Mass Protests in Israel Often Start on a Neighborhood Street, or an App

The four activists crept in shortly after dawn at the well-guarded home of the Israeli minister on a tree-lined residential street in Jerusalem. Lying on the sidewalk, they were handcuffed to each other through sections of pipe and to a nearby utility pole, for a “blockade” protest in front of the front door.

The police appeared almost instantly. So did a dozen neighbors who had been informed about the protest, which occurred on a recent weekday, through a neighborhood WhatsApp group. They emerged from nearby apartment blocks and houses, and one from a nearby park, waving large Israeli flags.

A neighbor carried a banner that read: “If you don’t stand up as a CITIZEN, they make you a MINION.” Some chanted “Shame on you!” when police used hammers and pliers to try to break the human chain of activists — three men and one woman — outside the home of the official, Nir Barkat, the finance minister in the right-wing government that took power late last year .

Government efforts to exercise greater control over the judiciary have sparked waves of protests across Israel in recent weeks.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters filled streets and squares in Tel Aviv and other cities on Saturday nights to voice their opposition to what they see as a move to undermine a cherished pillar of Israeli democracy.

Retired security chiefs and judges, Nobel Prize winners, former prime ministers and business leaders have marched in mass protests, addressed crowds or they added their names to the petitions and newspaper ads condemning the decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government to reform the judicial system.

There are also small protests popping up across the country, sometimes involving just one person holding a sign.

The protests are also taking place in quiet neighborhoods like Beit Hakerem, home to Mr. Barkat, drawing ordinary Israelis of all ages and from all walks of life, emphasizing the depth of anger in the country over the leadership of the new government.

The Eyal family, who said they live in “a less luxurious house” on the same street as Barkat, were among the neighbors who came out to support the protest in front of the house of the Minister of Economy. He was one of many who have organized outside the homes of politicians behind judicial reform in recent weeks.

“He should know what his neighbors think,” said Amit Eyal, 24, a medical student, adding: “I feel like I was born in one country and now it’s turning into another.”

When the police tried to move past the Eyals and other neighbours, they said they were just out for a walk and paraded in a circle down the street.

“We are very busy people,” said Eyal’s mother, Sara Eyal, 58, a pharmacy professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “But speaking for myself, this is more important.”

The bills that the ruling coalition is rushing through Parliament would essentially give the government the power to appoint judges, severely restrict judicial review of legislation and allow the legislature to overturn Supreme Court rulings with a minimum majority.

Critics say the move would be dangerous in a country that lacks a formal written constitution or any other major means of checking government power.

Center indicate that a majority opposes the proposed bills, and many older Israelis say the divisions the plans have sparked have sparked one of the country’s most dangerous periods since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, also known as the Yom Kippur War, or since the 1948 war that surrounded the establishment of the State of Israel.

Protests in neighborhoods like Beit Hakerem and across the country are supported by a broad and diverse alliance of grassroots organizations and initiatives, representing women, the LGBTQ community, veterans, the high-tech industry, and healthcare workers, who they have come together to create one of the most sweeping popular struggles in decades.

Many communicate by word of mouth or through groups formed on WhatsApp and other popular encrypted messaging platforms in Israel, often targeting workplaces, neighborhoods and communities.

An informal body known simply as “struggle headquarters” has amplified those messages, coordinating between groups, publicizing and helping set up stages and sound systems for mass protests, and planning days of “national disruption” or “national resistance.” ”, as During the week, protests have been called throughout the country.

The group is made up primarily of volunteers under the operational leadership of Eran Schwarz, an air force pilot turned social activist. A crowdfunding campaign had raised nearly 9 million shekels (about $2.5 million) as of Thursday, and donations from businessmen paid for a nationwide advertising campaign.

All of that is helping to drive Israelis onto city streets and, in smaller communities, to demonstrations at road junctions in more rural areas.

Parents and children have been demonstrating outside the schools. Rainbow flags raised by LGBTQ advocates mingle with blue-and-white Israeli flags that have become emblematic of the protest movement, an act of reappropriation after years of the flag being flown more frequently at right-wing protests. . Women’s rights activists dressed in red robes and white caps based on the dystopian novel and TV series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ push through the crowd at demonstrations. Army reservists wear khaki T-shirts with the logo of the “Brothers in Arms” group. Farmers drive tractors in slow convoys to entangle traffic.

A group of 1973 war veterans stole an old tank from the Golan Heights and loaded it onto the bed of a truck, apparently with the intention of taking it to downtown Tel Aviv. They didn’t get far before the police stopped them.

Health workers in white coats have also become a visible feature of the protests.

“There is no health without democracy, and there is no equality in health care without democracy,” Dr. Hagai Levine, former president of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, said in an interview, explaining why doctors and nurses were mobilizing.

Health workers have created WhatsApp groups with thousands of members to provide updates on local activities. They distribute what they call “recipes for democracy” and carry mock “casualties from the dictatorship” on stretchers.

Israel’s vaunted high-tech industry has also been active in the protests, with some companies providing buses to transport workers to mass demonstrations amid concerns that the judicial changes will scare off investors.

Thousands of other protesters have paid for and financed their own activities.

“People are donating to the battle for democracy,” said Nadav Galon, a spokesman for the protest movement. “It’s a civil awakening.”

Veteran commanders and officers of the armored corps of the armed forces have set up a protest tent between the Supreme Court and Parliament.

“People have had enough,” said Ilan Feldman, 62, a tank brigade veteran, listing a litany of grievances, including exemptions from conscription for ultra-Orthodox Jews and the fact that the prime minister is on trial. for corruption. “The judicial reform plan is just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he added.

Nurit Guy, 88, lost Shachar Guy, her son, who served in a tank crew, and an American volunteer soldier, Zvi Wolf, whom she had informally adopted, within a day of each other during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. She arrived alone at lunchtime recently to visit the tent protest by veterans from his village in southern Israel.

“Fear paralyzes,” he said. “My protest may not change what happens, but it means that I did not stand still; I raised my voice,” he added.

Back in Beit Hakerem, a neighborhood that mainly votes for parties of the center or the left, people have been furious over the judicial reform plans for weeks.

On Fridays, about 50 residents regularly gather at a nearby junction and hold loud protests with drums, whistles and horns.

It was fertile ground for the four activists who came from their own neighborhoods around Jerusalem to blockade Mr. Barkat’s house. One of them, Hagai Elron, 34, who runs a moving company, said he felt compelled to stop the minister from leaving home.

“We tell members of the government who are hurting citizens by going out to work that it is better that they stay home,” Elron said. (The protesters were removed after about an hour, clearing the way for Mr. Barkat to reach the office later without any apparent inconvenience.)

Across the street from the minister’s house, a neighbor had hung a red banner on a balcony reading: “Wake up Nir, the house is on fire.” Another wrote an anonymous poem and posted it outside Mr. Barkat’s house.

“He benefits from enlightened neighbors,” he said. “But it is destroying the country.”