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There’s a scene in “Life of Brian,” Monty Python’s peerless messianic mistaken identity satire, in which Messrs. Cleese, Palin, Idle et al, playing members of the People’s Front of Judea, are discussing their utter loathing for the Romans… which is dwarfed only by their revulsion for their rivals in the Judean People’s Front.
“The only people we hate more than the Romans are the Judean People’s Front,” spits Cleese, triggering a heated discussion that takes in the similarly loathsome Judean Popular People’s Front, before Idle, getting over-excited, mistakenly denounces his own People’s Front of Judea.
It’s most amusing.
Well, an iteration of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” has been playing out in Jerusalem on some Saturday nights in recent weeks.
And few are laughing.
Jerusalem’s weekly “Safeguarding our Home” demonstrations — trying to oppose the neutering of the judiciary and protect democracy while healing rather than deepening our social rifts — have always required careful ideological and practical calibration:
The organizers have sought to attract all who are concerned for the future of democracy and for Israel’s internal cohesion, to draw support not only from the left of the political spectrum, and not only from secular Israelis… with some success. They have presented a diverse range of speakers, and generally created positive, passionate and unifying events.
They have also had to sustain the protests for two months and counting, since the current legislative package was temporarily suspended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in late March, with the President’s Residence — outside of which the weekly protests take place — now hosting a coalition-opposition dialogue avowedly aimed at achieving constructive judicial reform via consensus.
Netanyahu has repeatedly highlighted his ostensible determination to seek compromise where previously he was bulldozing ahead with the legislation, but he has also stressed in the last few days that the overhaul is emphatically back on the agenda now that the budget has passed. For their part, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Constitution Committee chair Simcha Rothman, the coalition’s two key overhaul proponents, remain fully committed to a radical curbing of the judiciary’s powers.
Plainly, the battle is anything but over. And plainly, too, maintaining prolonged high-level public agitation is a growing challenge — as the organizers of the country’s main Saturday night protests, on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, are also finding.
Further complicating matters in Jerusalem, however, is the high-profile presence, directly alongside the “Safeguarding our Home” demonstrators, of rival/allied protesters with a different prime agenda: “end the occupation” activists. Demonstrators focused on the Palestinian issue are an ever-present at the Tel Aviv rallies, too, but a less dominant element amid the larger crowds.
In Jerusalem, their drumming, horn-blaring and chanting, a short distance away from the “Safeguarding our Home” protests, has at times drowned out the speakers for parts of the crowd at the main event. When I recently asked one of the organizers of these anti-occupation protests why they keep their volume so high even during the speeches, she told me that this was not deliberate but acknowledged that sometimes “there are screwups” and efforts to coordinate go awry.
This past Saturday night was a significant case in point, with a large pro-Palestinian group drowning out parts of the main addresses for many. Atypically, Palestinian flags were also waved — apparently in protest at potential coalition legislation to ban them from university campuses — which the police waded in to seize.
השוטרים מתנפלים על הגוש נגד הכיבוש מול בית הנשיא כדי לחטוף דגלי פלסטין. pic.twitter.com/K0ctZbKZxJ
— نير حسون Nir Hasson ניר חסון (@nirhasson) May 27, 2023
Anecdotally, I can say that quite a few former participants in the Jerusalem rallies have stopped attending in recent weeks. These former attendees say they are as committed as ever to protecting democracy, but do not wish to be perceived as endorsing the Palestine-focused protesters.
The most Python-esque instance I’ve witnessed was one Saturday night in April, when the high-volume “end the occupation” activists rendered part of a speech by author David Grossman inaudible to some. Grossman focused almost entirely on the judicial overhaul — saluting the demonstrators as the “last line of defense” against crushing tyrannical rule, and likening the far-right to the Sicarii Jewish zealots in the decades before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. But he also stepped briefly into Palestinian territory, condemning “the occupation of another people for 55 years.”
The pro-Palestinian component also overwhelmed much of an address that same night by Naomi Zussman, of the “Free Jerusalem” organization, who ventured deep into the Palestinian conflict. Admitting that hers was not a message everyone present would be comfortable with, Zussman said that it was Arabs in Israel and East Jerusalem, and Palestinians in the West Bank, who would suffer most from the collapse of democracy and the neutering of the High Court, and declared that all from the river to the sea have the right to democracy and equality.
Initially, I had thought the mounting clamor that rendered her words inaudible to much of the crowd was being created by the small knot of pro-coalition activists who target the Jerusalem protests, using megaphones and brandishing banners to denounce the “leftist traitors.” But, no, it was the “Free Palestine” group, with their drums, horns and chants.
It’s not that the activists were unsatisfied with Grossman’s or Zussman’s messages. Rather, they were not listening to anything the speakers had to say, and prevented a goodly part of the main demonstration’s participants from listening too.
And thus, that night, the People’s Front of Judea took on the Judean… Sorry. And thus, that night, “Free Palestine” took on “Free Jerusalem” at a rally organized by activists laudably committed to “Safeguarding our Home” in the face of looming tyranny.
One of Netanyahu’s principal goals in suspending, but by no means abandoning, his planned revolution in Israeli governance was to confuse, divide and deflate the massed opposition that has been gathering, unified under the national flag, to defend Israel’s democratic and tolerant Jewish character. So some of what’s been going on at Saturday night’s Jerusalem demonstrations might have him chuckling.
But for those who are seeking to thwart the radical legislation that still sits, locked and loaded in the Knesset, ready for its enactment at the prime minister’s pleasure, it’s not funny at all.
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