rally got under way at sunset on Thursday, sending a message before the beginning of the Knesset’s summer session next week. Exact numbers were hard to verify, but Israeli media reported between 150,000 – 200,000 people took part.

From a distance, the demonstration resembled those that have been held weekly against the judicial changes since the start of the year – some of which have drawn upwards of 120,000 people, making it the largest protest movement in Israeli history.

Pop music blasted over a sea of blue and white flags, and Thursday’s attenders, like those at the protests against the overhaul, also said they had come to “say no to dictatorship”.

But Thursday’s rare right-wing event, organized and funded by political parties and activists, had a more religious flavour, with people praying and reciting blessings.

Many men carried guns, and there were far more children than at the anti-reform protests. One group of young men brandished the rattlesnake Gadsden flag now associated with the Capitol riot in Washington DC on 6 January 2021.

“To all my friends who are sitting here, see how much power we have,” the far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said in a speech. “They have the media and they have tycoons who will fund the protests, but we have the nation.”

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did not attend, but used Twitter to thank the protesters, writing that “your passion and patriotism moves me deeply”.

Noham, a 30-year-old from the illegal settlement of Geva Binjamin in the West Bank, attended the protest with his wife, Elia, 25, and their two small daughters. He called the atmosphere “powerful”.

“We are praying for the reforms to happen. We can’t let a minority on the left impose themselves on everyone else,” he said.

After a brief stint in opposition, Netanyahu was re-elected in November 2022 at the head of a coalition of ultra-Orthodox and extremist rightwing parties.

The new administration’s planned reforms will limit the powerful supreme court’s ability to overturn laws, and give politicians more control over judicial appointments. Critics have denounced it as a transparent power grab.

A February poll commissioned by the Jewish People Policy Institute found that while 84% of Israelis believe the judicial system is in need of change, only one in four support the government’s proposals in their current form.

Many of those opposed to the overhaul say the public was jaded by five elections in less than four years triggered by Netanyahu’s corruption trial, and that they did not wake up to the prospect of the far-right in government until it was too late.

“I have many leftwing friends, and they say they are scared. They think the reforms will amount to a dictatorship,” said a 67-year-old woman from the affluent Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, who gave her name as Tzipi.

“There are some elements out there that think our votes don’t count. Israel is a very young country and I guess there is still a feeling that we are still in tribes of ashkenazi, mizrahi, religious, secular.

“At the end of the day we are one people. We unite in hours of trouble and war. We have to figure it out.”

Netanyahu was forced to announce a freeze to the judicial overhaul in late March, after wildcat protests and strikes in response to a decision to fire Yoav Gallant, his dissenting Defence minister, almost completely shut down the country.

During the month-long Passover recess, Israel’s figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, has mediated negotiations between the government and the opposition in hopes of arriving at a compromise.

The Knesset is set to reconvene on Sunday, but it is still not clear how much, if any, progress has been made.

With budget deliberations pending and the question of how to deal with a spike in violence with the Palestinians and Lebanon on the government’s agenda, some supporters of the changes fear the legislation could be kicked into the long grass.

“The supreme court has been an issue for a long time, it is corrupt and biased and makes us [right-wingers] second-class citizens,” said Mikhael, a 19-year-old yeshiva student from the settlement of Eli.

“The left wing have the right to protest; I think they still support the country. But they are living in an illusion if they think they are the majority.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Quique Kierszenbaum in Jerusalem