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Israeli protest leader inspired by SA roots



Amid a countrywide Day of Resistance on the streets of Israel on 18 July, protest organiser and leader Roee Neuman (39) told the SA Jewish Report that he and others are battling for the very soul of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

As an Israeli with deep South African roots, Neuman promises he’ll go down fighting for the Israel that his parents chose to settle in, as a beacon of hope and a light unto the nations.

As the Middle Eastern sun beats down on protesters, the temperature of the political situation is heating up by the day, and Neuman is in the thick of it. Thousands rallied across the country and at least 45 people were arrested. Some protesters started a four-day march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and Neuman is joining them as much as he can.

“It’s a week before they vote for the proposed legislation [to curtail judicial review of government decisions], and so we’re doing a week of protests,” he explains. “If the legislation is passed, no-one knows what will happen, but it will be chaos.”

He emphasises that the legislation will “affect every aspect of society”. For example, the Israel Medical Association announced a “warning strike” for the morning of Wednesday 19 July, with doctors downing tools except for emergency care. Army reservists warned they will stop volunteering for duty if the coalition unilaterally passes laws to curtail the judiciary.

However, Neuman says that new legislation must still go through the Supreme Court, and he hopes it will be stopped there. Critics say the legislation to curtail judicial oversight is part of government’s attempt to shield itself and its decisions from review, enabling it to appoint unqualified or corrupt officials and oust those it deems disloyal. Supporters of the move say it’s necessary to correct the overreaching of unelected judges interfering with the decisions of a democratically elected government.

Neuman says that the values he was taught by his parents have informed his activism. “I grew up in a home that taught me to stand up and fight when I see injustice, and that everyone is equal and should be treated that way,” he says. “That was present from my mom’s side and her history in South Africa, from my father’s side as an immigrant to Israel, and from the family history as Holocaust survivors. My mother left South Africa in the 1980s and, growing up, she used to say, ‘Don’t take what you have here for granted.’ She hasn’t joined protests before, but now she’s been on the streets for every single one.

“This is the 196th day that I haven’t taken a day off,” he admits, while on his way to interviews with Israel’s news channels. “And it’s not just me. For a lot of people, everything is on hold. Many people have quit their jobs to build organisations and lead the protest movement. It’s worth it for the country you love,” he says. “The sacrifices will be worth it.”

For Neuman, it’s clear that “Israel as we know it is in danger. The core values of freedom and equality, given to us in the Declaration of Independence, are in danger when extremist zealots want to hurt the human rights of women, LGBTQI+ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex] people, and every non-religious minority. That’s why we see such a broad coalition coming out against the judicial overhaul that crosses political lines.”

Neuman was born and raised in Ness Ziona, a small town south of Tel Aviv. Since 2011, he’s been a media consultant, working mainly in the political field and with non-governmental organisations. “My mom, Sandra Neuman, was born and raised in Cape Town. She’s the daughter of Philip Zetler, a pharmacist originally from Stellenbosch, and Elfreda Zetler, a nurse and a Holocaust survivor who went to South Africa after the war. My mother is a gastroenterology nurse.”

His father, Yoram Neuman, “was born in Moscow and came to Israel as a young child with his family. He met my mother in Cape Town while visiting his aunt who was living there. He’s a businessman and president of Hiper Global.”

When he was 27, Neuman took a leading role in the group that started the social protest of 2011 – also known as the tent protests. “That was my entry to activism and communication as I was the spokesperson of the protesters.”

He was involved in other major protests over the past 12 years in Israel. But he says the current protests are a new phenomenon altogether. “Besides the difference in the length and the number of protesters [this time round], in all past protests we were trying to make Israel better. Here we’re fighting for the actual existence of it as a democracy. The stakes are now higher, and that shows in the streets of Israel on a daily basis.”

He says the most powerful moment of the recent protests was “the first big demonstration we had. It was in Habima Square, with around 100 000 Israelis in the pouring rain and no-one went home. Everyone stood for more than two hours and there was a feeling of ‘we’re here, and we’re going to do this for as long as we need’.” And they have, with protests weekly for more than six months.

For Neuman, the most difficult moment since the protests began was “the minutes after [defence minister] Yoav Gallant was fired [in March 2023]. It was a feeling of a real dictatorship, a Putin-like move. It was scary for everyone in Israel. It was the first time everyone felt like everything was collapsing.”

That moment led thousands of Israelis to go out spontaneously onto the streets in a mass uproar. “I don’t know a single person who didn’t go out to protest [that night]. All over Israel, people who had never protested, did so.”

With 20 500 followers on Twitter and many more on other platforms, Neuman has a large following who see him as a leading voice and activist. His most recent tweet, on 12 July, shows his passion for the cause and love of his homeland. “We’re in a real battle for our home. Losing is out of the question. It’s not an option and there is no plan B. I love this place too much for me to leave.”

To those who disapprove of the current protests, he says, “More than 75% of Israelis support the principle that judicial changes should be made only with a wide consensus. To those who don’t support us I say, ‘Look at Poland, Hungary, and Turkey. That’s where we’re heading.’

“I believe that we’ll be able to stop [the judicial overhaul],” he says. “So far in six months we’ve had 100% success in stopping legislation.”

To those who want to support the protest movement from South Africa, he says, “When any representative of Israel comes to South Africa, protest! There’s a huge movement of Israelis and Jews in the diaspora called UnXeptable, which raises worldwide protest. Be informed on what’s happening here, and speak out wherever you can.”

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  1. Alan Hirsch

    Jul 20, 2023 at 11:58 am

    Inspiring story! Let us not forget that similar judicial ‘reforms’ in Zimbabwe in 1998 laid the basis for total state capture there.

  2. yitzchak

    Jul 20, 2023 at 3:41 pm

    The horror axis of likud, the religious right,(south african protagonists included)and hilltop zionists will lead us into hell.
    Nothing will be able to be appealed and subject to our wise men.(and Women).
    Why even have a supreme court…turn it into an air bnb.

    Only this week a rabbi by the name of Deri has been exposed as a serial genital mutilator post brit milla.
    and the rabbinate keeps shtum.Meanwhile another Deri despite being a felon has been readmitted to the cabinet.
    As for the Netanyahu invitation to the White House….let’s wait and wait…..
    The circus around conversions being rolled back starting to sound like the inquisition and blood purity.
    and no go areas now in Bet shemesh and deliberate police absence.

    The threat to Am Israel does not come from the Left.

    If I forget thee oh Tel Aviv may my left hand lose its cunning!

  3. Choni Davidowitz

    Jul 20, 2023 at 6:10 pm

    Any protest against this Blessed government, is a protest against the God of Israel. Just as the rebellious Korach and his followers were swallowed up, so these protestors will disappear.

  4. Ariyeh

    Jul 20, 2023 at 8:59 pm

    I am still trying to tie the heading back to the actual article. Relevance?

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