Mass Protests in Israel Often Start on a Neighborhood Street, or an App
A movement against the government’s judicial overhaul plan is a grass-roots affair spread by word of mouth and WhatsApp messaging groups.
Reporting from Jerusalem
The four activists arrived stealthily just after dawn at the well-guarded home of the Israeli minister in a leafy residential street in Jerusalem. Dropping to the sidewalk, they handcuffed themselves to one another through sections of pipe, and to a nearby lamppost, for a “lock-on” protest in front of the front gate.
The police showed up almost instantly. So did about a dozen neighbors who had been tipped off about the protest, which occurred on a recent weekday, via a neighborhood WhatsApp group. They emerged from nearby apartment blocks and houses, and one from a nearby park, waving large Israeli flags.
One neighbor carried a placard that read: “If you don’t stand up as a CITIZEN, they will turn you into a SUBJECT.” Some chanted “Shame!” when the police used pliers and hammers to try to break the human chain of activists — three men and a woman — outside the home of the official, Nir Barkat, the economy minister in the right-wing government that took power late last year.
Efforts by the government to exert greater control over the judiciary have prompted waves of protests across Israel in recent weeks.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters have 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 justices, Nobel Prize winners, former prime ministers and business leaders have marched in mass protests, addressed the crowds or added their names to petitions and newspaper advertisements condemning the move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government to overhaul the judiciary.
There are small, pop-up protests occurring across the country, too, sometimes involving just one person with a sign.
The protests are also playing out in quiet neighborhoods like Beit Hakerem, home to Mr. Barkat, drawing in ordinary Israelis of all ages and from all walks of life, emphasizing the depth of the anger in the country over the direction of the new government.
The Eyal family, who said they live in “a less fancy house” on the same street as Mr. Barkat, were among the neighbors who came out to support the protest outside the economy minister’s home. It was one of many that have been organized outside the homes of the politicians behind the judicial overhaul in recent weeks.
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“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 changing into another.”
When the police tried to move along the Eyals and other neighbors, they said they were just out for a walk and paraded around in a circle on the street.
“We are very busy people,” said Mr. Eyal’s mother, Sara Eyal, 58, a professor of pharmacy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “But speaking for myself, this is more important.”
Bills being hastily pushed through Parliament by the governing coalition would essentially give the government the power to appoint judges, severely curtail judicial review over legislation and allow the legislature to overturn Supreme Court rulings with a bare majority.
Critics say that the move would be dangerous in a country that lacks a formal written constitution or any other significant means of checking the government’s power.
Polls indicate that a majority oppose the proposed bills, and many older Israelis say the divisions the plans have wrought have provoked one of the country’s most perilous periods since the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, also known as the Yom Kippur War, or since the war in 1948 surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel.
Underpinning the protests in neighborhoods like Beit Hakerem and around the country is a broad, diverse alliance of grass-roots initiatives and organizations — representing women, the L.G.B.T.Q. community, veterans, the high-tech industry and health workers — that has 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 on other encrypted messaging platforms popular in Israel, which are often focused on workplaces, neighborhoods and communities.
An informal body known simply as “the struggle HQ” has amplified those messages, coordinating between the groups, advertising and helping set up stages and sound systems for the mass protests and planning for days of “national disruption” or “national resistance,” as weekday, countrywide protests have been called.
The group is staffed mainly by 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 businesspeople paid for a countrywide billboard campaign.
That is all helping to drive Israelis onto city streets, and in smaller communities, out to demonstrations at road junctions in more rural areas.
Parents and children have been rallying outside schools. Rainbow flags raised by L.G.B.T.Q. advocates mingle with blue and white Israeli flags that have become an emblem of the protest movement — an act of re-appropriation after years when the flag was more often raised at right-wing protests. Women’s rights activists dressed in red robes and white bonnets based on the dystopian novel and television series “The Handmaid’s Tale” weave through the crowds at demonstrations. Army reservists wear khaki T-shirts with the logo of the group “Brothers in Arms.” Farmers drive tractors in slow convoys to snarl 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 intending to bring it to the center of Tel Aviv. They did not 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 no equality in health care without democracy,” Dr. Hagai Levine, the chairman of Israel’s Association of Public Health Physicians, said in an interview, explaining why doctors and nurses were mobilizing.
The health workers have set up WhatsApp groups with thousands of members to provide updates about local activities. They distribute what they call “prescriptions for democracy” and carry mock “casualties of dictatorship” on stretchers.
Israel’s vaunted high-tech industry has also been active in the protests, with some companies providing buses to ferry workers to mass rallies amid worries that investors will be scared away by the judicial changes.
Thousands of other protesters have paid their way and funded their own activities.
“People are donating for the battle for democracy,” said Nadav Galon, a spokesman for the protest movement. “It’s a civil awakening.”
Veteran commanders and officers of the military’s armored corps have set up a protest tent between the Supreme Court and the Parliament.
“People have had enough,” said Ilan Feldman, 62, a tank brigade veteran, listing a litany of grievances, like exemptions from mandatory army service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and the fact that the prime minister is on trial for corruption. “The judicial reform plan is just the final straw,” 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 came alone one recent lunchtime to visit the veterans’ protest tent from her village in southern Israel.
“Fear paralyzes,” she said. “My protest may not change what happens, but it means I didn’t sit quietly; I raised my voice,” she added.
Back in Beit Hakerem, a neighborhood that mostly votes for centrist or left-wing parties, people have been seething about the judicial overhaul plans for weeks.
On Fridays, about 50 residents regularly gather at a nearby junction and hold noisy protests with drums, whistles and horns.
It was fertile ground for the four activists who came from their own neighborhoods around Jerusalem to block Mr. Barkat’s home. One of them, Hagai Elron, 34, who runs a moving company, said they felt compelled to prevent the minister from leaving home.
“We say to the members of the government who are harming the citizens by going out to work that it’s preferable they stay home,” Mr. Elron said. (The protesters were removed after about an hour, clearing the way for Mr. Barkat to get to the office later without any apparent inconvenience.)
Across the road from the minister’s home, a neighbor had hung a red banner from a balcony reading, “Wake up Nir, the house is on fire.” Another wrote an anonymous poem and stuck it outside Mr. Barkat’s house.
“From enlightened neighbors he benefits,” it read. “But he is tearing the country to bits.”