JERUSALEM—The day opened with a chaotic committee session in the Knesset where opposition members sang, chanted “Shame” and jumped over tables to protest impending legislation which passed in a committee vote later this morning.
The sentiment spilled into the streets as nearly 100,000 Israelis joined a demonstration against the proposed judicial reform package.
“‘Reform’ is not the right word,” said Yulia Malinovsky, a Knesset member who broke down in tears while the committee began its final debate before the vote.
“I was born in the former Soviet Union and I know what a dictatorship is,” she said. “There’s no going back from something like this. They are talking about things that we will never be able to change.”
The drama on Monday began in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee when the bill came in for a final committee reading before it heads to the full parliament for a vote, expected in the next week. Critics say the legislation has the power to destroy democracy in Israel by weakening the judiciary and upsetting the balance of power by putting a disproportionate amount in the hands of the government.
Protestors extended across the city from the train station to the Knesset and on to the Western Wall, where another group began their march, creating a sea of Israeli flags in Jerusalem. The demonstration was one of Israel’s largest in recent weeks over this hot-button issue. Many Knesset members in the opposition exited the parliament to show support for the protestors.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid reassured the crowd that the government has heard their discontent and is concerned about the overwhelming response it has seen from the Israeli public.
“We will fight until we win,” Lapid said from the stage.
Despite calls for dialogue and compromise – even from Israeli President Isaac Herzog as recently as yesterday – the committee fast tracked this particular bill.
“It is quite clear from the behavior of the new chair of the constitutional committee that this group, the coalition, the government, is not interested in building any type of wide consensus,” Knesset Member Gilad Kariv, the chair of the same committee in the previous government, told ALL ISRAEL NEWS, referring to the legislation as “terrible.”
“We do not object to reasonable justified reforms," he said, but "this group doesn’t fully believe in the core values of democracy. They want to minimize democracy for the rule of the majority and to leave aside the ideas of basic human rights and power distribution between the different branches of government,” he said.
“Just look at their response to the president – the most distinguished person in Israel. He said, ‘Stop this rush toward to vote, let’s sit and talk’ – they actually refused to embrace the president’s offer,” he added. “This is not democracy.”
A general strike was called, allowing workers from many sectors to head to Jerusalem on a work day.
”Democracy! Democracy,” was the repeated chant of protestors who ranged in age from young school children to older generations worried about their grandchildren's future. One man, Oren Aley-Raz, came from Kfar Saba – 50 miles from Jerusalem – just after he sent his daughter off to the army.
Yossi Shain, former Knesset member in Yisrael Beytenu – a right-wing party – and head of political science at Tel Aviv University, said the government is hijacking Israel’s Basic Laws “under the banner of ‘majority rules.’”
“Everyone understands they want to change the nature of democracy, the fabric of democracy, and make it an autocrat state by basically weakening the judicial system,” he told ALL ISRAEL NEWS during the protest. “So they are passing laws that will weaken the judicial system, that will weaken the Supreme Court, will weaken the attorney general, will weaken the very idea of judicial review and, as a result of that, will be able to govern autocratically under the banner of democracy.”
“This is the fallacy that is going on here,” he said. “This is an autocrat government that is starting to be formed in Israel.”
Knesset Member Ofer Cassif called the bill “the end of the independent judicial branch in Israel.” The first step to a dictatorship, he said, is to eliminate the judiciary branch.
“This is exactly what this law does – it eliminates not only the independence of the judiciary, but the judiciary itself,” he said in an interview with ALL ISRAEL NEWS. “And this is only the first step because once the obstacle is moved out, it paves the way for the government to do whatever it wants vis-à-vis its citizens to harm their basic rights, to eliminate actually their liberties.”
Former Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar told ALL ISRAEL NEWS that his party came out to the protest to “protect the democratic regime in Israel as it was shaped during the first 75 years.”
“We are strongly opposed to the politicization of the process, nominating the judges and politicization of all legal branches of this country. This is extremely important in order to keep the balance between the branches of power in Israel,” he said.
Addressing demonstrators from the stage, former Defense Minister Benny Gantz said “terrorism can always be defeated, but we cannot allow our society to be ripped apart from within.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the opposition for the unrest, calling out the raucous behavior at the Knesset earlier in the day.
“Stop deliberately dragging the country into anarchy. Get over yourself. Show responsibility and leadership because you’re doing the exact opposite,” the prime minister said in a video posted on social media. “Look what happened today in Jerusalem: The opposition is going wild inside the Knesset and its members are jumping on the tables. [Tel Aviv Mayor] Ron Huldai is explicitly inciting bloodshed, and the leftist demonstration is calling the prime minister a ‘traitor.’”
Justice Minister Yariv Levin and the head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Simcha Rothman accused Lapid of rejecting their offer to dialogue.
“We were very saddened to read to opposition leader’s statement, which signals that his only motivation is to stop the legislation and not to hold genuine dialogue,” Levin and Rothman said in a joint statement. “We would be happy to meet as early as tonight with any opposition official who’s interested in dialogue.”
Nicole Jansezian was the news editor and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS.