The demonstration held in the heart of Jerusalem on Thursday, April 27 carried many abiding lessons for our leaders and for ourselves.
Whether attended by 200,000 or 600,000 people (and the true number was most likely somewhere in between), the “Million March,” as it was called, was a virtual love-in for the State of Israel, for Israel as a Jewish state, for Israel as the Jewish state.
It was also a show of resolve and determination: We will not be treated as second-class citizens, we are not giving up, were themes that echoed throughout the night.
Of course there was chafing at the Supreme Court’s juristocracy and the stranglehold that unaccountable legal advisers and the attorney general have on the government, and therefore on public governance and policy. But demonstrators also sent the clear message to the government that their constituency, those who made the coalition of 64 mandates possible, expected the elected leadership to persevere and follow through and implement the judicial reform plan.
Unlike the anti-reform protests, the Million March was not a cover for advancing a variety of agendas. For its participants, the judiciary’s stranglehold on the country is the issue, one that needs to be faced head-on. There was little subtext involving prevailing social animosities or conflicts, no problem with the existence of secular, left-wing citizens.
The message was not about the need to pull any group down, but rather a call to elevate those who, as part of the majority often ignored or dismissed by the Supreme Court, insist on sovereignty being exercised by the elected government of Israel.
There was considerable disbelief and satirization of the accusations, often made by the opposition, that the reforms represent a threat to democracy. Several speakers, Knesset member Simcha Rothman most especially, contrasted what is actually democratic with what is not.
This taking of the argument directly back to the other side was a smart way of defanging the absurd, yet widely prevalent claim that would-be dictators are set to dismantle a freedom-loving Israeli democracy in favor of a theocratic, hateful regime.
The demonstration made clear that there are two distinct points of view regarding the true source of the threat to Israeli society. This was perhaps the major takeaway from the event.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid expressed incredulity at the event; somehow, to him, protest is the sole province of those not in power. But last night was not a protest so much as it was a demonstration. A demonstration of engagement, of caring and of insistence that the issues that people voted for be addressed and acted on.
Of course, there was a protest against the self-sustaining Supreme Court, which is seen to be opposed to the will of the people. But the thrust of the evening was the personification of Middle Israel, the heretofore mostly silent majority, saying loud and clear that they are not unaware, that they will not be passive and that they have expectations for the performance and follow through of Israel’s elected leaders.
“The people demand judicial reform” was the mantra of the evening. Not a zero-sum fear of the opposition, not resentment regarding how our larger society works; rather, this was a focused insistence that the system of justice so crucial to our societal well-being be fair, balanced and somehow reflective of the will of the people.
One interesting aspect of the event was that it represented the successful cooperation of several grassroots Zionist organizations, who were able to effectively join forces and work in common cause.
This could have important and pervasive implications for our society and our government.
Years ago I attended a dinner with the leaders of many of Israel’s leading Zionist organizations. Naftali Bennett, then a member of a right-wing coalition, expressed his appreciation for the birth and growth of both right-wing advocates and think tanks, phenomena that he said were recent developments in Israel.
Last night was a coming of age for that emergence, and there is ample reason to believe that these groups can cohere to be a powerful third wheel or adjunct to a National Zionist Camp-type of government.
Bottom line, the Million March will not be a blip, a two-day news story quickly forgotten. It represented the spirit of the majority of our nation. That spirit was optimistic, hopeful and not seeking to be divisive, dictatorial nor exclusionary.
For those concerned that we are doomed, that we are courting social division and upheaval, this event was a needed antidote. The unmistakable message was one of responsibility, engagement and love of country.
May the word go out, and the message be conveyed, that not only is democracy alive and well in Israel, but that the core of the nation is strong, loving, hopeful and tolerant.
Our future is bright, not grim. Israel can and will address its problems while still preserving the social fabric of an amazing tapestry of people.
Douglas Altabef is the chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu, Israel’s largest grassroots Zionist organization, and a director of B’yadenu and the Israel Independence Fund.