Hundreds of Israeli and American Jewish protesters gathered Sunday at the Israeli Embassy in Washington as demonstrations continued in Israel and elsewhere against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s determination to push through legislation to change the country’s judicial system.
Protesters arrived in droves, dressed in blue and white, with Israeli flags and homemade signs in hand. One flagpole was cobbled together with a long bamboo stick and zip ties. Organizers estimated between 400-500 people were outside the embassy, covering the sidewalk and much of the street.
Speakers at the rally included five area rabbis and American diplomat and scholar Martin Indyk.
They decried the proposed judicial changes as undemocratic, and praised Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who last week called for a pause in the push to pass the legislation, saying that the fallout was a threat to Israel’s security. Netanyanhu fired Gallant later that day, eliciting another wave of spontaneous protests in Israel.
Supporters of what they call “judicial reform” say the changes are necessary to put the law back in the hands of elected representatives and weaken what they see as the Supreme Court’s leftist tilt.
Indyk remarked that he was used to being inside the embassy rather than outside protesting, He said that the last protest he had been part of was more than 50 years ago, but that he was outside the embassy that day because “this is really troubling, Israel is in trouble.”
Sunday’s rally-goers proclaimed their love for Israel through impassioned speeches and by signing a large copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
“Standing with Israel means taking a stand,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.
“We want to be heard, not only here in D.C. but all the way in Israel,” said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation in the District.
Israeli-born Ehud Schmidt said that living in the United States while Israel is in trouble is very difficult for him because much of his large family is there.
Schmidt said that the judicial changes concern him because of how it could curtail the rights of Israel’s Jewish and Arab minority communities.
Yoni Charash, one of the rally’s organizers, said that he remains optimistic that the protests will be effective and the legislation will not pass the Knesset, but that many of his friends are less hopeful.
While hope motivated many, fear played a part, too.
“I’m here because I fear for the collapse of democracy in Israel,” said Rabbi Rosalind Gold. The importance of democracy was a dominant theme outside the embassy, as protesters chanted “democracy” in Hebrew and held their signs high, railing against the perceived rise of fascism in Israel.
Indyk emphasized the importance democracy plays in U.S.-Israeli relations and in protecting Israel. He said that the judicial legislation would harm Israel’s ability to defend itself and act as America’s ally and a “stabilizing force” in the region.
“Israel’s relationship with the United States is based on common democratic values. It will undermine those common values and it will undermine common strategic interests,” Indyk said.
Sunday’s rally was organized by UnXeptable, a grassroots group launched by Israeli Americans in the San Francisco Bay area.
Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets Sunday night in the wake of Gallant’s firing. The Histadrut labor federation announced a general strike on Monday, which was joined by universities throughout the country, according to i24NEWS. Israel’s consul general in New York, Asaf Zamir, resigned Sunday in protest of Gallant’s firing. On Monday, Netanyahu said he will delay his judicial overhall. ■