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Protests against Israel's judicial changes grow

Tania Krämer
August 1, 2023

For months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis from across society have protested the government's plans to overhaul the judiciary. After a key first vote passed in the parliament, the battle in the streets continues.

In red cloaks and white caps, protesters against Israel's judicial overhaul
Protesters in Israel dress as characters from "The Handmaid's Tale" to highlight the stakes for womenImage: Bonot Alternativa

Minutes after lawmakers of Israel's religious nationalist coalition government passed a judicial overhaul bill on July 24, Likud party Justice Minister Yariv Levi — an architect of the legislation — posed for a selfie with other members of the Knesset, smiling and laughing in the parliament.

"They were gloating," said Moran Zer Katzenstein, a former marketing specialist-turned-activist who was out on the streets protesting the Knesset vote that day. 

"OK, so you passed the bill, but you erased us and everything we are fighting for," she continued. "I was personally insulted; I know that a lot of protesters were insulted. And I think it also made a lot of women and men from the right wing think: 'Ah, really, these are our representatives? Why are they acting like that?'"

It was the day after the vote, and Katzenstein was tired from long protests in the summer heat but energized when talking about the issue. For the past few months, Katzenstein has been leading a group of protesters dressed in iconic red cloaks and white hats, a nod to the dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale" by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. The marches have drawn worldwide attention.

"The judicial overhaul has four pillars and each of them is taking a bite out of our Supreme Court, and out of us as women," Katzenstein said. "We can't allow this. Every time women's rights — or other things in the public sphere — were harmed by the government, the Supreme Court stood by our side and on the side of minorities."

A woman in a red shirt with a necklace smiles for the camera in front of a window
Katzenstein says this vote is just the beginning, and vows to continue protestingImage: Tania Krämer/DW

Katzenstein said the judicial overhaul had split society — even families — and the divisions were growing deeper. She added that even her younger brother, who is pro-overhaul, started to "rethink his position" after the selfie.

Vote first step in judicial overhaul

The July 24 vote approved an amendment to the Basic Laws that would abolish the Supreme Court's ability to strike down government decisions or appointments that justices consider "unreasonable," weakening the judiciary. It was a key moment for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's religious nationalist government, which has pushed for the judicial overhaul despite months of protests. Supporters of the government's plans have long argued that the unelected judges of the Supreme Court are too powerful.

Because Israel has no constitution, the Supreme Court references the Basic Laws when maintaining checks and balances on the government in its oversight role.

Civil society groups such as Brothers and Sisters in Arms have vowed to continue the protests. The organization represents thousands of reserve soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and has been at the forefront of the protests. As many as 10,000 reservists and more than 1,000 volunteer pilots have reportedly declared that they will not show up for duty should the legislation go into effect. That has sparked debate about how the overhaul and the protests could impact the military's readiness.

3 men hold black flags with a blue Star of David and white letters in the Hebrew alphabet
Yaron Kramer is part of the protest group Brothers and Sisters in ArmsImage: Achim laneshek

"It was a very sad day for Israeli democracy," said Yaron Kramer, one of the leaders of Brothers and Sisters in Arms. "The next morning, I saw the newspapers: The front pages were black. It's amazing. I think the last time that I saw black pages was when the former prime minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by an Israeli Jewish terrorist."

Though there have been refusal movements in the past — for example during Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the 1982 Lebanon War — such a large number of reservists who say they won't show up for training or duty is unprecedented. And the strength of the movement is significant: Regarded as Israel's pillar of security, the army unifies people from different social backgrounds.

"Every time our country called us up for real wars against our enemies, it was obvious we will leave our family and our life and we'll go and fight for our country," said Kramer, who served in a special artillery unit. "We never imagined that one day we would have to go to fight for our freedom, our democracy." However, he said, "we will not abandon our country in case of a war."

Police drag a person along the ground
Border police attempt to remove protesters from a road leading to the KnessetImage: Ammar Awad/REUTERS

After IDF soldiers complete their two or three years of compulsory military time, they usually spend several weeks every year as reservists until middle age. The day after the vote, Kramer said, he and his fellow reservists acknowledged that they had "lost a battle, but one that is in a long war or struggle." He said he found it encouraging that, after the vote, he got many messages from other reservists who had been "sitting on the couch" but "will now join the actions."

A public divided

Several surveys conducted after the July 24 vote showed that a substantial part of Israelis oppose the overhaul. A flash study by the aChord Center at the Hebrew University found that roughly 50% of respondents opposed the changes to the judicial system, while 33.7% supported them. About 15% remained undecided on the matter.

Lawmakers surround Netanyahu, center, at a session of the Knesset in Jerusalem
Netanyahu, center, at the vote in the Knesset on Monday, July 24Image: Maya Alleruzzo/AP/picture alliance

Furthering the divide in public opinion are potential plans by the hard-line government to introduce other measures, such as annexing the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Some left-wing protest groups say  the country needs to start discussing its ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories and democracy for all.

With the Knesset on a summer break, the focus will turn to the Supreme Court in September. After the vote, several Israeli civil society groups submitted petitions to the Supreme Court to strike down the new law. Israel's highest court did not issue an immediate injunction but said it would hear petitions to review the law beginning in September. This could push the country into a showdown: If the court strikes down a law designed to limit its powers, the government could opt not to comply.

Israel sees 30th week of judicial reform protests

In a recent interview with the US broadcaster CNN, Netanyahu said Israel could enter "uncharted territory" were the Supreme Court to overturn the law. He declined to say whether he would abide by such a decision.

Netanyahu offered to engage in more talks with the opposition during the Knesset's recess to try to find a broader consensus before further decisions are made. Several analysts have pointed out that the overhaul could allow Netanyahu to evade prosecution in his ongoing trial in three cases for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which are all charges he denies.

But opponents of the judicial overhaul said they had lost trust in any such talks, which had previously yielded no results, and vow to continue their protests.

"I think we will see a lot of actions," Kramer said. "A government that is actually ignoring the SOS signal of so many people has to face the reactions. So I believe this SOS from the reservists will be heard, if not tomorrow, in a week, if not in a week, in a few weeks."