Thousands of Israeli protesters descended on the streets of Jerusalem for a third consecutive day on Monday as the country braced for a crucial vote on legislation that would significantly weaken the authority of its Supreme Court. The legislation, which passed 64-0 after the opposition lawmakers left the Knesset in protest, marks the government’s first victory in its seven-month effort to enact the controversial legislation, which critics say could bring Israel to the brink of autocracy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to curb the power of the judiciary—and, in turn, remove the sole administrative check on his far-right government’s power—has been the subject of 29 consecutive weeks of mass protest. As many as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators converged on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the weekend to voice their opposition to the upcoming vote. Their calls for Netanyahu to halt his judicial overhaul plans were echoed by military reservists, businesses, and even U.S. President Joe Biden. Netanyahu, who spent the weekend in the hospital following a pacemaker operation, refused to back down.
Alon-Lee Green, the national co-director of the Arab-Jewish grassroots movement Standing Together, has been among the demonstrators ever since he helped launch the inaugural protest on Jan. 7. He spoke with TIME on Friday about how the protest movement came to life and why Monday’s vote is a decisive moment for Israeli democracy. His account of the last 29 weeks has been edited for length and clarity.
The movement I am part of is called Standing Together, which is a Jewish and Arab movement in Israel fighting for democracy and equality and peace and social justice. It’s very much on the left side of the political spectrum.
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And we’ve been very much involved in different struggles in the last few years, mainly for equality inside Israel, a deeper democracy also for the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, and all around the question of the occupation and peace and settlements.
During the five cycles of elections that we witnessed and participated in these last three years, we took the role of encouraging the Arab Palestinian minority to get out and vote. And we also pushed the political system to be more inclusive.
Then we came to this last election in November, and we couldn’t expect results this bad. It’s like the right wing—not even the right wing, but the extreme right wing in Israel—won the lottery. They managed to get out so many of their base to vote and to really increase their voting percentage Meanwhile, the left-wing Jewish parties, Meretz, did not pass the electoral threshold. The Arab national movement, Balad, also did not pass.
So eight full seats of the left-wing side of Parliament have been erased and that gave more proportional representation to the right. It led to the result that some people like Zvi Sukkot, a new MP who is one of the most extreme settlers in Israel, got into Parliament. The party of Itamar Ben-Gvir got five seats and the most extreme fascist settlers have 14 seats together in the Parliament. That was scary.
We saw that negotiations in December between Netanyahu’s ruling Likud and the far right over forming a new coalition, a new government, involved more and more scary demands like annexing part of the West Bank, like putting secret supervision on Arab teachers in Israel, and attacking the rights of the Palestinians living in Israel, the rights of women, the rights of the LGBTQ community. When the government reached a coalition agreement, we said “this is scary, we need to resist the new settler government,” and we called a demonstration on the seventh of January.
That was the first demonstration. We cooperated with a lot of different organizations. It started to gain speed and we were going out on the streets to show that we are still here even though the main discussion at this moment was that people are going to leave Israel from the liberal and left camp. The main discussion was of fear.
Two days before the first demonstration, the Minister of Justice Yariv Levin held a press conference and he declared the new judicial reform and then a lot more forces from the political center joined this movement. And that’s how the first demonstration exploded, with 30,000 people on the street. But honestly, it also had a lot of tension because the main organizer of it was a movement that also addressed the occupation. Many who decided to join the protests after Levin’s press conference announcing the judicial reform said, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Don’t mix the reform and the settlers. We don’t want to talk about the occupation now.” Still, the first protest had four Palestinians on the main stage during that night of demonstration. It also had a woman from the strictly Orthodox Haredi community on the stage, and it was very clear about anti-racism, anti-occupation. And then, starting from the second protest, those messages were no longer the mainstream messages of the protest.
This is one of the biggest protests in Israel’s history. It has people in the tens of thousands and sometimes more than 150,000 people week after week after week. At some moments of the protests—like the night of the firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant because he demanded Netanyahu to stop with the judicial overhaul—people started flooding the streets, shouting, “Go out of your houses, there is a demonstration, go to the Kaplan Street, go to Kaplan!” And you saw that from every building on the street. I was one of those people. I left my house, I saw from the next building people leaving and then from the other building and the other. And it started to be like literal rivers of people that were connecting in the bigger streets to a bigger river and then we got to Kaplan and we were tens of thousands of people in a spontaneous moment that felt electrifying. We blocked one of the main highways of Israel and we stood there the entire night. It will be remembered as a historic moment in Israel.
The government has a lot to lose if they will not take advantage of their lottery win, the election results. It does feel for the government, for a lot of MPs and the parties of the coalition, that it’s not something to waste; it’s not something to let go of. I think that is driving them very strongly forward and it’s very scary to see.
Things have come to a head in the last four days in Israel. Last Monday, the government voted on a law that bans students in Israel that are coming from the Palestinian minority in Israel to wave a Palestinian flag. If you are a student and you wave a Palestinian flag, you’re not entitled to study in any academic institute in Israel. You are not entitled to receive an academic degree in Israel. And if you studied abroad, your degree from abroad will not be acknowledged by the Israeli state. And that was voted on on Monday and it passed two days ago in Parliament with the support of the government. That’s the preliminary voting—there’s still two more votes to go, but they actually pushed it forward.
Then, the other day, it was declared by the government that Arab teachers are going to get the supervision of the secret service and also they’re going to extend this program now so that every person who wants to become a teacher in Israel will have to undergo supervision of the secret service of Israel.
Another thing they did this week is to say that any request for child support from a woman to a man has to go through the rabbinical court, which means that if you want to get divorced, the man has the power to tell you to drop the request for child support. You cannot divorce without it in Israel; you need to get the support of the man. It’s a very bad law.
This is just one week in Israel. So if the government will see that they have the power to push through this judicial reform, despite hundreds of thousands of people on the street, the economic and financial elite fighting against them, they will feel that they have a lot of power to push the other things that they want to do. It’s a very scary moment.
It feels as though Israel stands at a historic crossroads. It feels like the very basic agreement between the state and its citizens has been broken. On Friday, we saw that 1,200 pilots from the Air Force of Israel declared that they refuse to continue their service. And what they described is that the very basic agreement; the very basic feeling that what they give and what they get in return has been broken.
The general feeling is that there is a very big thing that has been broken and cannot be restored.
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