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Mass protests across Israel ahead of first judicial overhaul vote

Protest organizers defined Monday as a “national day of struggle”

Thousands of Israelis protest the government's judicial overhaul bills outside of the Knesset in Jerusalem, Feb. 20, 2023. (Photo: Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Large numbers of Israelis took to the streets on Monday to protest against judicial reforms, which are expected to go up for a first vote in the Israeli parliament today. 

Anti-reform protesters blocked crucial infrastructure around the country, including the busy Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv and the highway to Ben-Gurion International Airport. The protesters are also expected to gather outside the Knesset and other key institutions of political power. 

The protesters represented a wide spectrum of Israeli society, and include high-tech professionals, schoolchildren, healthcare workers and Israel Defense Forces reservists. Tens of thousands of Israelis have protested against the planned judicial reforms for nearly two months. 

The “No Education Without Democracy” movement recruited many parents to join the protest by refraining from sending their children to school on Monday. 

“We are fighting so that the education system in Israel will stay a liberal education system, the kind that advances equality, social justice, moral norms and pluralism,” the movement said in an official statement. “Harming the independence of the justice system will result in harming the education system and the values it teaches.”

Thousands wave the Israeli flag as they protest the judicial overhaul, outside of the Knesset in Jerusalem, Feb. 20, 2023. (Photo: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir blasted the police for allowing the activists to block major roads across the country. 

“Freedom of speech – yes. Anarchy – no. We have to maintain the flow of life and not allow anarchists to paralyze the country,” said Ben Gvir. 

The national security minister vowed in the November elections to take control of the Israel Police, particularly the border police unit, in order to crack down on terrorism and violence in Israeli society. 

Protest organizers defined Monday as a “national day of struggle.” A smaller crowd of protesters blocked the entrance to the home of Knesset Member Simcha Rothman, head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and a key player behind the government’s planned judicial reforms. 

Even more extreme protesters taped themselves to the home of Likud MK Tally Gotliv, a Netanyahu ally. 

While Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid supports the anti-government protests, he blasted the activists who barricaded Gotliv’s home. 

“I strongly condemn the siege on the home of MK Tally Gotliv, a mother of a girl with special needs, and the fact that they didn't allow her to take her daughter to school,” Lapid said. “This isn't our way. This is not the way of the protest. I send Tally strength and a hug for her daughter.”

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai recently urged the divided Israeli public to “lower the flame.” 

“I came here [to the studio] for a reason. I’ve tried to refrain from these kinds of interviews. But the situation we’re in [in Israel] keeps me awake at night. We’re on a steep slope of inflammatory argument, of people writing things without considering the impact they can have on the other side,” said Shabtai in an interview with Channel 12 news.

The police chief warned that the current political tensions in Israel could result in a political assassination if they are not quelled. 

“This is an opportunity to tell everyone to breathe, calm down, to discuss and not to become violent in words or deeds. … The State of Israel has already seen harm done to public figures,” Shabtai warned. When far-right activist Yigal Amir murdered former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, it shocked both Israel and the outside world. 

While tensions continue to rise in Israeli society, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said a compromise over the judicial overhaul would be possible within days.

Herzog has emerged as a voice of moderation and warned Israelis ahead of modern Israel’s 75th anniversary that two previous eras of Jewish independence in Israel collapsed before their 80th year. 

“I see the rifts and fissures between us, which are becoming deeper and more painful at this time, and I cannot help but reflect seriously on the fact that twice in history, a Jewish state arose in the Land of Israel and twice it collapsed before reaching its 80th year,” said Herzog. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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