100,000 Israelis Take to the Streets in Defense of Democracy

On Saturday night, May 29th, I was one of an estimated 100,000 Israelis who responded to the call to demonstrate in defense of the Israeli democracy that is being steadily undermined by the right-wing government. Despite the disappointing results of the elections, it was a first if tentative step in the mobilization of the very large opposition to the policies being led by Netanyahu and his partners. The plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art was chosen as the location out of concern that not enough people would come to fill Rabin Square, a fear that turned out to be totally unfounded. The plaza and the entire stretch of Shlomo Hamelech Blvd. in front of the museum were filled to capacity.

MK Ofer Shelach, MK Ya'ir Lapid's left-hand man, was clearly the driving force behind the event, and he opened with a very strong presentation. Former IDF Chief of Staff MK Benny Gantz, still trying to get used to the fact that he has entered the political arena, continued the low-key, honest hombre style of his election campaign, saying that this was the first demonstration he had ever participated in, and declaring the need to defend all of Israel's democratic institutions, the courts, the media, academia and culture, and individual human rights. For the first time he even referred to Arab rights, "the young Arab person in Sachnin", though he felt compelled to balance that with "the young settler in Ariel." He added that we have to return to the spirit of the founding fathers of the country who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the spirit of "Ben-Gurion, Begin, Rabin and Peres".

"We won't let him!"

He was followed by Lapid, who for some reason felt compelled to scream at the crowd, trying to emulate Peter Finch as Howard Beale in the famous "Network" – "I'm mad as hell, and can't take it anymore" speech. His tagline "Lo Niten!" (We Won't Let Him!) was one of the 3 slogans that the crowd repeated over and over again, along with Tamar Zandberg's "Busha!" (Shame on You!) and Moshe Ya'alon's "Ad Kan" (Till Here!). Lapid decided to focus in on the remnants of the possibly liberal forces within the Likud and its allies, calling on each of them by name to stand up to Netanyahu.

Wearing red fez hats, demonstrators protested that Netanyah is trying to turn Israel into Erdogan's Turkey. In the background is a photo of the Prime Minister, with the caption "Crime Minister" that accompanies all of the demonstrations against his corrupt practices.

Labor Party leader MK Avi Gabbay gave a good speech, though nothing to write home about, while Meretz leader MK Tamar Zandberg was the only woman on the platform who spoke out "for all the women in the crowd", and was the only one to refer "to the stealing of land from Palestinians", and to the fact that "for the first time the danger of annexation of territory in the West Bank has been placed on the table."

"You can't change things without us!"

The surprise of the evening, for me and I assume for most of the crowd, was the fact that the next speaker was MK Ayman Odeh, head of Hadash-Ta'al. Apparently there was a need for a behind the scenes struggle, accompanied by a vigorous social media campaign, to get Gantz's Blue and White Party leadership to agree to this. Odeh noted that while this was Gantz's first demonstration, for him it makes over a thousand – "I'm a serial demonstrator" he declared. And added that "while we the Arabs can't change things on our own, you can't change things without us", a comment which at least around me was greeted with a wild round of applause.

The next, and very moving speaker, was Druze Brig. General (Res) and former MK (for the Likud!) Amal Assad, who said that the passing of the Nation-State Law last year had caused him for the first time to question his place in Israel society. He spoke very strongly in favor of guaranteeing the right to equality for all Israeli citizens. The final speaker, former Chief of Staff MK Moshe Ya'alon from Blue and White, demonstrated with dignity why, despite his right-wing views, he is considered an honest politician who clearly wants to defend the democratic structure of Israeli society, and is revolted by the rampant corruption of Netanyahu and his associates.

Saturday night was the first time since the recent election that the Israeli opposition has taken to the streets. Hopefully it will be the first of many steps in the struggle to save Israeli democracy. And clearly there is no chance of doing that without putting the need to end the occupation and the depravation of the equal Palestinian right to democracy on the table.

100,000 Israelis from all over the country crowded into the plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to demonstrate in defense of democracy.