It was a brief but – quite literally – touching moment, captured in a video clip that was filmed Sunday night at Jerusalem’s Yitzhak Navon Train Station. It quickly went viral, and many of those sharing it quoted the line from the national anthem “Od lo avda tikavatenu” (Our hope is not yet lost).
The clip showed protesters crowded on the long escalators at the station. Those who had been at the massive anti-reform demonstration in Jerusalem were descending to the platforms leading away from the capital, and those coming back from the huge pro-reform rally in Tel Aviv were ascending on their way back.
Both sides were carrying blue-and-white flags and chanting slogans to the rhythm of the “Seven Nation Army”: “Democratia oh mered” (Democracy or rebellion) on the anti-judicial side vs “Shishim ve-arba’ah mandatim” (Sixty-four Knesset seats) on the other set of escalators.
There were more kippot and other signs of religious observance among the pro-reform supporters and more T-shirts sporting slogans of the anti-government groups worn by the overhaul’s opponents. But the two groups resembled each other in many ways, including their passion and concern for the country.
Suddenly, as the two sides headed in different directions, something beautiful happened: People began reaching out across the divider and shaking the hands of those passing on the opposite escalator. It was recognition that no matter what political path they follow, there is still a need for respect and recognition of what we all share.
It should not have been such a remarkable sight. After all, people with different political and religious views interact every day. But under the circumstances, it seemed close to miraculous. While political pundits and other observers were warning that the country is heading toward civil war, here there were protesters from both camps participating in a simple gesture of friendship and brotherhood.
Monday was a deeply painful day for many Israelis, as the government passed the bill severely curtailing the court’s ability to apply the reasonableness standard – the first part of its controversial judicial reform – over the anguished cries and fervent protests of its opponents.
Nevertheless, Israelis have to find a way forward: to step back, take a deep breath, and appreciate what we have and what could be lost; and to remember that no matter what, we are each responsible for the way we respond to events.
For nearly 30 weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have gathered every Saturday night to exercise their democratic right to demonstrate against the government and warn against shattering the judiciary. At the same time, those who voted for the government and want to see it implement its policy agenda fear that their democratic rights are liable to be trampled, their majority disregarded, and an overly powerful court left unchecked.
The clip of protestors at Yitzhak Navon
תחנת נבון, יורדים מתנגדי, עולים תומכי. תראו מה קורה באמצע pic.twitter.com/7AqeStZmFR— חיים ריבלין (@LifeRivlin) July 23, 2023
The threat of a political rift is immense. The country is being torn apart – and our enemies are enjoying the show and waiting for an opportunity to exploit the situation.
Battle cries at demonstrations are one thing; the cries of civil war are something else entirely – and nobody wants to go there. There is a whole lot of middle ground that is being missed even by those who identify with the center.
Ironically, there is no argument that the judicial system requires changes; opposition leaders have themselves said there are imbalances that need correction. It should be possible to reach a compromise.
Now is the time for both sides to stop the rhetoric and fear-mongering, reach out to one another, and remember what we have in common: a shared history and a shared future.
Democracy didn’t die, and Israel is not going to disappear. Monday was a difficult and painful day for the country, but divisive as it was, it need not be a sign of things to come.
If the political leaders can’t bring themselves to do it, it is up to the ordinary citizens to take charge of their own response. We can each choose to continue to shout at one another, or to reach out across the divide, shake hands, and chart a path forward.