Meet the Israeli protesters resisting Netanyahu’s judicial reform bill

A march in Tel Aviv on March 18. (Ofir Berman)


TEL AVIV — The protests that have rocked Israel since January — the largest sustained mass demonstrations in the country’s history — have been extraordinary not just in size but in composition.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have turned out to roar their objections to the right-wing government’s plan to take greater control of the judiciary say they have never been regular protesters. They are teachers, tech workers, physicians and pensioners, now joining the multitudes in crowding bridges and closing highways. And almost all of them are waving Israeli flags, formally a hallmark of right-wing marches.

Many come from the military and intelligence services, where public demonstrating is almost unheard of.

“I’m very careful with the word ‘unprecedented,’ because most of the time in Israel there is a precedent,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based pollster and campaign consultant. “Not this time.”

The judicial overhaul would give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition of ultra-Orthodox and nationalist settler parties more power to pick judges and override Supreme Court decisions.

The Washington Post spoke with protesters in Tel Aviv on Thursday to find out why they were in the streets.

Tahel Ilan Ber manages a biogenetics company in the coastal city of Herzliya, part of the explosion of tech innovation that has turbocharged Israel’s reputation as the “start-up nation.” But she grew up in Jerusalem, a center of ultra-Orthodox life, and is attuned to the widening split between religious and secular Israelis.

As the country’s right wing has gained influence, Ilan Ber has become more worried about the growing dominance of fundamentalism in public life.

“We have political parties that prohibit women from running as candidates,” she said.

Already, many communities won’t allow public transportation to operate on the Saturday sabbath, and some venues won’t allow men and women to attend events together.

The push to limit the Supreme Court’s ability to curb the government would embolden the religious parties in the coalition to go further, she said. She doesn’t want her children to grow up in a “theocratic” state.

“People from the high-tech world did not used to do this,” she said of the mass protest. “But I want my daughter to be able to go to the same beach as her brothers.”

Batya Amir is a teacher in Kfar Saba, a town in central Israel. She immigrated three decades ago from Germany, where she was among those who stood on the Berlin Wall when it came down in 1989. She has seen a society split in two.

“The East Germans told us there would be no barrier, and then days later they rolled out the barbed wire and there was a wall,” Amir said. “I feel like that is happening here. It’s like suddenly we are two countries.”

Her normally placid town has been unnerved by the government’s push to weaken the courts. Some of her neighbors are thinking of leaving the country.

Amir has protested every week since the movement began in the hopes of preventing a wider schism.

“We are not sleeping well,” she said. “I want to be here. I’m Jewish, and I love this country.”

David Shalita has the Israeli flag draped over his shoulders. He’s one of thousands of protesters wearing or waving the national banner — so many they shimmer like a blue-and-white layer of clouds over the crowd.

“This is the symbol of everybody, not only the right wing,” said Shalita, a retired animated-film maker who lives in the ancient port city of Jaffa.

Shalita normally feels no need to display his patriotism. He was an active-duty and reserve soldier for more than 25 years and a paratrooper in the Golan Heights in 1968. He and his wife, Brava, have come out to demonstrate weekly, sometimes more, because he fears for the democracy that he defended with his life.

All three of their sons have long careers in the military, and all have publicly opposed the judicial overhaul. His only daughter married into an Orthodox family and moved to Jerusalem.

They remain close, he said, but “now we don’t discuss politics.”

Before the announcement of the judicial overhaul three months ago, Asaf Guttman’s closest experience with demonstrating had been participating in a gay pride parade. But now he’s out on the streets several times a week, calling to stop the judicial overhaul that he fears will remove protections for minorities, including his LGBTQ community.

“I’m terrified of an Israel in which a small majority will be able to cancel all of our rights,” he said. “It would be a kind of Roe v. Wade overturn that happened in the U.S., but on steroids here in Israel.”

Guttman, 24, comes from a right-wing, religious family in Maalot, a northern Israeli town, where he says intolerance has been growing. In the schools, he said, they are teaching “that coming out of the closet is not legitimate. … If this reform passes, that is the direction this country is going in.”

A graduate of the elite 8200 military intelligence unit who now works as a data security expert for one of Tel Aviv’s lucrative tech companies, he says he might leave Israel if the overhaul passes. Many of his friends already have.

“It’s either this,” he said of his decision to fight the judicial overhaul, “or Canada.”

Eyal Ratzkovsky has bigger things on his mind than homework and high school. He identifies as a Zionist who loves Israel, but thinks far-right settlers wield outsize power in the government, threatening to aggravate Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank.

He said that the recent Knesset decision to legitimize several key settlement outposts in the northern West Bank will embolden other settlers to build there and increase violent tensions with the Palestinians.

“It will become hell,” said Ratzkovsky.

He is still deliberating whether he will serve in the army when he reaches age 18, a requirement for all Jewish Israelis. He has fought for years against the occupation, he said, and fears the new legislation could make it worse.

“It will be bad for everyone,” he said. “They will bring the tactics of the West Bank here, so that we won’t even be able to fight it.”

Yedid Ben Zakai received a deferral on his mandatory military service to study Torah in a yeshiva in the southern Israeli city of Dimona, where many of his family and friends support the judicial overhaul. But he is disturbed by the deep social divisions it has caused.

“It hurts me to know that it hurts so many people in the country,” he said. “But the Supreme Court has not acted right, for example, on issues of terrorism, they let them off too easily. The courts are left-wing, it seems.”

He said that he viewed the Supreme Court as an elite minority group. But he also admits that he doesn’t understand what the overhaul is about, or what its impact will be on Israel.

“I’m here to start a conversation, to prevent the schism from getting even bigger,” he said. “I don’t want to think about civil war. That’s a thought that’s too scary for me.”

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