‘Israelis and Jews worldwide have woken up and are saying loud and clear; “No!”’

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‘Israelis and Jews worldwide have woken up and are saying loud and clear; “No!”’

The Defend Israeli Democracy UK group stage their most successful demo yet against Israeli PM Netanyahu's judicial overhaul in iconic Trafalgar Square

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Dr Sharon Shochat speaking to crowd at Defend Israeli Democracy UK protest in Trafalgar Sq, central London
Dr Sharon Shochat speaking to crowd at Defend Israeli Democracy UK protest in Trafalgar Sq, central London

The Defend Israeli Democracy UK organisation have staged their most successful demonstration to date in Trafalgar Square, central London, insisting Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reforms have sparked a movement of protesters “from all walks of life, of all ages, Israelis and Jews worldwide, that have woken up and are saying loud and clear; ‘No!'”

More than 1,500 people attended Sunday’s protest in the iconic location, to witness emotion-charged speeches from Yuval Noah Harari,  the hugely-influential Israeli author and professor, Liberal Judaism head Rabbi Charley Baginsky, Union of Jewish Students president Edward Isaacs, Masorti Judaism’s Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, the journalist Mika Almog, and former Meretz Knesset member Yair Golan.

One of UK movement’s leaders Dr Sharon Shochat told those in attendance for the demo, which was supported by Jewish News:”On the one hand we have an Israeli government intent on ruining our democracy, police brutality and the biggest rift in Israeli society to ever have registered.

“On the other hand, we see the rise of a movement of people from all walks of life, of all ages, Israelis and Jews worldwide, that have woken up and are saying loud and clear; ‘No!'”

The latest UK demo, to show solidarity with the tens of thousands who had taken to the streets of Israel the night before for a 36th week in succession to express anger at the Netanyahu government’s overhaul of the Supreme Court there, took place on balmy late summer Sunday, which seemed to inspire an increase in participation in the protests from within the UK community, alongside regular Israeli-born attendees now living here.

The success of the anti-judicial reform movement, in Israel, and now in the UK, has been its ability to bring together people who might normally share very different political views, but who all share a greater love for the state of Israel, and a concern that Netanyahu coalition has embraced a destructive far-right ideology.

Some held banners and placards openly questioning what was claimed to be Israel’s “occupation” in the West Bank, which was deemed to be incompatible with democratic values.

Defend Israeli Democracy protest Trafalgar Square London

But for others, just holding aloft the national Israeli flag was enough, reclaiming the symbol of the world’s only Jewish state from those who wish to turn it into a symbol of religious and political supremacy.

Amongst the UK communal leaders to attend the latest demo was Keith Black, the chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, one of the staunchest pro-Israel organisations to represent the UK community.

Near to him in the crowd were  Simon Sadie the chair of Yachad, a group rather more outspoken in their criticism of the Israel government, along with the group’s director Hannah Weisfeld.

Rabbis Jeremy Gordon, Igor Zinkov, Charley Baginsky, Josh Levy and Margaret Jacobi of Liberal, Reform and Masorti Judaism at Defend Israeli Democracy UK rally in Trafalgar Square (picture by Richard Bloom)

In a stand-out speech,  Hebrew University academic Harari told the crowd:”It’s the oldest trick in the book: First you use democracy to gain power, then you use your power to destroy democracy.

“The Netanyahu coalition has forgotten everything Jews have learned for 2,000 years, And instead it discovers what the Babylonians and Romans knew already 2,000 years ago – the dark ecstasy of crashing other people under our feet.

“I came here to London to ask for the help of all those, Jews and non-Jews, who care about Israel, about the Jewish people, and about democracy.

“What is happening in Israel is a decisive historical event that will shape Judaism for generations to come.”

In her speech the writer Almog, the granddaughter of former president and prime minister Shimon Peres, was cheered as she said  “who in their worst nightmares could have imagined that the greatest danger to Israel’s existence would come from the inside.”

But the demo was memorable also for the interventions from successive speakers from progressive Judaism in this country.

Rabbi Charley told the protesters:”I cannot tell you the number of leaders of communal organisations that have told me that this crisis in Israel has been one of the most uniting moments, aside from antisemitism, in recent history.
“And yet here we are five months later and the situation is certainly not better.”

Mika Almog, journalist and the granddaughter of Shimon Peres, addresses Defend Israeli Democracy UK protest in Trafalgar Square

Rabbi Jeremy also spoke powerfully saying:”Democracies are places were the powerful are checked.. that care more about doing what is good than allowing the powerful to do whatever they want… where there are counter-balances on the exercise of power, so everybody knows they are loved and protected and their rights as a human being in the creation of the image of G-d are acknowledged.”

He accused the Netanyahu government of “embarking on a path that is worse than wrong”  by choosing to “govern on behalf of only some of its people.”

In his speech UJS president Isaacs said the situation in Israel now “poses an existential question to the Jewish diaspora globally, do we want to maintain a future relationship with Israel? And if so what should it look like?”

He added that “for years” Israel had received huge support from young Jews in this country, “defending the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their historic homeland.”

But Isaacs admitted he was “increasingly fearful” of the “disapora’s capacity to maintain a relationship with Israel.”

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

Later in the hugely good-natured demo, watching Metropolitan Police officers became concerned by the appearance of a man dressed in a combination of religious tallit and racist KKK uniform carrying a sign that declared:’I love Bibi”.

Police cornered the man and a colleague, fearful of their appearance. But were eventually persuaded of the satirical nature of the stunt.

The latest demonstrations in Israel over the weekend held special significance as they came before the Supreme Court, for the first time in Israeli history, convenes its entire 15-judge bench on Sept. 12 to hear an appeal against the amendment.

In London, protest leader Shochat added:”It is inspiring to see so many people come out to shout ‘Democratia’ in the heart of London. I hope that many more choose to come out, speak up and join Israelis in this crucial existential fight.”

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