In Jerusalem, defiance and despair among protesters on fateful day for judicial reform

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In Jerusalem, defiance and despair among protesters on fateful day for judicial reform

Protesters around the Knesset faced water cannons and mounted police, while others marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem ahead of Monday's vote on the judicial reform.

A protester visits a memorial, in opposition to the Israeli government's judicial overhaul, suggesting that Israel's fallen soldiers may have died in vain. (Ben Sales)
A protester visits a memorial, in opposition to the Israeli government's judicial overhaul, suggesting that Israel's fallen soldiers may have died in vain. (Ben Sales)

Standing next to a patch of sidewalk filled with the names of fallen Israeli soldiers, Ayelet Bargur embraced a friend and, pointing to a stack of poster paper, asked her if she’d like to add the name of a relative who was killed in service.

The rectangular posters bearing the soldiers’ names were arranged on the pavement in rows, weighted down by stones that evoked those found atop monuments in Jewish cemeteries. In addition to the names, all the posters featured the same phase: “In vain.”

A nearby sculpture, made of medals given out by the Israeli Defense Ministry, spelled out the same term.

“It expresses our protest that the sacred covenant between the bereaved families and the government of Israel, and the army, has been breached,” said Bargur, who identified herself as an organiser of the initiative.

“We feel that the deaths of our loved ones, if the dictatorship laws pass, will have been in vain. Our loved ones died for the values of the Declaration of Independence. We are a minute before the destruction of the Third Temple.”

Bargur is one of thousands of Israelis who have crowded a park in this city in recent days, part of a last-ditch effort by protesters to stop Israel’s right-wing government from passing a law weakening Israel’s judiciary.

Hours after Bargur spoke, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, voted the measure through — the first piece of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial overhaul to be enacted into law.

Facing that reality, Bargur and her compatriots displayed a mix of defiance, resignation and determination. They are using increasingly dire language — predicting the end of Israel’s democracy, or as Bargur did, a catastrophe akin to the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Holy Temple nearly 2,000 years ago, which will be commemorated on the fast day of Tisha B’Av later this week.

Protesters have vowed to boycott their reserve military duty or, like Bargur, structured their protest around Israel’s revered battle casualties. This morning, a crowd of protesters around the Knesset faced water cannons and mounted police, while others marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and then pitched tents and created a small campsite in the middle of a park.

But despite the disappointment they would face later in the day, the protesters’ mood was not one of lamentation.

They carried the same Israeli flags, wore the same T-shirts and screamed the same blaring chants that have come to define the weekly mass anti-government demonstrations in Tel Aviv. A couple of protesters told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that they were considering leaving the country; most said they planned to stay.

“I will need to fight for my state,” said Roi Lupo, a tech worker who ran into a couple of his colleagues while taking a breather from the protests in the park. “This is my country. My parents are here, my family is here, my kids are here.”

He added, “What am I going to do? I live here and I’m going to fight for my freedom and my rights.”

As Lupo spoke, the Knesset was about to pass a law that bars the Supreme Court from striking down laws it deems “unreasonable.” The measure is one of several pieces of the judicial overhaul effort, which has caused turmoil in Israel and was shelved for several months amid unprecedented protests.

The locus of those protests has been central Tel Aviv, and a Monday morning train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was packed, with many of the passengers wearing protest T-shirts (“Free in our land,” “Democracy is in my soul”) or carrying large Israeli flags.

Protest chants began on the endless escalators from the train tracks to the station entrance, and the walk from the station to the outskirts of the Knesset building was lined with tents advertising protest-adjacent causes, handing out more shirts or, in the case of one structure, providing food, water and first aid to demonstrators.

Outside the tent, a vocal opponent of the protests who gave his name as Meir stood verbally sparring with marchers. Like many of the protesters, he invoked his military service (during the Yom Kippur War, in the Sinai Peninsula) to bolster his point.

But unlike them he thought the protest, and the public disruption it caused, was a travesty. He stood in the middle of the sidewalk, claiming (inaccurately) that he was unable to pass because a T-shirt distribution tent was blocking his path.

“People come here, say the government can’t rule,” he said. “There were elections, that isn’t democracy?”

The medical tent was staffed by the Israeli Medical Association, which opposes the overhaul effort. Dr. Yifat Weiss, an OB-Gyn who was managing the tent in the late morning, said that so far, she and her fellow volunteer medical professionals had sent a dozen injured protesters to the hospital.

“I’m worried the government will say it’s OK to treat people differently according to their race, their color, their gender, their sexual preferences,” she said. “I don’t know, I’m fighting until the end. I don’t want my children to grow up in a dictatorship or any other form that is not a democracy with equality. I don’t know what I will do if the laws will pass.”

Down the street, near a tent belonging to the organisation Women Wage Peace, Yael Admi sounded more optimistic. She felt the protest was an opportunity to open people up to the necessity of an Israeli-Palestinian accord — a goal of her group but something that has not been a priority of Israeli governments for nearly a decade.

“There’s more and more understanding of the connections between these things — the burning of Huwara didn’t come from nowhere,” she said, referring to a recent settler riot in a West Bank Palestinian village.

“When you don’t see the rights of the other, when you think we have rights that others don’t have, it develops this mechanism that doesn’t see the others.”

Bargur, standing just feet away, next to the “In vain” memorial, said that if the reform passes, it isn’t just living Israelis who may seek to leave.

Her father, she said, has expressed a desire, regarding her fallen brother, to “take the grave and leave the country.” She added, “I hope we don’t get there.”

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