A veritable protest city was set up in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher on Saturday night, a tent town constructed by judicial overhaul opponents marching from Tel Aviv. On Sunday, the metallic gray lining of hundreds of tents reflected the 35-degree sun, giving the site a metropolitan glow.
Thousands of pilgrims – ending their five-day march from Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv – set up the tents as part of a protest campaign against the reasonableness bill being debated in the Knesset. Despite the extreme heat and the advancing legislation, the mood in Gan Sacher’s tent city was jovial.
Protesters relaxed in the shade of trees and large beige canopies. People of all ages strolled through the temporary protest Mecca, wearing shirts that said, “The Walk of Freedom,” and “Democracy or Rebellion.”
As if it were on any other outing to the park, they ate watermelon and hummus sandwiches, and they listened to music. In typical Israeli entrepreneurial spirit, a recording advertised ice-cold “democratic” water and hot bagels against dictatorship near the Supreme Court building. There were even mobile toilets and snack benches set up.
Arnon Lahav, an older tour guide with a saxophone slung around his neck, softly played the American protest classic “We Shall Overcome” as he strolled through the tents. He said he had only missed one of the weekly Saturday protests since they began, and he only missed that protest because demonstrators blocked traffic.
“It is a pleasure for me to see all these tents and all the people that come here, who leave their homes, leave their jobs, leave their hobbies and come to demonstrate because it is from the bottom of their hearts,” Lahav said.
The tents were donated by “many, many people,” protest leader Ami Dror said.
Organic volunteerism seemed to be the cornerstone of tent city; volunteers from various organizations brought food, ice, water, blankets, protest signs, and whistles. A medical team in orange vests walked around, seeing if anyone was dehydrated or had other issues.
Many of the volunteers were too busy dragging buckets of ice or answering questions to talk.
Maya Ofec came for the second day of the march in Beit Shemesh, and by the night, she was already starting to help with organization.
“Even people that walked, completely did the march, they’re exhausted, but everyone is pitching in,” Ofec said. “That is the most beautiful thing.”
Protest was a logistical challenge for volunteers
The hardest part was estimating how much food or how many tents to get, she said.
Volunteers would make a guess and severely underestimate the number of protesters, Ofec said. To help with that problem, the volunteers tried to make use of sustainable items. If someone uses a mat to sleep on, then leaves, that mat goes to someone else or becomes a table to eat on.
When someone volunteers enough, they start managing an area of the tents, providing everything that protesters may need in that area, Ofec said, adding that the high level of organization comes from everyone’s experience in the IDF.
“We can understand how we can do things quickly, and if you give someone responsibility, they will take it to the fullest extent,” she said. “It’s sisterhood and brotherhood at its best.”
“I feel like I'm part of a community that has abundance, where everything feels big and done effortlessly.”Vered Reznik
Vered Reznik, who slept overnight in Gan Sacher with her friend from Tai Chi class, said she only came with a backpack of clothes. She knew that everything else would be provided to her by the volunteers.
“I feel part of a community that has abundance, where everything feels big and done effortlessly,” Reznik said. She opened her mouth wide and mimed someone shoveling food into her mouth. “If I say I am hungry, they will feed me like this,” she said.
On Saturday night, at around 1 a.m., a group of young haredi boys harassed protesters in the tents, Reznik said. They yelled that the protesters stunk, that the reforms would pass no matter what, and other “bad language,” she said. Other haredim passed by in cars and blew their horns to wake up those in tents.
Eventually, the police came and removed the harassers; nobody was arrested, Reznik said, adding that it indicated they were envious of the protesters’ numbers and shared purpose.
“The other side doesn’t feel the connection, the brotherhood we have,” she said, waving her arms around to show the thousands of people. “That’s why they are so hateful.”
Asaf Agmon stood at the entrance of the park, his injured arm still in a sling from when he said he had been pushed by police. A 53-year veteran of the IAF, like most activists, Agmon was involved with multiple organizations working to fight the passing of the reasonableness standard bill.
“The law will limit the ability of the court to provide a check to the government,” he said, adding that Israel already has a weak separation of powers. “That isn’t reasonable.”
Without the reasonableness standard, the government would be free to make a wide variety of unreasonable decisions that could impact individual rights, Agmon said. Corrupt or unsuitable people could be given important roles in the government, bringing a “revolution” into effect without passing further legislation, he said.
“If we were just talking about this law, we could think of ways to find a solution,” he added.
The outcome seemed unclear to Agmon, who said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understood that he was in a lose-lose situation – either lead the army into catastrophe with mass resignations or be removed from power and suffer repercussions with his ongoing corruption trials.
According to several protesters at Gan Sacher, Netanyahu’s trials and the ostensible capability to influence them through the reform was a driving factor in the legislative ventures.
Agmon said the situation was different than in March, the last time anti-reform protests had peaked; more people had come to realize the scope of the problem, and the need for a broader agreement, he said. Most people wanted a negotiated solution, and if there were elections, Netanyahu would lose, he added.
Protest continued to grow throughout the day
The protest town’s residents grew with several migrations of protesters pouring in. In just one hour, the size of the crowd doubled, as opponents of the judicial reform prepared to march toward the Knesset in the evening.
Many of the people there had only been marching a day or two, but others had made the pilgrimage from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Dorit Eshalom, a retiree with an easy smile, was one of them. Sleeping in the tents was “great,” she said, adding that people easily offered their homes for her to shower and rest during the day.
“Everybody takes care of everybody,” Eshalom said. “All the people came, and it was like a big family of 50,000 people.”
Eshalom’s parents fled the Holocaust and embedded her with the spirit of resistance, she said.
“All the people came and it was like a big family of 50,000 people.”Dorit Eshalom
“You don’t realize what you are losing until it’s gone,” she said. “We want to see the end of this until it’s done.”
The soberness of the moment had yet to resonate throughout the camp. Near the heart of the tents, a protester had set up a 3D poster of Netanyahu, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, and others urinating on the street, using water as urine; “Piss in the Middle East,” it read. Children giggled and played in the streams.
Despite the high spirits, the stay in the park was not a vacation; several protesters said they had closed down their businesses or took a day off of work to come to protest. One couple who own several kindergartens in Tel Aviv closed their business for the day.
One older tour guide, who walked all five days, said he had to reschedule many things to let him participate in the protest. He requested to remain anonymous because he is a lieutenant-colonel in the IDF reserves, and he was due to return to the army in three days.
He said his time at the protests would cost him monetarily, but not as much as the emotional cost.
“I have fought in three wars for Israel,” he said as his eyes welled up in tears, and he looked away. “Then I lived in a kibbutz, literally working the land. I literally spilled my blood to defend this place. I have done a lot of violence for this country. But in this situation, it doesn’t make any sense.”